Woman facing ocean with arms outstretched

It’s pretty easy to feel grateful for the good things in life. But how do you cultivate gratitude when life throws you a curve ball? Today we’re talking about some of the neuroscience behind gratitude and looking at six tips to improve it when times are tough.

We’re all wired differently, but I’m the type who usually notices and appreciates my blessings without having to work too hard at it. I’m grateful for the “biggies” like a loving and supportive family — and for small things, too, like a gentle breeze when I need it most. Where do you fall on this spectrum?

For most of us, it’s pretty easy to feel grateful when things are going well.

The real test comes when life throws us a curve ball or two. Do you still feel grateful if you lose your job or get a scary health diagnosis? Hmmm…that’s a whole different story.

In the midst of “life kinda sucks right now,” how do you nurture grateful feelings? Maybe what’s worked for you in the past just isn’t cutting it.

This is the exact spot I found myself in recently, after facing some tough health issues that have dragged on for months. As I wait for a diagnosis, I’ve felt anxious and to be honest, a little sorry for myself. I realized it was time for a gratitude reset and that’s how this post (pep talk to myself) came about.

I’m here today to encourage us all to practice gratitude, even (or maybe especially when) we’re not feeling it or it doesn’t come easy. Doing so comes with a pretty big payoff. A whole body of scientific evidence now tells us that gratitude improves our mental and physical health in many real ways; plus it makes us more resilient in the face of simple everyday stresses.  

Some of the Neuroscience Behind Gratitude

As I was starting to write this post, a book review serendipitously landed in my inbox that turned out to be an eye-opener for me. It was about The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time by Neuroscientist Alex Korb.

In the book, Korb points out that when we’re sad or anxious about something like a health problem – we can choose to worry – which helps in the short-term because it makes us feel like we’re doing something.

But in the long-term, one of the best things we can do is ask: What am I grateful for? 

He goes on to say that gratitude affects our brain at a biological level:

  • You know what the antidepressant Wellbutrin does? It boosts the neurotransmitter dopamine. So does gratitude. It’s been shown that feeling grateful stimulates the region of your brain that produces dopamine.

    Dopamine plays a role in making you feel happier, more motivated, alert and focused. It’s been called the “feel-good” hormone. [Source: Cleveland Clinic]
  • Likewise with the antidepressant Prozac, which boosts the neurotransmitter serotonin. Practicing gratitude releases serotonin, too. Serotonin regulates mood and contributes to happiness, focus and calmness. [Source: Cleveland Clinic.]

For those times when life lands you a mean punch in the gut and it feels like there’s not much to be grateful for…guess what?

Korb says, “It’s not finding something to be grateful for that matters most; it’s remembering to look for it in the first place. Because remembering to look for it is a form of emotional intelligence and the more we flex that muscle, the less effort it takes to be grateful.”

Bottom line: the author is saying there’s still a big payoff to just going through a gratitude exercise, even if you’re not feeling it at the time.



Now on to some tips that I hope you’ll find useful. These aren’t your typical suggestions for a gratitude practice (check the Resources below for those). Instead, these ideas focus more on peeling away some of the mental obstacles to cultivating gratitude when life is tough.

Keep in mind I’m not a mental health expert. I read a lot of articles and synthesized ideas from others, sharing here what is working for me right now.

6 Tips to Practice Gratitude When It Feels Hard

  1. Treat gratitude like an action, not a thought.

If I were to ask you right now to jot down three things you’re grateful for, you might list the first things to come to mind — just to be done with the assignment. (At least that’s how I might approach it.) Doing this in a checklist fashion can feel pretty rote and might not accomplish much.

Instead, we can choose to actively engage in subtle mind shifts and small actions that put us on the path to feeling more grateful. Temporarily change your surroundings or write someone a personal note. Slow down and savor small things. The point is not to do what you’ve always done when it comes to feeling grateful and expect the same results. Your mind is in a different place right now.

2. Acknowledge that gratitude isn’t the antidote to suffering.

It’s not about replacing the painful or sad feelings with a mandatory gratitude practice. That feels hollow and forced to most of us and gets into the territory of denial.

Instead, allow for suffering and gratitude to co-exist. I discovered a 15-minute online meditation (available on the Insight App) that offers a simple mantra: “I have room for my discomfort and my gratitude.”

