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One-time efforts to celebrate gratitude, like Thanksgiving, undeniably make us feel good. Practicing gratitude can increase feelings of happiness and life satisfaction while decreasing depressive symptoms, many studies have shown. To keep experiencing gratitude’s mood-boosting benefits, you should make practicing thankfulness a consistent part of your daily life.
That said, you don’t need a daily turkey dinner with all the fixings to be grateful. It’s more about exercising your gratitude muscles in your everyday routine through simple activities that cultivate and express thankfulness.
Like any skill worth mastering, gratitude takes practice to realize its full potential. Scientists have found that daily doses of gratitude deliver benefits beyond feelings of happiness, extending to enhanced relationships, self-esteem and overall life satisfaction.
To start sharpening your gratitude skill and begin making it an ongoing practice, try my five-day gratitude challenge. Here’s how to begin.
Day 1: Begin focusing on your 5 senses
Too often people focus their gratitude on the material things that they associate with status, like a fancy car or piece of clothing. Being glad you have those items isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but materialism has been linked in research to lower life satisfaction and a diminished ability to actually feel grateful. To keep focused on the simplest yet profoundly valuable aspects of our lives, we begin our challenge by showing gratitude for one of our five senses: our sight.
On a pad of paper or in a journal, finish this prompt:
Today, I am grateful for these three things I saw ….
Your answers can be as simple as: my own reflection in the mirror, my significant other and the sunset. Maybe you had an experience today that made you grateful for your sight and awareness, like seeing the neighbor’s dog running loose near the road and alerting your neighbor before something tragic happened.
Every day during the challenge, take time each evening to write down three reasons you were grateful for one of your five senses that day.
Day 2: Cultivate thankfulness with each breath
Want to feel grateful? Take a breath, or in this case, 10 breaths.
We all know that without breath, there is no life. That’s a great reason to be thankful.
To cultivate that sense of gratitude for our ability to live and breathe, practice this easy 10-breath gratitude meditation, following the simple instructions below:
Sit comfortably with your feet on the floor and your eyes closed. Let your hands rest in your lap or place them on your lower ribs like in this video:
Close your eyes and begin breathing in and out of your nose, lengthening and deepening your breath to a pace that feels comfortable and sustainable for you. As you establish your long, deep breath, spend a minute thinking about the miracle of your breath and how it literally fills your body with life.
When you’re ready, on your next inhale imagine a color you associate with feelings of gratefulness and let it fill your mind’s eye as you fill your lungs with air.
As you exhale, imagine that color and sense of gratefulness spreading down through your neck, chest and torso and out your limbs, disappearing as you finish your exhale.
Silently count the number “one” in your head.
Repeat this same visualization, synchronized with each breath, until you complete a count of 10 breaths.
For your five-senses gratitude practice for the day, finish this prompt:
Today, I am grateful for these three things I touched/felt ….
Day 3: Reflect on the gifts of hardship
There is no question that life can be challenging, as things don’t always turn out the way we’d hoped. Unfortunately, all of us experience adversity and suffering at different points in our lives. It may seem difficult to reflect on challenging times and find a reason to be grateful, but in making our pain purposeful, we can find meaning in the experience.
In Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” he wrote, “The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances – to add a deeper meaning to his life.”
For today’s gratitude practice, take a page from Frankl’s book and reflect on a particularly difficult time in your life that you perceive as a tragedy, failure or mistake. Identify three things that came out of that experience that you can truly appreciate.
Remember to also keep up with your five-senses gratitude focus by finishing this prompt:
Today, I am grateful for these three things I heard today ….
Day 4: Express gratitude to others in writing
Who are three people in your life that you truly appreciate?
Send each of them a quick but considerate correspondence in the form of a handwritten note, email or even a thoughtfully composed text. Remind them of why they are special to you and how worthwhile they are in the world. As a result of your effort, those on the receiving end will experience the mood-boosting benefits of being appreciated.
They won’t be the only beneficiaries; writing letters of gratitude has a positive effect on the author, increasing feelings of happiness and perceived life satisfaction while decreasing depression, studies have shown.
Don’t forget to also write down three things for your five-senses gratitude prompt:
Today, I am grateful for these three things I tasted ….
Day 5: Notice and appreciate the small stuff
An important aspect of practicing gratitude regularly is becoming aware of opportunities throughout your day to express gratitude. Today, notice and verbally acknowledge at least two times that someone provided a service or imparted a small act of kindness toward you.
Whether it’s service providers, coworkers, friends or family, there are many people in our lives who take action to meet our needs. These acts could be a delivery person bringing a package to your door, a coworker offering assistance at work or your significant other getting you a coffee. Once you start recognizing their efforts, you can do better at consistently showing your appreciation and responding in kind.
What’s more, studies have shown that the benefits of thankfulness extend to both the giver and receiver. This can be especially true in romantic relationships, in which experiencing and expressing gratitude for little things increase feelings of connectedness and relationship satisfaction, according to research.
Finally, finish off your five-senses gratitude practice by focusing on your sense of smell. This one is sometimes a little more challenging because it requires you to really notice the positive aromas in your environment as opposed to the negative smells, where we too often put our attention
Finish this prompt:
Today, I am grateful for these three things I smelled ….
Enjoy the shift in perspective and keep practicing daily
Once you finish the challenge, hopefully you’ll be inspired by the mood-boosting benefits you experienced and elicited for others throughout the last five days and continue actively practicing gratitude on a daily basis going forward.
Dana Santas, known as the “Mobility Maker,” is a certified strength and conditioning specialist and mind-body coach in professional sports, and is the author of the book “Practical Solutions for Back Pain Relief.”