What is gratitude? 5 ways to be thankful

April 30, 2021 - 13 min read


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What is gratitude?

Why is gratitude important?

What are the two stages of gratitude?

Is gratitude an emotion or a feeling?

Five ways to practice gratitude

Final thoughts on gratitude

Do you want to learn more about the concept of gratitude? This article will explore the definition of gratitude, why it’s essential, and a list of ways to practice gratitude on a daily basis.

When was the last time you felt grateful for something? What was it? Why did you feel grateful? How did you express your gratitude?

More importantly, how did your gratitude affect other areas of your life? Did you feel a little extra bounce in your step? Were you happier? Did you have a more optimistic outlook toward the future?

Gratitude is a simple tool we all have at our disposal to improve our own well-being and that of others.

Gratitude turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion into clarity … it makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.

Melody Beattie

What is gratitude?

From the time we are little, we are asked to thank others when they give us a gift or extend a nice gesture. We learn to thank automatically and as a social rule. But, how many times do we extend thanks for the little good things that happen to us daily? Do we really know how to be grateful? 

We have all heard or read many definitions of gratitude, but experiencing gratitude at its core requires a conscious effort. How many times do we say 'thank you' without taking a moment to actually feel thankful?

Gratitude is a conscious, positive emotion one can express when feeling thankful for something, whether tangible or intangible.

Gratitude implies much more than showing good manners. It’s a practice that requires acknowledging someone else's gesture towards us or the things that are going well in our lives. It involves both a process of recognition of the positive and its outcome.

Why is gratitude important?

Regularly practicing and expressing gratitude has many benefits, both short- and long-term.

Gratitude is an excellent path to psychological well-being 

Psychologists have highly researched gratitude and find it to be among the main focuses of positive psychology. Evidence suggests that people who consciously count their blessings tend to be happier and less depressed. But how?

  • Gratitude changes our brains. Research has found that people who tend to be more grateful have more brain activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, the area associated with learning and decision making. This brain activity persisted a month later, suggesting that gratitude has long-lasting effects.
  • Gratitude can overpower negative emotions. Feeling grateful boosts positive emotions like joy and compassion while encouraging us to look for and connect with what’s good in life. This helps us switch our attention from toxic emotions, such as resentment and envy.
  • Gratitude builds over time. A continued gratitude practice starts having long-lasting effects on mood and behavior, which can snowball over time. 
  • Gratitude can help combat depression. A study showed that a single thoughtful appreciation leads to an immediate 10 percent increase in happiness and a 35 percent reduction in depressive symptoms. When it becomes a habit, it can help prevent anxiety and depression.  

Gratitude is a powerful catalyst for happiness. It’s the spark that lights a fire of joy in your soul.

Amy Collette

Gratitude boosts our optimism

According to research by Dr. Robert A. Emmons and Dr. Michael E. McCullough, people who write a few sentences each week focusing on gratitude felt more optimistic.

It improves our health

Besides reducing and countering negative emotions, practicing gratitude is linked to other healthy behaviors, such as working out. Research has also associated gratitude with more robust immune systems, fewer aches and pains, lower blood pressure, and a deeper, more restoring sleep.

It leads to stronger relationships and communities. 

Through gratitude, we increase our capacity for forgiveness, become more likely to help others, and develop compassion for others. Gratitude can make team members feel more satisfied and fulfilled, possibly reducing the likelihood of burnout. 

Researchers at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania found that workers were 50 percent more efficient when they had managers who actively expressed gratitude.

Similar research by psychologists Adam Grant and Francesca Gino found that receiving thanks for good performance made team members feel a strong sense of self-worth and confidence. It also led to an increase in trust and initiative to help one another.  

It can lead to positive actions 

Whether expressing thankfulness or boosting our motivation to help others, a grateful attitude has been shown to increase our likelihood to spread the encouragement and joy it generates in us. Research suggests gratitude may also play a role in motivating individuals to engage in positive behaviors leading to self-improvement. 

This can positively affect us on two levels. First, when we have a grateful mindset, we tend to involve ourselves in other practices that improve our well-being, such as meditation, sports, and recognizing our strengths. Second, it moves us to be kinder, more thoughtful, and more altruistic.  

Also, research carried out by Frederickson showed that gratitude, when expressed effectively, increases the probability of the recipient to lend favor to a third party, effectively expanding a network of good.

What are the two stages of gratitude?

