Some people avoid practicing gratitude because doing so feels fake. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, according to Susan Orenstein, Ph.D, a licensed psychologist and relationship expert in Cary, N.C.
That’s because any time we try something new, it’s going to feel awkward and unnatural, she said. In fact, such reactions can be good, because it means you’re noticing and paying attention, she said. “If you can lean into the experience, you’ll be more likely to let go of your self-consciousness and take in the experience.”
Gratitude also might feel fake because we confuse it with sugarcoating. We assume it means pretending that challenges don’t exist. However, true gratitude, according to therapist Lea Seigen Shinraku, MFT, is being honest with yourself and taking stock of your circumstances so you can respond healthfully.
She defined gratitude as “paying close attention to and recognizing what you have.” Orenstein defined gratitude as “awareness and acknowledgement for gifts we receive every day that keep us physically and spiritually awake and alive.”
Therapist Susan B. Saint-Rossy, MSW, LCSW, quoted jazz musician Lionel Hampton’s definition: “Gratitude is when memory is stored in the heart and not in the mind.”
She believes Hampton’s words accurately distinguish gratitude from simple thankfulness. Because gratitude is “a deep, transcendent state that changes you for the better. It’s felt in the emotions, in the spirit, and in the body.”
Below, you’ll find helpful ways to practice gratitude.
1. Acknowledge your “fresh bread.”
Shinraku, who has a private practice in San Francisco, cited a quote from Rumi: “There is a basket of fresh bread on your head, yet you go door to door asking for crusts.” Gratitude, she said, is about acknowledging the “fresh bread” that you already have. Acknowledging what you have helps you internalize it and become nourished by it, she said.
For instance, if you’re going through a difficult time, acknowledge it. “At the same time, think of what has helped you survive; remember your inner strength, as well as the beings and places that may have supported you. Practicing gratitude in this way can help you connect with the dignity of your circumstances, and remind you of the resources that you draw on.”
2. Linger over positive experiences.
Orenstein suggested savoring sweet moments like a wine connoisseur drinks wine: breathing it in, taking it in and letting it last. “See if you can hang onto the ‘positive aftertaste’ of an experience — a taste, a sight, a sound, a feeling — just a few extra seconds.”
3. Catch others being considerate – and tell them.
This is different from giving a compliment, Orenstein said. Instead, it’s about telling someone specifically what you appreciate, she said.
She shared these examples: You tell your child’s teacher, “Mary’s been working really hard on that project. We’re so glad to see her interested and engaged in your class.” You tell your spouse, “Honey, I really appreciate you having the kitchen so clean. It feels so nice to walk into a clean house after my long trip!”
4. Practice together.
Share your gratitude with a loved one, said Saint-Rossy, who works with individual adults and couples in Loudoun County, Virginia, near Washington, D.C. “Some people even do this by texting a gratitude list to one another daily, before going to bed.”
5. Focus on your breath.
Appreciate the ease with which you breathe, and that your breath sustains your life, Orenstein said. Sometimes, it’s easier to appreciate your breath when it’s not so easy to breathe, she said.
“I recently had two cavities filled and was finding it a little hard to breathe with the dentist’s hands and metal instruments in my mouth. I focused on my breathing (survival instinct, I have to say). When the procedure was finished, I was so relieved and actually had gratitude for my breathing.”
6. Involve your kids.
If you have kids, teach them to practice gratitude as part of their bedtime routine, Saint-Rossy said. She shared this example: Ask your child, “What was the best part of your day today?” After they respond, express gratitude about that part of their day, and then encourage them to do the same: “I’m so grateful that you got to play with your best friend at recess today! Wow, that’s great! What a treat for you! Are you grateful for that, too?”
7. Avoid censoring yourself.
Give yourself permission to express gratitude for all sorts of things. “Being grateful about trivial things can make the practice more real and enlivening,” Saint-Rossy said.
“If you are truly grateful for the undissolved sugar at the bottom of your iced tea, for example (yes that’s me), be grateful.” She also shared these other examples of seemingly trivial – but wonderful – things: the cat jumping in your lap; a traffic-free commute; movies and popcorn; red maple leaves outside your window; getting the piece of cake with the most cream cheese frosting.
At first gratitude may feel like you’re “going through the motions,” Saint-Rossy said. But if you stick to your practice – even if it’s not “heart-felt” in the beginning – “eventually it transforms into true gratitude.”
Like Shinraku said, true gratitude is honesty and acknowledgement. And there’s nothing fake about that.