June 21, 2021

2 ways to embrace the power of gratitude (and why you should)

If you have been reading this blog for long, you know I am a passionate advocate for self-care. It’s necessary for physical health and emotional well-being, but self-care is also an answer to many challenges we face in life – leadership challenges, difficulty with time and energy management, career angst, exhaustion and more.

Self-care is the fuel that enables you to do all that life asks of you without compromising your own well-being in the process.

But it can also feel like one more thing to put on your to-do list, and one more way you are falling short if you don’t follow through.

I am here to tell you self-care doesn’t have to be hard to be helpful, and if it’s causing you stress, it’s time to try something different. Like gratitude. Of all the self-care practices you could try, gratitude might be both the simplest and the most powerful.

Why is gratitude so powerful?

Practicing gratitude has a measurable impact on mental and physical health, and you can trace its benefits down to the molecular level.

Imagine that you are watching the news for several hours in the evening. As you watch, you get fired up about causes you care about, points you disagree with and people who frustrate you. Stress hormones flood your body, stimulating the sympathetic nervous system and sparking what is known as an amygdala hijack. This fight-or-flight process prepares your body to act. Now.

As you might guess, this response would have been useful if you were alive 10,000 years ago, staring down a predator. It might also be useful today if you need to deliver a speech, run a marathon or care for a sick loved one.

However, it’s no way to live all the time. Even so, many people are wired to do just that, and their experience of life suffers as a result. When you are always prepared for the worst, the good stuff around you barely registers. Even when there is plenty to celebrate, it’s all too easy to focus only on what seems disappointing. This is called negativity bias, and it is rampant in our culture.

Gratitude is about disrupting this process and rewiring your brain to crave something better.

The practice of gratitude creates a flood of feel-good hormones that stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. Just like you build strength with exercise, you build your response to gratitude as your brain reacts and begins to crave that release of serotonin and dopamine. The magnitude of your stress response shrinks over time as positive neural pathways are reinforced.

In this way, gratitude acts to disarm negativity, and the benefits pile on. As you start to see more of the good in your life, you will notice that there is more to feel grateful for and a positive feedback loop will form. The results show up everywhere – more positive interactions with others, better sleep, improved focus. The list goes on.

The key is simply to start.

How to practice gratitude

With any goal, it’s all too easy to aim a little high then lose steam before you get there. I want to share two ways of starting a gratitude practice. Once you have built the habit, you can do more if you want. But even a little gratitude can go a long way.

Three good things

The idea here is just what it sounds like. Set aside a few minutes at the end of the day to look back on your day and notice three things that went well. Write them down and note details like where you were, how and why the moment unfolded the way it did, etc. You might be tempted to simply walk through this in your mind, but writing your thoughts down will prompt you to be more reflective. It will also help you notice any tendency to focus on the negative so you can actively redirect your thoughts in a more positive direction.

It won’t take much time – 10 minutes is plenty – and there is no wrong way to do this. Just try and see what happens after a week or two.

Start a gratitude journal

Keeping a gratitude journal is another way to start a gratitude practice. It may take a little more time, but if journaling is already a habit, it’s a great place to start. Like the three good things concept, the idea is to create a habit of focusing on the positive in life, but with journaling you can go deeper (and less frequent if it suits you. Try a few times a week to start.)

As you begin, take any approach you like, but – again – make writing your thoughts down part of the process, rather than creating a mental list. Identify five things you are grateful for, then describe each of them. Be as specific as you can, include details, and know that focusing on people has greater impact than things. Look for pleasant surprises, negative outcomes you avoided and other unexpected sources of gratitude. The more places you look, the more you will find things that spark gratitude. If you find yourself short of ideas, try this list of writing prompts for gratitude journaling.

Building the gratitude habit the right way

Starting a new practice is something to celebrate, but making it stick is the real challenge. Although gratitude is self-reinforcing, you will need intent in the early days and weeks. If you need a reset, try these ideas for realizing your self-care goals. Harnessing the power of association, accountability and other principles will help you build your new habit, and so will time.

What won’t help? Practicing gratitude for the wrong reasons. My fellow health care professionals and I have heard time and time again how self-care is a solution to burnout. It’s not. Self-care might help you weather a difficult climate, but you can’t be expected to journal your way through a crisis and call it a solution. The systemic issues that underlie burnout among clinicians and other professionals are myriad and complex, and they need systemic solutions. Your gratitude practice should be for you – that’s where the benefits of self-care come in. It won’t solve the systemic issues, and it is good and right to continue advocating (loudly) for systemic change if you are comfortable doing so, while using whatever personal practices help you care for yourself along the way.

How do you practice gratitude?

Have you tried these ideas yourself? Or perhaps other ways of cultivating gratitude? I’d love to hear what works for you, in the comments or on social.


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