We have discussed the benefits of gratitude and the importance of making it an active practice. It sounds great, but we know that it can feel less natural to practice gratitude amid our hectic lives or while feeling under pressure. To cultivate this attitude, it helps to break it down into two stages: affirmation of goodness, and figuring out where that goodness comes from. Only then can we identify specific actions to include gratitude in our routines. 

Acknowledging the goodness in our lives, even when things are feeling a little off?  

It is a fact that our brain tends to focus on what's wrong, but why is that? Survival. We need to be able to identify the things that need to be fixed to reach solutions. Nonetheless, we need to gain perspective and allow ourselves to rest and enjoy what is going right. 

Tim Desmond proposes an exercise in his book How to Stay Human in a F*cked Up World where he invites us to take a daily moment to visualize everything good in our lives in the present moment. As we do this practice, we start to identify the good things and a natural feeling of joy and gratitude. At this point, we accept and admire the many aspects that make life worth living and our role in choosing many of them. 

Recognizing that some of the sources of this goodness lie outside the self

Once we have identified the beauty in our present, we can actively access the second stage of gratitude: recognizing the good that comes from the outer world. As we start to experience this joy and gratefulness, we reach a point where recognizing and thanking the people around us, nature, a religious figure, or even our luck, is a necessary and natural second step. 

Gratitude allows us to recognize our connection to the rest of humanity and acknowledge others’ roles in our lives. This practice triggers stronger relationships between partners, families, friends, and colleagues as it leads us to an active recognition of our interdependence, regardless of whether it leads us to a specific action or not. 

Is gratitude an emotion or a feeling?

We can feel, be, and act grateful. So the easy answer is that gratitude is both an emotion and a feeling. As with other emotions, gratitude can also become a trait. When it describes someone who is always grateful, it becomes an adjective, which means that the person is often feeling and expressing this state. 

As a state, gratitude is experienced as a complex emotion, which implies that it involves our thoughts of gratefulness. For instance, “What a nice gesture,” or “I am so lucky to have someone like you.”

And finally, emotion can also be experienced as a feeling. Feelings tend to be a less complicated form of state. The big difference depends on the author, but a way of seeing it would be as a less intense and more momentary state.

At times, our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.

Albert Schweitzer

Five ways to practice gratitude

Like any skill, gratitude can be learned and strengthened. Here are some tips on how to practice gratitude.

  1. Each day, think of three things you’re thankful for. Make it a daily habit to visualize what’s good in your life. This can directly impact your mood throughout the day, as well as your sleep quality. In fact, therapists often suggest this as one of the first exercises when initiating a treatment against depression. To make it more powerful, it is advised to devote at least ten minutes to this practice, rather than quickly coming up with them. Writing them down is a great way to finish your exercise, and it is useful to come back and read them at the end of the week. 
  2. Start a gratitude journal. Journaling can be an excellent self-therapy technique. When you write, you use different parts of your brain and access memories and emotions from a new perspective. A gratitude journal has been proven to activate brain areas that are related to morality and positive emotions. People who could find purpose and feel grateful for the good things to come out of a challenging situation show higher resilience, forgiveness, and detachment. And reading your own words of gratefulness can help you feel better when struggling to be positive.
  3. Thank someone new every week. There are many people around us, and we are all connected somehow. How often do we take the time to express gratitude more consciously or thoughtfully? Sure, we say thank you every time the clergy at our local shop gives us our purchase, or we thank our partner for setting the table, but do we take the time to make it meaningful? Give yourself the purpose of choosing someone new each week and learn how to express gratitude differently. This could mean adopting a more conscious non-verbal communication (like eye contact and a smile), writing a thoughtful message acknowledging others’ behavior and its positive effects on you, or saying thank you with a nice gift or service gesture (like a shoulder massage). Be creative!
  4. Meditate. When it comes to gratitude, meditation can take us as deep as it gets. Different guided meditations, such as love and kindness, allow us to widen our perspective of life and our connection to ourselves and other beings. It promotes acceptance, detachment, forgiveness, and thus, gratitude. We can also take this moment to imagine a specific situation we are grateful for and let the feeling grow and be stronger.
  5. Focus more on others' intentions. When you receive a gift or a nice gesture from someone, consider how they intended to bring good into your life. Take a moment to visualize their wiliness to help you, make you feel happy, or be there for you in a challenging moment. 

Final thoughts on gratitude

Gratitude is, without question, a great emotion to cultivate. Hopefully, we can make it a habit that translates into a trait. Don't forget that practice and patience are key ingredients to our purposes and intentions. Start your practice today.

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Published April 30, 2021

Paulina Cal y Mayor Galindo

BetterUp Fellow Coach

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