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How to create a gratitude practice

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When you get sick, lose a job, have a breakup or experience disappointment, not feeling really lousy is hard. You tend to forget all the things that are going well. I certainly do. That’s why creating a gratitude practice is so important.

“One reason gratitude is so important is because it reminds you that life itself, and your particular life, is actually a wondrous gift,” says meditation teacher Sally Kempton.

Studies have found that cultivating a general sense of appreciation and thankfulness fosters your overall sense of well-being and even improves your health. Why? Because you are focusing your attention on the positive, not the negative. One study of women with breast cancer found that the women who listed the reasons they were grateful, each day, felt better. In fact, those who journaled daily had better coping skills — and generally perceived they had more support.

So how do you create a gratitude practice?

Like yoga and meditation, gratitude is a practice that develops by doing it over and over. It’s a way to retrain your mind to take stock of joyful or pleasant moments all day long. 

“Gratitude awareness can become such a part of your life that, even when you are sick, you can still find a place of gratitude for being alive in this world,” says Kempton.

Gratitude texting

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“My go-to practice is gratitude texting — taking time each day to send one text of appreciation,” says Maria Sirois Psy.D., vice president of curriculum at Wholebeing Institute. “Though this may seem almost ridiculously simple, for at least a moment a day, I remind myself of someone, or something, that I have — that is of benefit to me or to those I love.”

Sirois says this simple act, when paired with a common habit like her morning cup of tea, heightens her awareness of what is good in her life while keeping her connected to friends and family.

MORE: How social media is affecting your relationships & how to stop it

Cultivating gratitude

  1. Begin small: One minute a day of heartfelt appreciation.
  2. Quiet yourself: Bring yourself into your heart. Savor someone, or something, you are grateful for.
  3. Allow yourself to deeply feel the appreciation.
  4. Pair this with a daily ritual like your morning coffee or even with the first moment you sit down on the train or at work.
  5. Send a text. Try starting with “I am grateful for…”
  6. Practice for 30 days.

Don’t expect immediate results. Allow yourself to be surprised by how different you feel in your day after just a few weeks of practice.

Making a gratitude list

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Kempton, a meditation teacher, suggests making a gratitude list. It’s a way to spend a little time at the end of the day looking back and re-experiencing the joyful moments — the things you may have overlooked. Here’s how:

  1. Buy a cheap notebook, or find some paper to write on.
  2. At the end of each day, write down three things you are grateful for that day. It should take about five minutes tops.
  3. They can be small moments you appreciate. For example,” I am grateful I had coffee this morning, that it was sunny and warm outside, and that it’s Friday.”
  4. They also can be more significant and weighty. For example, “I am grateful my Mom is coming out of the hospital soon, that my brother didn’t get hurt when he was in a car accident, and that I am feeling better.”
  5. Continue for 30 days.
  6. After two weeks, reread your daily entries. You might be surprised to see what you wrote —  and what keeps coming up.

MORE: Workplace burnout: How to know if you have it

I tried both techniques for a month. I texted my friend Michele who lives across the country in San Francisco (I am in New York). Each day, I texted her what I was grateful for. Some days, it was for a waning headache; other days, it was for a healthy meal or a sunny day. For about a week, Michele also wrote me back with hers: jazz, hugs, the beauty of the Bay Area, her book club, dogs and nettle tea. To be honest, after about two weeks, Michele stopped writing me back as life took over. At first, I was disappointed, but then I realized that over those two weeks, we had been in almost daily contact — much more than in the whole previous year. I continue to write my gratitude list in my journal and savor positive moments in my mind. Occasionally, I find myself doing it without even trying. Although it might sound corny, I am definitely grateful I decided to do this awareness practice.

Did you know that art can be a cathartic form of meditation? Learn how to draw like a pro in the video below.

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