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5 proven gratitude practices that make your life better

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Each day we’re given a new opportunity to decide how we will think and feel, influencing our behavior and outcomes.

By choosing gratitude thoughts we create feelings and emotions of genuine gratitude. We begin to appreciate what we have and realize more fully each day that we are able to create what we want in life. Peace and joy come as a direct result of this cause-and-effect relationship.

How do we develop gratitude as a habit in our lives? Here are 5 proven practices that net amazing results in the hearts and minds of those who practice them:

1. Gratitude Diary – Tonight, and each night for 3 weeks, write for 10 minutes at the end of each day the details of 3 things that went well during your day, large or small, and also describe why you think they happened. Re-experience the feelings of these positive results. Results of increased happiness from this practice persist for up to 6 months. Once a week, perhaps at the end of your week, write down 5 things people have done to influence you for the better for which you are grateful and reflect on what these things mean to you. Consider upcoming positives as well.

Why is this important? A 2005 study led by Martin Seligman, founder of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, found that completing this exercise every day for one week led to increases in happiness that persisted for six months.

This simple practice can also teach you to notice and savor positive events as they happen in the moment, and remember them more vividly later on. By reflecting on the sources of these good things, the idea is that you start to see a broader support system of goodness around you.

2. Mental Subtraction – Once a week for 10 minutes, consider the many ways in which important, positive events in your life — such as your job or educational achievement — could have never taken place, and then reflect on what your life would be like without them.

A series of studies in 2008 led by Minkyung Koo found that completing a 15-minute mental subtraction writing exercise led to increases in happiness and gratitude.

Mental subtraction can counteract the tendency to take positive events for granted and see them as inevitable; instead, it helps you recognize how fortunate you are that things transpired as they did.

3. Gratitude Letter – Pick a person you feel you’ve never properly expressed your gratitude. Write a thoughtful, detailed Gratitude Letter. Consider including inspiring lessons learned or funny moments with this person.

The 2005 study led by Martin Seligman also tested the effects of writing and delivering a gratitude letter, finding that, of the five different practices that the researchers tested, this practice had the greatest positive impact on happiness one month later. Those who delivered and read the letter to the recipient in person, rather than just mailing it, reaped the greatest benefits.

4.  Give it Up – Pick a less desirable junk food or a pleasure to give up for 1 week. Then come back to it in 1 week and enjoy it again — this time with greater anticipation and excitement.

Abstaining from a pleasurable activity for a week leads people to derive greater pleasure from it and feel greater appreciation for it when they eventually indulged in it again. One goal is to recognize how we take some pleasures for granted. This can teach us to enjoy savoring them more.

Ever notice that the first bite of chocolate cake is usually the best? We have a tendency to adapt to pleasurable things — a phenomenon called “hedonic adaptation” — and appreciate them less and less over time. But we can interrupt this process by choosing to experience the “Give it Up” practice, which requires temporarily giving up pleasurable activities and then coming back to them later, this time with greater anticipation and excitement. One idea is limiting a portion to a small piece of chocolate cake and then giving it up for about a week.

A 2013 study conducted by Jordi Quoidbach and Elizabeth Dunn found that abstaining from a pleasurable activity for a week – in this study, eating chocolate – led people to derive greater pleasure from it and feel greater appreciation for it when they eventually indulged in it again.

5.  Savoring Walk – Once a week, walk for 20 minutes, in silence, preferably alone. Ideally, take a different route each week. Pay close attention to as many sights, sounds, smells, and other sensations as possible. Enjoy an increased awareness of things that create peaceful, harmonious contentment and joy.

Research by Fred Bryant and Joseph Veroff has found that taking this kind of stroll led to an increase in happiness one week later. Repeat this each week and be amazed.

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