The Skeptic’s Guide to Gratitude That Won’t Make You Want to Roll Your Eyes

Photo: Getty Images / fizkes
One New Year’s Eve ten years ago, Janice Kaplan, journalist and author of The Gratitude Diaries: How a Year Looking on the Bright Side Can Transform Your Life, realized that she just didn’t seem to feel fully joyful no matter the circumstances in her life. She resolved to spend a year living gratefully (i.e. practicing gratitude) to see what would happen. Her conclusion? “Usually it’s not the events themselves but how we think about them,” she says, can disproportionately impact how we feel.

Of course, to the most skeptical of us, Kaplan's experience (while absolutely valid) seems pretty par for the course with the gratitude crowd. Big, earth shattering revelation plus promise to change for the better apparently equals a more enlightened, grateful self. Yes, there is so much legitimate research about how gratitude can genuinely benefit one's health and well-being. But if you're experiencing family problems, work stress, physical or mental health issues, the idea of just being "grateful" can often feel...well, ridiculous.

That's an attitude Kaplan has seen first-hand after writing her book. She’s noticed a tendency to shun the idea of gratitude. “We seem to think that being negative is seeing the reality,” she says. “But it’s really hard to move forward when everything you see is terrible.”

If you want to reap the benefits without journaling or saying affirmations in the mirror, this is the gratitude training guide for you. Keep reading for how to develop a regular gratitude practice without feeling like a modern-day Pollyanna.

Why can gratitude seem so…inauthentic?

Gratitude is acknowledging both the good and bad things in your life and allowing yourself to be happy when someone does you a favor, life cuts you a break, or things go well in a way you weren’t expecting, says psychologist Aimee Daramus, Psy.D. The ultimate goal is to reframe your perspective and ground yourself in the constant awareness of both the good and the bad. “Its power lies in its ability to shift your perspective immediately. It closes the gap between what you have and what you wish you had,” says Natalie Dattilo, Ph.D., director of psychology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital’s Department of Psychiatry and a member of the American Psychological Association.

Gratitude might seem counterintuitive if you think that good things happen because people make them happen or because people get what they deserve. “It’s hard to feel grateful when you feel owed,” says Dr. Dattilo. Opening yourself up to gratefulness also requires giving credit to something or someone besides ourselves, which can be difficult for a skeptic. “That goes against our need for control our environments and the outcomes of our lives,” she adds.

It’s also natural to feel inauthentic if it seems like you’re trying to find good where there is none. “Times are rough for a lot of people. They have a lot of doubts about whether their hard work is going to pay off,” says Dr. Darasmus. Urging someone to give thanks to feel better can feel trivial or meaningless in situations where a person's problems are so big or so complex.

Gratitude is worth giving a shot...promise

It’s hard to move forward in life if you don’t have hope that things will turn out well for you. Gratitude may help you to capture positive emotions and help you feel less lonely by giving you a greater sense of connection and purpose, says Dr. Dattilo. “It’s impossible to feel envy and thankfulness at the same time. If you build one, you block the other,” she says.

It's not just about emotional health, either. Growing research backs up a wealth of mind-body benefits of gratitude, including reduced risk of depression and anxiety, and a boost in happiness, wellbeing, and body image. Gratitude has been linked to improved sleep, less stress, lower blood pressure, and improved immune function. A regular gratitude practice even seemed to help adolescents to be less materialistic and more generous.

It’s of course important to recognize that you aren’t entirely responsible for your feelings. Research suggests that about 40 percent of happiness is perception, 10 percent is life experiences, and 50 percent is genetic factors. If you’re suffering from clinical depression, a gratitude practice could certainly help to change your perceptions—but interventions like therapy and medication may still be necessary.

How to authentically practice gratitude every day (without being super obnoxious about it)

Here's the thing about gratitude, skeptical friends: it's not a switch that magically turns on. It's something that experts say has to be actively worked at like any skill. But hopefully these expert-vetted tips will help make feeling grateful a little less eye-rolling and a lot more realistic. (With a bit of dedication and training, of course.) Here are some ideas to get you started:

1. Take your gratitude temperature throughout the day. Your first task: stop and notice when the good stuff happens, even if it's just giving yourself a mental reminder. That may require pausing a few times throughout the day. Make it a habit by tying it to something you do often, like washing your hands or eating a meal. “The more you practice, the easier it gets,” says Dr. Dattilo.

2. Recognize the good and the bad. Don’t deny when something negative happens. “If you feel pressured to only look at the positives, a big part of you shuts down,” says Dr. Daramus—a common misconception about gratitude. Instead, sit with the emotions of each experience and try not to blame yourself or feel terrible when something goes wrong. But: balance the acknowledgment of tough times with a conscious awareness of things going right.

3. Say thank you. Often. “We don’t say it enough. Taking that moment is critical to developing a gratitude practice,” says Dr. Dattilo. It doesn't have to be a huge capital-M moment, either. Thank your roommate or partner for things that you usually let pass without acknowledgment, like taking out the trash or holding the door. “We have high expectations for the people we love. If we can stop and thank them, it can change our relationships. It creates a sense of being noticed and appreciated,” says Kaplan.

4. Do a favor for someone. Doing something small and nice for someone, no strings attached, may be the best way to express gratitude. “You get to experience that you really have an effect on someone,” says Dr. Daramus, which can help make the often nebulous practice of gratitude feel a bit more tangible. Offer to babysit your friend’s child or clean your sister’s car—simple, small tasks that will make someone's day a bit easier.

5. Record your some form or another. Okay, okay, we said no journaling—but regularly writing down your thoughts (or capturing them in some way) is one of the most effective ways to change your perspective. It doesn’t have to be an essay or even a journal. It can be a collage, Pinterest page, notes on your phone, or a voice memo. Dr. Daramus likes Naikan, a Japanese style of gratitude journaling that answers what you’ve been given for the day, what you’ve given to others, and what harm you’ve caused. Whatever medium you choose, make your goal realistic—even jotting down a couple of words on a piece of scrap paper will do. “Do whatever makes you feel good,” says Dr. Daramus.

6. Stick with it. Many of us tend to give up on a gratitude practice before we’ve even really started. “If it doesn’t have an immediate impact, we think that means it doesn’t work,” says Dr. Dattilo. But it can, if you give it enough time. So give yourself a chance to accumulate the benefits for at least a few weeks. Even the most naturally skeptical people can eventually reap the benefits of regular gratitude if they keep at it.

Gratitude can apply to food, too. And if you're still not convinced, maybe a failure résumé is more your speed? (It's more empowering than it sounds, trust.)

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