If you’re struggling to find the upside of one of the most tumultuous years on record, count yourself as one of many. No matter how hard you try to gracefully navigate the tough times, your ability to express gratitude for whatever is going right probably feels like it’s waning by the second.
Being receptive to the concept of practicing gratitude is a struggle in itself. Add in the pandemic, economic losses, the election, the reckoning with racial injustice and numerous other setbacks, and it feels near impossible. But appreciating positive aspects of your life has the ability to boost your mental well-being, said Farah Harris, a psychotherapist and CEO of Working Well Daily.
“It can increase our sense of happiness, which coincidentally decreases our perception of pain and reduces symptoms of depression,” Harris said. “Gratitude can improve the quality of our sleep. And when we are grateful, we are able to appreciate and celebrate the accomplishments of others so that we operate from a position of complimenting rather than competing or comparing, which can enhance our self-esteem.”
That said, it isn’t easy to trudge through the doom and gloom to find something positive. Here are a few expert-approved, realistic ways to practice gratitude when everything sucks.
Take some time to figure out what works for you.
“Gratitude practices will look different for everyone; it should be personal and fitting for whatever works for you,” said Reyna Smith, a licensed professional counselor and owner Limitless Counseling & Consulting Services.
“A lot of times I see people correlate gratitude with outwardly expressing thanks to others. It has to start with yourself; being able to give yourself permission to be still and truly reflect on the good … you get to decide what this practice looks like. It shouldn’t feel forced or stressful.”
If you’d rather mentally note what you’re grateful for than write items down in a journal, then do that. If you think you’ll reap the benefits more if you schedule some time to type out a gratitude list on your phone, then go for it. A practice works when you can stick to it, whatever that means to you.
Carve out just a few minutes to express gratitude when you’re not busy.
Setting aside time each day will help with focusing on the positives. Think of it as the one period in your day where nothing can go “wrong.”
Sharn Khaira, business and mindset mentor and founder of Asian Female Entrepreneur Collective, suggests turning off your phone or putting it on airplane mode during this time.
“Create a sacred space where you practice your gratitude and create a morning routine centered around your gratitude practice,” Khaira said. “Or if you really cannot do it in the mornings, create an evening gratitude practice. Let people know you will not be available at that time, go somewhere quiet, enforce boundaries with your family members and ensure you get what you need. Start small and build on it, adapt it, mold it, and then own it, because it is your sacred space.”
Quantify your gratitude.
Practicing gratitude requires placing intentional focus on the positive, which can be difficult because you’re working against your brain’s natural inclination to reflect on the worst outcomes. Negative incidents tend to have a greater impact on the human brain, an occurrence psychologists refer to as negativity bias.
This is where physically quantifying your gratitude may be useful. Documenting your positive experiences by journaling, vlogging or using a jar to visually see all of the positives can interrupt your brain by putting an image right in front of you. You’re also able to revisit the notes on the days when you truly can’t think of something in your life that makes you grateful.
Remind yourself that nothing is too small to be on your gratitude list.
Sure, big items like your health, your job and your family are all positives. But the little moments and items in your life deserve recognition, too. If everything is feeling so large and overwhelmingly crappy, go granular. Honor that decent hair day, that comfort meal you ate or the shower you took this morning.
“If you can identify something that you’re grateful for, don’t overthink it because that’s what is true for you,” Smith said. “Express it fully and be proud of it.”
And don’t forget that you matter in this, too. Gratitude also includes self-appreciation ― so if the circumstances in life are terrible, try expressing thanks for the things about yourself that you like.
Write a thank-you note.
Smith also endorses penning thank-you notes as a surefire way to establish an effective gratitude practice. Don’t hesitate to send a quick message in response to a kind gesture. Or better yet, send one to a close friend, relative or your favorite small business owner just because. Expressing gratitude for others promotes healthy relationships that can help keep us afloat during difficult times. Then go a step further by putting a spin on Emily Post’s famous etiquette tip by penning a note of gratitude — to yourself.
Perform a “gratitude body scan.”
According to Harris, this act involves a focused assessment and appreciation of your physical body.
“Take the time to love on yourself without judgment,” she said. “Take a few deep cleansing breaths and from your head to your feet, take a moment to acknowledge various parts of your body and state a reason why you are grateful for them. An example could be, ’I am grateful for my arms, they allow me to rock my baby to sleep.’”
Regardless of what gratitude practice you decide to adopt, Khaira stressed consistency and patience are the major keys to being successful.
“With every new habit and mindset shift, it takes practice and patience,” she said. “Try to be consistent with being aware of your thoughts and taking them captive when they try to veer into complaining and being negative. Practice replacing those thoughts with something you are grateful for. With time, you will begin to see a change in your mood, thoughts and behaviors for the positive.”