For many of us, the holidays mark the time of year where we celebrate all the things we sometimes take for granted. Whether we sit around the dinner table to give thanks or we silently take stock of the things that matter most to us, these moments are defined by a deep sense of gratitude and that warm, fuzzy feeling of togetherness.
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But gratitude isn’t an act or a feeling that should be reserved for just a few special days out of the year. In fact, psychologist Lauren Alexander, PhD, says it’s something we should strive to include in our day-to-day lives year-round — whether that be in our friendships, our relationships, our physical activities or even during the quiet moments we have time to ourselves.
“When I talk about gratitude with patients, I talk about actively and intentionally recognizing those things that make our lives better in some way,” says Dr. Alexander.
Here, we share the many ways that gratitude can make a big difference in your physical and mental health, as well as small things you can do every day to practice gratitude.
There’s no downside when it comes to gratitude. That’s because we know there’s a strong connection between our minds and our bodies.
Generally speaking, when we maintain a positive mindset, we can rely more intentionally on embracing healthy coping strategies, building healthier habits and feeling better about ourselves. And all of these mental health benefits have a direct effect on our physical health.
“There is research out there that practicing gratitude can help lower blood pressure, help build a stronger immune system and even help with certain treatment outcomes,” adds Dr. Alexander.
Indeed, when we have positive perceptions about our medical care, we’re more likely to achieve our desired outcomes and recover more efficiently.
An example of that can be found in a systematic review of 19 studies involving nearly 3,000 participants from 2005 to 2023. In that review, researchers identified that gratitude not only promotes mental health and more sustainable healthy habits, but it also improves cardiovascular outcomes. So, what does that mean? Well, a kinder heart is a healthier heart.
“I talk about being intentional with people all the time because we sometimes live very mindlessly and we’re not always intentional about what we’re doing,” notes Dr. Alexander. “But if we can get in the habit of being grateful every day, even about the small things that make us feel good about ourselves and the world around us, we can create better lives for ourselves.”
Practicing gratitude doesn’t come easily to everyone — especially if you’ve been down on your luck or you’re going through a hard time. No matter who you are and what stage of life you’re in, you might want to focus on doing these small things every day to build your sense of gratefulness:
If you’ve ever been on a plane, you’re probably familiar with the advice that in case of emergencies, you should put on your oxygen mask first before helping others. Well, the same idea applies when it comes to your mental health: You have to take care of yourself before you can effectively take care of others.
The journey of self-care often begins with boosting your self-esteem, and you can do that by shifting your perspective. Whenever you’re confronted with a negative situation, or whenever you just have a bad day, boost your self-esteem by refocusing your perspective on one good thing that’s happened to you or even the smallest things you’re grateful for. That can be your health, your job, a nice conversation you had with your children or the simple fact that you’re alive.
“Processing information differently is very hard for people to do because we get into habits and keep going down the path that’s most well-traveled. And if you compare it to walking on a path through your front yard, If you keep walking on that same path over and over again, your grass is eventually going to die,” says Dr. Alexander.
“So going down a different path, mentally, really requires a lot of intentional effort to shift to a direction where the grass is still growing. It may not be as easy to get through. But if you keep walking on it, you’ll start creating new paths and new ways of thinking.”
There’s a reason we gather around the table with people we love a couple times a year. It makes us feel good about our places in other people’s lives, but it also strengthens our relationships when we practice gratitude with each other.
You can do this with your romantic partner, your siblings, your best friends and even your coworkers. Whether it’s a quick note letting someone know you appreciate them, or it’s a more intentional, sit-down moment shared between a couple people, letting others know how much they mean to you really shapes the way your relationships are maintained. And asking what others are grateful for is a good opportunity to see things from a new perspective.
“If you’re someone who really struggles with being grateful or finding things to be grateful for, you might want to use this as an opportunity to connect with other people,” suggests Dr. Alexander. “Maybe enlist a friend or spouse to help you see some of the things to be grateful for, and that experience can be mutually beneficial.”
“A big part of what stops people from having better habits is that people develop ideas about how they should feel when they’re doing things like exercising or eating healthy, and if they don’t feel that way, then they don’t do it,” says Dr. Alexander.
“So much of healthy habits involves the acceptance that you might not have a feeling that matches what the intended action should be.”
That means the next time you feel like giving up on starting a new exercise routine, maybe take a step back. Take a deep breath, and recognize that you’re in a position to make a choice about what you want to do and how you want to do it.
Taking even that small moment to be grateful for being able to make choices about your health and infusing that gratitude into your daily activities like eating healthy or working out can make all the difference when it comes to finding motivation to be healthier.
Start or end your day by writing down three things you’re grateful for.
“Maybe you find joy in going on a walk during your lunch break, or it’s that you can hear your child laughing. Or maybe you are just thankful for a good night of sleep,” says Dr. Alexander.
Whatever the reason, write it down in a gratitude journal and use that as a reference that you come back to whenever you’re struggling or you just need a reminder about what inspires you.
“When you think to yourself, My life hasn’t been very good, you can look back and see objectively that there’s actually been a lot of good things in your life and there’s a lot to be grateful for,” she adds.
Ever find yourself scrolling through all the negativity on your social media newsfeed and then find it hard to resurface from the latest disaster making headlines? What do you do with all the heavy feelings you’re having about important issues like climate change or food insecurity?
“By being actively involved, you’re going to feel far better about your concerns and it’s going to feel far more gratifying to connect with others who are making a difference,” says Dr. Alexander.
For parents looking to instill gratitude in your children, perhaps the best way is to model that behavior during conversations at the dinner table, during prayer before bedtime or even during mundane activities that pop up throughout the day.
“Bring it up in everyday conversation — talk about how thankful you are that there’s a refrigerator full of food or that you’re thankful for the raise at work or how you’re thankful for the way your child helped out a friend in class,” recommends Dr. Alexander. “It’s important for us to be thankful for these things and the best way to cultivate that attitude is to say these things out loud to each other.”
So much of gratitude is rooted in mindfulness. At the end of the day, if there’s anything you do, try to be present in every situation and do your best to keep yourself grounded. That’s certainly not always easy to do in a busy world. But when we set out to be intentional about everything we do, even the simplest act of having a meal can be an experience full of gratitude.
“Our experience with food is a good example because it’s often something that we just inhale and we don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about it,” says Dr. Alexander. “But mindful eating can be a way to cultivate gratitude by paying more attention to the smell, taste and texture. By cultivating a more mindful attitude, we can start to be grateful for the food we have in front of us.”