As that soothing voice guides me through the meditation, I feel affirmed and my brain seems to reset itself. It’s NOT about feeling either gratitude OR discomfort. It’s about acknowledging both.

3. Try present thinking over positive thinking.

We all hear simple slogans like “choose happiness,” “good vibes only, “make it an amazing day,” etc.  If you’re struggling right now, it can be hard to turn on that faucet.

Try instead to simply be present. That means slowing down, sharpening your senses and living in the moment. Did the hot shower feel good on your back this morning? How was your first cup of coffee or tea?  If you sit outside and softly focus your eyes on the trees around you– how many shades of green do you see?  Just noticing simple things like this is a form of gratitude.

Colorful Fall maple leaves

4. Practice the art of savoring.

Most of us experience brief and fleeting moments of bliss. Maybe we notice the late afternoon sun glinting through beautiful maple leaves. Or we hold a newborn baby, her eyes gazing up at us as we gently touch her soft, downy skin.

Why not choose to savor the moment by giving it words and intentionally fixing the scene in your mind?  That way, you can relive those blissful memories…days or even years from now. It’s like making a deposit in a gratitude bank.

5. Avoid comparing yourself to others.

You may have heard the expression, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” It’s true. With social media, it’s tough NOT to compare ourselves with others. But social media is a highlight reel, far removed from the messiness of actual life. Allow yourself time on social media if it energizes and entertains you, but limit your time if it has the opposite effect.

Aside from social media – we often compare our “old self” to our “new self” or “what used to be” with “what is now.”

It’s tempting to focus on all that the pandemic took from us, for example. The same can be said for chronic illness. When I find myself looking backward now, I try to envision those thoughts as delicate snowflakes that melt quickly. All of life is about impermanence and we are giving ourselves a gift by not comparing our “old life” to “our “new life.”

6. Reach out to others.

A lot has been documented about the benefits of being generous with your time and resources, especially volunteering. But you can feel grateful (and make someone else happy) with very simple gestures. Give someone a compliment or a verbal high five.

Write a thank you note or letter to someone who’s touched your life in a positive way. Perform random acts of kindness (pay for someone’s parking or let a struggling parent know they’re doing a great job.) Even if the person on the receiving end doesn’t respond as you’d hoped, you’ll still feel more grateful by expressing something positive.

Let’s sum it up

So there you have it — some simple tips to help rekindle gratitude for those times when it doesn’t come easy. I used to think gratitude was a virtue (and I thought I had it down…how smug was I?). But I now believe, as author Mary Pipher says, “Gratitude is a survival skill,” especially during tough times. The more we practice, the better we’ll get at it. Do you agree?

Resources

I am not a licensed nutritionist, medical professional or cosmetics expert. The information provided on Honest + Simple is for general informational purposes only. The statements on this website have not been evaluated by the Food + Drug Administration and are not intended to treat, prevent or cure any disease. Before making decisions about your health or other concerns, please consult a qualified professional and do not rely on this website for medical advice.

Now it’s your turn. Do you have a gratitude practice? What tips can you share when it seems hard to feel grateful? I’d love to hear from you!

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2 Comments

  1. I’ve found that getting out of myself helps with negative emotion. I look for ways to help others to get out of my head by inserting myself in someone else’s life or problem. I do it because it helps me feel better and it’s not an unselfish act really, but it helps the person with the problem and me too.
    Exercise too – not abusing yourself but exerting yourself to where your attention is on your body gets you away from negative feelings. In addition, you feel like you’re investing in yourself & there’s a physical and emotional serenity that comes after physical exertion. Claire will testify to me snoring laid out on the couch.
    Spend time in the woods. When you get into the woods there’s a quiet that is almost mystical. Often times I will sit and listen to the wind rustle the leaves and that is highly restorative. Doesn’t cost a cent either.

    Love, Jack

    1. Hi Jack,
      Sorry for the delay in responding; I was having a glitch with my comment software. I like your suggestion to “Get outside yourself” when you are feeling down. Exercise and time in nature are great suggestions, too. Nature therapy is a big one for me, too. Thanks so much for taking time to read the blog and to comment.

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