Gratitude costs nothing, yet can feel so expensive

It only takes a little bit of effort.
It only takes a little bit of effort.
Image: Reuters/Kyodo
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You are lucky. It may not always be obvious, because bad news abounds and being human is often uncomfortable. You have aches and pains and society seems to be going up in flames, yet there are reasons to be grateful on Thanksgiving—and every day. Gratitude has scientifically proven benefits.

There are no doubt many happy facts you haven’t considered today, maybe because you’re busy, or because you’re not religious and so unsure who to thank. Counting your blessings is a spiritual practice, which is why some secular postmodernists resist the idea. But it’s important even for the godless. Recognizing relative riches begins by looking inward and has effects that radiate outward. In other words: Life is nicer for you and everyone else (pdf) when you recognize how much is going right.

Feeling gratitude improves mood and immune system function. Grateful people are less stressed, less anxious, and less depressed. They’re kinder to themselves and others, and generally more able to cope. A 2015 study in the journal Self and Identity concluded that gratitude is also a protective factor against mental illness because it engenders a “less critical, less punishing, and more compassionate relationship with the self.”

Feeling fortunate also has social benefits. Gratitude improves relationships and makes us more generous with friends and strangers.

So how do you start feeling lucky, fundamentally? It takes some practice. But it can become a habit, and a free one at that (unless you splurge on fancy gratitude journals).

Begin by injecting thankfulness rituals into your day—before every meal, in the morning, or as you go to bed (like counting sheep, if sheep were blessings). In Mari Kondo’s Zen-inspired Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, she even advises thanking your home when you enter it, and your clothes and shoes before using them or putting them away, to cultivate deeper appreciation of your many simple riches.

Cultivating this attitude of gratitude works like a cognitive exercise, providing you with valuable perspective. Think of it as a meditation that hones focus, and don’t even worry about who you’re thanking. Just thank your lucky stars that the countless complex processes that make you and Earth function are working, and go from there. Be glad for good people, moments, and things.

The point is just to make it a point to remember the good stuff. Recognizing your fortune feels positive, which makes you healthier, magnanimous, and more generous of spirit. Instead of focusing on pains, problems, and how everyone could be more awesome, you see gems, and potential in messy relationships and situations, which also makes you more creative and patient.

Gratitude is free and yields generous returns on investment. Appreciating others detracts nothing from you. After all, you’ve been so very lucky.