The word that I dread seeing the most? Gratitude.
I can’t get away from it. It’s in lifestyle webpages, YouTube advice videos, and books about how to rise above stress. Or anxiety. Or depression.
And it’s in conversations I have with people whose lives it has helped.
“Every day, I list three things I’m grateful for and I put them in my gratitude journal. Believe me, this really works.”
I really wish it worked for me, but it doesn’t. I know that I should feel gratitude for having a successful career or good friends, but I don’t. I just feel unhappy.
But now that’s changed.
I’ve thought long and hard about gratitude, and with a life hack I’ve created, now I feel grateful more often, and my life is brighter. It works for me, and I think it’ll work for you.
And it hinges on an insight that popped into my head after much thought: gratitude isn’t about something in your life, it’s about how you feel about it.
Gratitude — so what?
According to researchers writing in The Gratitude Project:
Practicing gratitude has proven to be one of the most reliable methods for increasing happiness and life satisfaction; it also boosts feelings of optimism, joy, pleasure, enthusiasm, and other positive emotions.
When the leading researcher on gratitude, Robert Emmons, studied over 1,000 people, he found that that participants consistently reported many benefits:
- Stronger immune systems
- Less bothered by aches and pains
- Lower blood pressure
- More alert, alive, and awake
- More joy and pleasure
- More optimism and happiness
- More helpful, generous, and compassionate
- More forgiving
- Feel less lonely and isolated
In other words, wow.
Why is “personal gratitude” easy to feel?
Have you ever noticed that sometimes gratitude comes naturally to you, and other times you’re just not feeling it? One way to divide things into two categories is by the situation: is the “target” of your gratitude a person or not?
Gratitude toward a person (call this personal gratitude) is easy:
I’m grateful that Ravi helped me move into my new apartment.
Personal gratitude has components you can relate to:
- Ravi is your friend
- He voluntarily went out of his way to help you
- His help was specifically for you
- As a target of your gratitude, Ravi is someone you can interact with and relate to
Your gratitude to Ravi is real and feels natural; you’re glad to have the help. More important, your personal connection to him is slightly more positive — you’ll find that the two of you will enjoy being around each other more. And you’ll also feel good about yourself because Ravi’s willingness to help tells you that you are worthy of being helped.
Why is “abstract gratitude” often so hard to feel?
Abstract gratitude occurs when the event or condition that helps you personally comes from a non-human source — for example,
- a company (your insurance company)
- some act of a government (a COVID stimulus check)
- a change in the outside world (a cool day after hot weather)
Consider this example of abstract gratitude: My insurance company just told me that it will pay for my kidney transplant.
Your reaction may be something like this: “I know I should feel grateful that my insurance will cover my kidney transplant, but I don’t.”
So what’s different here?
- The insurance company certainly isn’t your friend. In fact, it has no way of knowing how to relate to any human.
- It certainly didn’t act to benefit you personally.
- The relationship between you and the company did not get any closer or friendlier.
- It is hard to think of the company as a legitimate target — there’s no dynamic interaction between the two of you
What’s the Gratitude Boost life hack?
Let’s start with abstract gratitude and what happens — or doesn’t happen. Using the insurance company example:
I just can’t feel grateful to the insurance company — it’s just not a good target.
But surely there’s something in this situation that merits gratitude. It’s certainly not the company — but what else could it be?
In the example of my gratitude toward Ravi, there’s feeling there — how I feel about Ravi. So where is the feeling in this abstract-gratitude situation?
How do I feel about knowing I’m going to get my kidney transplant? My feelings are complicated, but I’m going to focus on one of them:
I feel relieved that I know I’m going to get my kidney transplant.
This diagram shows you what’s going on:
Now there’s a clear path for gratitude:
Comparing the top and bottom diagrams reveals a powerful insight:
Abstract gratitude is not about what happened, it’s about how you feel toward it.
What works in this example will work for you in real life. This is the Gratitude Boost life hack for feeling grateful in an abstract gratitude situation:
- Identify the target, which is usually an event (e.g., my insurance will pay for my operation) or a condition (the weather is beautiful today).
- Identify the strongest feeling underlying the source, and use your past experience to feel this feeling right now.
- Tell yourself that you’re grateful for having this feeling, and know that in this situation, gratitude is what you’re feeling right now.
This life hack that will bring a lot more gratitude into your life.
Why should I believe that gratitude makes a difference?
Because plenty of research shows it’s true.
Donald Hebb, an early neuroscience researcher, made an observation so strong that it is still invoked today — that in the brain:
“Neurons that fire together wire together.”
