The practices for cultivating gratitude make gratitude a habit, and we can then begin to change the emotional tone of our lives, creating more space for joy and connection with others. There are a number of exercises that help us cultivate gratitude.
1. Count your blessings: Some days it feels like everything is going wrong. But often, even on bad days, good things happen too. We are just less likely to notice them. This is where the ‘3 good things’ practice comes in. This practice involves spending 5 to 10 minutes at the end of each day writing in detail about three things that went well that day, large or small, and also describing why you think they happened. This simple practice is effective because it not only helps you remember and appreciate good things that happened in the past, but it can also help you to notice and savour positive events as they happen in the moment, and remember them more vividly later on. You begin to see a broad ecosystem of goodness around you.
Another exercise is to keep a gratitude journal which involves writing down up to 5 things for which you are grateful once a week, and reflecting on what these things mean to you. The gratitude journal is especially effective when you focus on specific people you’re grateful to have, or have had, in your life.
2. Mental Subtraction: In the words of Joni Mitchell,’You don’t know what you’ve got till its gone’. The Mental Subtraction of Positive Events practice involves considering the many ways in which important, positive events in your life, such as a job opportunity, or educational achievement, could have never taken place, and then reflecting on what your life would have been without them. Mental subtraction can counteract the tendency to take positive events for granted and see them as inevitable. It helps you recognise how fortunate you are that things transpired as they did.
3. Savour: Have you ever noticed that the first bite of cake is usually the best? We have a tendency to adapt to pleasurable things, and appreciate them less and less over time. We can interrupt this process by temporarily giving up pleasurable activities, and then coming back to them later, this time with greater anticipation and excitement. The goal of this practice is not only to experience more pleasure, but to recognise how we take lots of pleasures for granted, and to try and savour them more. We often assume that more is better and that the greatest enjoyment comes from abundance and indulgence, but research suggests that some degree of scarcity and restraint is more conducive to happiness.
4. Say ‘thank you’: Gratitude is especially powerful when it is expressed to others. Small gestures of appreciation, such as thank you notes can make a difference, but there are some things that deserve more than a fleeting thanks.
Writing a thoughtful, detailed gratitude letter is a great way to increase your own feelings of gratitude and happiness, while also making the other person feel appreciated and valued. It will also deepen your relationship with them. The benefits are the greatest when the letter is read to the person rather than mailed to them.
Finally, it is important to remember that these activities need to be practised regularly in order for our happiness levels to go up permanently, and for us to enjoy the wonderful benefits of gratitude all through our lives.