Building Your Gratitude Muscle

May all of us slow down enough to be aware of and savor all the blessings in our lives.

If you prefer to listen. Experiencing Gratitude Meditation

Studies on gratitude have consistently found that people who practice gratitude report fewer symptoms of illness, including depression, more optimism and happiness, stronger relationships and more generous behavior. Gratitude requires practice because our brains are wired to scan for the negative. People who did not see the negative in our early evolution did not survive. We are wired to scan for dangers, pick up potential threats and protect ourselves. Today, we still do that all the time even though we don’t have a saber tooth tiger chasing us.  We are constantly scanning for danger and putting up our defenses. Our brains have become Velcro for the bad and Teflon for the good. We need to rewire our brains to learn to savor the good.

I have been doing a gratitude practice with a friend for about the last six months. And the first month it was really hard to come up with three things I was grateful for.  I felt like I had to come up with three different things. And I really struggled to come up with ideas of what I was grateful for.  After about two months, it was still hard work and I considered quitting.  But I did not want to let down my friend so I decided to stick it out.  And now it has become one of my favorite practices.  I have opened to see what I am grateful for instead of judging each idea as not good enough.  And I come up with all sorts of things I am grateful for.  Throughout the day, I find myself thinking I can’t wait to include this in my gratitude email.

It is hard to get started to feel grateful, because we take so many things for granted. Gratitude is like a muscle we need to build up, just like mindfulness.  First, we have to be mindful enough to see what we can be grateful for. And then we have to take the time to savor it and just really appreciate it.

In one research study, they had participants write about neutral topics, or what they were grateful for. Then they were shown positive and negative pictures.  They were asked to increase the positivity and reduce the negativity.  Participants in the grateful group used more words related to cognitive processes – words showing insight into the topic, or talking about cause and effect. Since these types of words are involved in reappraising negative events, the researchers suggest that the gratitude group may have been better at reframing when viewing the negative pictures. Practicing gratitude can not only make you feel happier, it can also provide you the skills to reframe negative so it is not looked upon as so negative.

Another research study shows that gratitude may help us to delay gratification. Participants who had written about gratitude were more likely to pick the larger rewards that they had to wait longer for than the participants in the happy or neutral groups. Gratitude seems to help us manage our impatient urges.

We often think gratitude is dependent on something out there.  But gratitude welcomes what we are given. It doesn’t know any stories about how it should have been. It is not dependent on what you have.  If I go to a Thanksgiving dinner and have this picture in my mind of how wonderful it is going to be with everyone getting along and feeling connected to everyone, I might not have gratitude for the actual experience.  I have all these ideas of how it should be that are not being met.  If I can let go of those and say I am going to be grateful for whatever happens, any connection, any pleasant thing; then I can feel gratitude.

Gratitude is really dependent on your heart. You can even find gratitude for the sorrows in your life, the hand you have been dealt.  Sometimes it is through the hardest things that your heart learns its most important lesson. Some people in the poorest countries in the world are grateful for what they have. They don’t know what they don’t have.  They are not missing it.


Take a moment to look at what’s satisfied you in the past week. What really makes you feel nourished? It could be big things, or it could be little things.  You can savor the little things just as much as you can savor the big things like winning the lottery.

What gets in the way of gratitude? It is usually resentment and bitterness that comes from dashed expectations. Since the world doesn’t fit our stories, there is a tension where I expected life to be more favorable than it has been, or feel that the world has not given me enough. When this happens, we become contracted so we can’t see the positive things that we could be grateful for. The bitterness sticks in our mind like velcro, so that we just keep focusing on the bad things that happen. When we think about what happened during the day, what sticks out in our mind is the thing we said that we wish we hadn’t, or how someone insulted or disrespected us.  We can’t feel grateful when we are feeling negative.

But on the other hand, “shoulding” on ourselves and saying “You should feel grateful.” doesn’t work.  Because sometimes we just really don’t feel grateful. And pretending to feel grateful when you don’t is inauthentic. And it will just make you feel like a bad person because you should feel grateful but you don’t.  And then you are going to try.  And trying is not helpful in meditation or in gratitude practice. You don’t want to try; you just want to accept what is.  When you are trying, you are tensing up. You don’t want to hold on to your idea of what should be.  And you don’t want to push it away.  To let go, simply hold lightly the reality, saying this is what is right now. To feel grateful, we have to let go of our expectations and our stories of how things should be. Let go of everything that contracts us. If we are contracted, we are in a smaller state.  That could lead us to be “Knee deep in a river and drowning of thirst.” Sometimes that is where we are at.  We have all this good in our lives and we don’t even see it.

How do we cultivate gratitude?  Begin by cultivating mindfulness. Mindfulness helps us regulate our emotions, steady our attention and helps us to let go.  So, we can see the things that are happening that are good for us.  Things we have overlooked in the past. We can be present for our own body, being mindful of the fact that I can see, walk, hear, taste and smell.  We often take that for granted.  We can be present for the person in front of us and be grateful for them even if they are not perfect. We can be present for the life we have been given and notice every moment.  Too many of us live our lives in the past or in the future.  We miss out on being alive in the present moment. When we are present for life, we see a lot more that we can be grateful for.

There are five steps to building your gratitude muscle.

  1. NOTICE what you are feeling whether you feel gratitude or not.  Being aware of your feelings increases mindfulness which fertilizes the soil of gratitude. Notice if the sky is blue, notice the leaves on the trees.  When you are noticing it may not be all pleasant. 
  2. ALLOW what you are feeling at the moment.  Don’t try to make yourself feel what you think you should feel. Understand that occasional complaints and negativity is normal. Don’t tell yourself you should feel grateful. Just say, this is where I am at right now. This is where I am at, and this is where I have to start from.
  3. NURTURE yourself. Thank yourself for being aware of your current feelings.  It is probably a step above where you were in the past when those feelings were under the radar and ruling your life. So you can thank yourself for taking the time to pay attention to your feelings and know what they are so you can move forward and process the feelings you need to process. Then talk to yourself as you would talk to a best friend. “Wow, that is really hard.  Maybe next time you could try this.” Instead letting your inner critic beat you up.
  4. ACT in ways that lift your mood, a better mood makes gratitude possible. Play your favorite music, dance, call someone and tell them how much you appreciate them, do a good deed, do mouth yoga (smile). We can’t feel grateful when we are feeling very negative.  So, we may have to push ourselves to take some action that will lift our mood.
  5. THINK about all the things in your life you can be grateful for from your non-toothache to a beautiful sunset to spending time with those you love.

It might seem paradoxical to think about things you’re grateful for when you are in a negative or stressful situation. Remember, people who practice gratitude experience: an improved ability to cope, a greater sense of social support, less negative emotions, and less impatience. In other words, those times when gratitude doesn’t come as naturally to us might be exactly when we need it most.

That is why we need to practice gratitude, being aware and amazed by life, nature, and love every day. If we have not developed that gratitude muscle, it is not going to be there when we most need it to lift us out of that mood. We can all become more grateful human beings.