How to Start a Gratitude Habit in 21 Days
Why give thanks? Plain and simple, feeling grateful is good for us. Research shows that counting your blessings has many benefits, from better sleep to reduced depression. “It helps you connect to others and be more optimistic and less likely to ruminate over the negative,” says Emiliana Simon-Thomas, PhD, science director of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. Cementing the habit takes minimal effort. Follow this 21-day path to more appreciative living.
Week 1: Notice the good
“Gratitude isn’t one-size-fits-all,” says sociologist and happiness expert Christine Carter, PhD. These tips help you be thankful in a way that makes sense for you.
Think in threes: Start off each morning by identifying three things you’re grateful for (your kids, your comfy bedsheets, your cute toes—anything). Try not to repeat things, advises Carter, and get more specific and detailed as you go: “For a daily gratitude practice to really be effective, there needs to be novelty so you don’t just get on autopilot,” she says.
Choose your weapon: For some, journaling about the three good things works; others may prefer sharing them with a friend via text or using the voice recorder on their smartphone.
Talk the talk: The most grateful people have learned to use language that emphasizes gifts, blessings, fortune, and abundance, says gratitude expert Robert Emmons, PhD. “Less grateful people are preoccupied with burdens, deprivations, entitlements, and complaints,” he explains. Instead of saying, “Ugh, I cannot believe I had to wait so long to get a day off,” try, “What an opportunity this free time is.”
Week 2: Go beyond yourself
Improve how you dish out thanks toward your loved ones and community, still keeping in mind the gratitude guidelines from week one.
Upgrade “thanks”: Express appreciation to someone every day this week, being super specific. "Thank you for taking care of the kids while I was away on business" is much more powerful than "Thanks for everything this weekend."
Pen a letter: Write a heartfelt note to a mentor, family member, or friend detailing how he or she has impacted your life in a positive way. If possible, read it aloud in person, or schedule a video chat session to share it.
Be of service: "Most people end up feeling extra grateful for their own blessings when they give back in some way," says Simon-Thomas. Find a volunteering opportunity that interests you and schedule time to participate.
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Week 3: Think outside the box
Now it’s all about seeing good fortune everywhere.
Look for unexpected heroes: Don’t journal just about people who’ve helped you, says Emmons, but also about those who’ve been there for your loved ones. When you list your three good things this week, call out these indirect joy bringers (like the caretaker who assists your ailing mom, the teacher who is endlessly patient with your child or the great guy about to marry your BFF).
Find silver linings: Write down three less-than-perfect experiences and consider how they actually benefited you. Perhaps quitting a bad job opened the door to a new opportunity. Or maybe you’re thankful that an ex was brave enough to end your relationship when you both knew it wasn’t working anymore.
Take it to the office: "The workplace is one of the places gratitude is lacking the most," says Simon-Thomas. Show a boss, peer, or intern some appreciation this week. Don’t be surprised if the good vibes come back to you. Gratitude often has a boomerang effect.