The experience of gratitude happens because a pathway of neurons transmit a signal from one part of the brain to another. And because these neurons fire together, a single moment of gratitude wires these neurons together — that is, it strengthens the pathway created by these neurons, making it easier for your brain to use that pathway again. This effect leads to significant improvement when it is repeated.
The Gratitude Boost life hack works because it makes it possible for you to experience a moment of gratitude, which in turn strengthens the neural pathway that makes it easier to feel gratitude in the future. According to Tamara Lechner:
The more you practice gratitude, the more you strengthen the brain’s neural circuits for gratitude, making it easier to focus on feelings of gratitude.
How do I make gratitude a part of who I am?
We tend to notice more instances of things that have caught our attention. (For example, when you’re annoyed by a bad driver in traffic, you begin to see nothing but bad driving.) Fortunately, this is also the case for positive emotions, like gratitude. As Lechner put it:
When you start to focus on the things you already have in your life that are good, your brain becomes better at discovering similar things.
Over time, you transition from momentarily being lifted by individual events to becoming someone who feels gratitude often, every day; experiencing gratitude becomes a part of who you are. The more you you feel these moments of gratitude, the stronger the neural connections for gratitude will become. And what do you get from this? Check the list of gratitude benefits at the top of this article.
According to “The Neuroscience of Gratitude”:
The effects of practicing gratitude are not immediate…. But once started, gratitude continues to impact our physical and psychological well-being for years.
How do I lock in the benefits of the Gratitude Boost life hack?
Research shows that for gratitude to help, it’s not enough to have a moment of gratitude — you have to express it verbally to lock in its benefits. You can use the gratitude life hack as a starting place for doing this.
To review, here’s the diagram that shows how the Gratitude Boost life hack works:
Before I give you some statements that puts this life hack into words, a few words of warning. You may find the wording awkward. You may say, “I don’t talk like this, so I’m not going to try it.” My answer to you is this:
Have the courage to say the words — the more you do it, the more good it’ll do for you.
How do I create a kickass gratitude statement?
Here’s the gratitude statement for the example I’ve been using:
I am grateful because I feel relieved my insurance will pay for my kidney transplant.
Here is a template you can use to create your own gratitude:
I am grateful because I feel <put the feeling here> that <describe the source event that you want to feel grateful about>.
Don’t feel that you have to make your gratitude statement fit this template. Use your own words; do what works best for you. Here’s one example:
I am relieved to know that my insurance will pay for my kidney operation. I am grateful to feel so relieved.
Just be sure to focus on the gratitude-and-emotion part. Feel the feeling in your body and tell yourself, “In this situation, gratitude feels like this.”
Can you give me some examples?
Sure — here are three gratitude statements I’ve made for myself (I always say them out loud):
I am grateful because I felt good when I ate a particularly tasty strawberry.
I am grateful because I feel the enjoyment that comes from watching Netflix movies.
This third gratitude statement surprised me because it turned out to be based on an instance of personal gratitude:
I am grateful because I felt loved when I was feeling depressed and my wife gave me a hug.
It’s true that “I’m grateful for my wife” is a good gratitude statement, but “I am grateful because I felt loved” feels to me more vivid and powerful. I invite you to try the Gratitude Boost hack on moments of personal gratitude as well. I think you’ll be well rewarded for doing the extra work of identifying the feeling that’s underneath.
Here are three more sentences I say out loud:
I am grateful that I can feel good.
I am grateful that I can feel enjoyment.
I am grateful that I can feel loved.
How can this not make you feel good about yourself and your life?
How can I supercharge this?
This step is optional — you don’t have to do it — but know that it multiplies the effect of the hard work you’ve done so far. It’s built on an huge amount of research that says that this action is the best way to gain the amazing benefits of gratitude:
Keep a gratitude journal.
Here’s what you do: Buy an inexpensive composition or spiral-bound notebook. Each Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, take something you’re grateful for and write your new gratitude statement into your notebook. Then take a few minutes to think about the last three statements you’ve recently recorded in your book, evoking the feelings in your body. Research has shown that saying each statement out loud greatly intensifies the benefits you’ll receive.
What do I need to do, right now?
I challenge you to make your thrice-weekly gratitude statements for a month (that’s only 12 statements). That’s an investment of one hour — just one hour out of an entire month. I guarantee you’ll see positive results, and they’ll grow and grow when you decide to continue.
One hour, one month. Why wouldn’t you do this?
Successful people do what unsuccessful people are not willing to do. — Jim Rohn