Sometimes it can feel like an obligation to show gratitude. It reminds me of going to my grandma's house and making sure to eat every last bite on my plate so she wouldn't think I was ungrateful.
So how do you give thanks in a way that feels genuine? Christina Costa, a psychologist who has studied the positive effects of gratitude on the brain, says it shouldn't just be something we do on special occasions. We need to turn it into a daily habit. "The more we do it, the easier and faster it becomes to be grateful. We're wired toward it."
Expressed meaningfully, gratitude can have positive effects on our mental and physical health. Studies have found it can help people sleep better, lower stress and improve interpersonal relationships.
Costa and Paulette Moore, a founding member of The Aunties Dandelion, a media-arts collective informed by Indigenous teachings, share a couple of ways to practice thankfulness in your life.
Start a gratitude journal
Get a cute gratitude journal and make it a habit to jot down three things you're thankful for once a day, says Costa. "Set up a timer. I like to [write in my journal] in the morning because that sets my day up best. Or do it on your phone. Make it as easy as possible."
Keeping track of what you're thankful for comes with health benefits. A 2018 study found that keeping a gratitude journal decreased materialism and bolstered generosity among adolescents. There's also some evidence it could lower your risk of heart disease and lower symptoms of depression for some people.
If you're not sure what to write about, think about little acts in your day that made it easier and brighter, says Costa. "You'll start seeing things you're grateful for." That might be fresh coffee first thing in the morning, seeing the sun after a rainfall or finding time to cozy up with a good book.
Or pull inspiration from your environment. Look around and notice the beauty around you: the sky, the cool breeze, the warmth of your fuzzy sweater. It can help remind you that "all of this is here for us," says Moore — and there's power in that acknowledgement.
Write a letter
Think of someone in your life who you have not had the chance to thank, says Costa. "Why are you grateful for that person? Think of a specific instance when they helped you. Then send them a letter, an email, or even better, deliver the letter in person and read it to them."
If you're stuck, she says, "think of a K-12 teacher. That's going to give you a big boost."
A bonus of letter-writing? It can make the recipient feel really great. A 2018 study published in Psychological Science asked participants to write a letter to a person who had touched their life in a meaningful way. "Expressers significantly underestimated how surprised recipients would be about why expressers were grateful, overestimated how awkward recipients would feel, and underestimated how positive recipients would feel," the researchers wrote.
The audio portion of this episode was produced by Summer Thomad. The digital story was edited by Malaka Gharib. We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.
Listen to Life Kit on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or sign up for our newsletter.