Guide to gratitude

4 exercises to kickstart a gratitude habit

Gratitude is a practice. Here's how to get started.

JoAnna Wendel

Joanna Wendel

If you were already skeptical of gratitude, 2020 probably isn't making things easier.

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But this year, gratitude is more important than ever.

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“I just have this feeling that gratitude is going to prove to be really an important coping tool during this time.”

— Phil Watkins, a professor of psychology at Eastern Washington University, tells Inverse.

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Watkins walked Inverse through 4 ways to jump-start a gratitude practice

Even if you're skeptical, he suggests trying at least one of these — and sticking with it.

Grateful recounting

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Come up with three good things that have happened to you.

Write about why they make you feel grateful.

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In a 2014 study, Watkins found that people who did this for one week saw improvements in well-being.

The change was enduring: The improvements became more significant five weeks later.

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These blessings can be isolated evens or big picture things, like the environment. Aim for a combination of both.

This exercise helps us learn to notice the good things

When noticing the good becomes a habit, it improves well-being, Watkins explains.

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The gratitude visit

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Write a letter to a living person you are grateful for.

Read it to them over the phone or in-person.*

*Watkins suggests that you avoid emailing or texting it to them. Say the words aloud.

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In a 2005 review of basic gratitude exercises, Martin Seligman, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, found that students who wrote letters to others expressing gratitude saw increases in happiness one week after the intervention.

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However, that happiness decreased over time. Three months later, the boost in happiness had dissipated.

“One expression of gratitude is not going to keep you happy; you need to develop this as a lifestyle.”

— Phil Watkins

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Gratitude reframing

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Write about a disturbing memory.

Focus on the consequences.*

*Don't try to sugarcoat the event. Rather, think about things you're grateful for because that event happened.

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In a 2007 study, Watkins found that writing about these memories with a focus on gratitude helped give people a sense of closure. Participants also reported fewer unpleasant emotions tied to these memories post-intervention.

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Part of this can be attributed to gratitude. But closure could also come from generally working through those memories.

The George Bailey effect

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Illustration: JoAnna Wendel

Imagine what life might be like without something you take for granted.

That could be a person, a place — anything that's a constant presence you may have become accustomed to.

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The idea is based on the movie It's a Wonderful Life, where George Bailey, on the verge of ending his life, sees how his good deeds have positively impacted his town.

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A 2008 study found that when people are asked to “mentally subtract” positive events from their lives, they tend to feel more positive afterward.

The mental subtraction didn't make people “ecstatic,” the researchers write.

“It just made happy people a little happier.”

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The idea is to reveal the happiness we often overlook.

In a 2011 study, Watkins asked students to vividly imagine their own deaths in a house fire. At the end of the exercise, students reported feeling more grateful.

Even for life itself.

Learn more about the science of gratitude here.

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