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How to Cultivate Joy with Gratitude

by Michelle Grim

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. I love food, so those who know me will not be surprised by my confession. But, it’s not just the food that makes me swoon over Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving brings me joy because of what it inspires. It gives me an excuse to practice gratitude openly, and to engage in that practice with the people I care for most.

My family has gotten to know my…enthusiasm for gratitude, and at Thanksgiving they all come mentally prepared for it as we sit down to our special meal together. But, the first time I sprung the question “What are you grateful for???” on my now-mother-in-law, her fork stopped mid-air, mouth still open, but nothing came out. I might have been a little too eager.

Gratitude, Joy, and Pain

All joking aside, although I really do love gratitude, it can be a practice that takes effort and a willingness to move outside your comfort zone. Expressing gratitude does not erase difficult emotions or discount the fact that you might be struggling. What it does do, however, is give you more access to the positive side of the spectrum. And, interestingly enough, it appears to be the most potent way to access joy.

In fact, researcher Brene Brown, in 12 years of study reviewing 11,000 pieces of data, found that every person she interviewed who described themselves as joyful also actively practiced gratitude. She had presumed that the experience of joy is what inspired gratitude. To her surprise, it actually worked the other way around: practicing gratitude is what cultivated joy. And joy, my friends, is one of the most powerful ways to harness our “internal medicine cabinet.”

The “internal medicine cabinet” refers to the hormones that make us feel happy: serotonin, dopamine, endorphins, and oxytocin. These hormones not only improve our mood, they can literally reduce physical pain. When the “happy hormones”, especially endorphins, are sent down from the brain, they can block the danger messages that lead to pain from going up to the brain.

Getting Started

So how do you become more grateful, and therefore joyful? Understanding how gratitude is helpful can be a good place to start, but, as the saying goes, the proof is in the pudding. To reap the benefits of gratitude, we have to make it a regular practice.

Here are some tips to help you get started:

1. Choose your medium.

If you’re new to practicing gratitude, writing your gratitudes in a daily journal may be the most accessible place to start. However, you can also incorporate it as a meditation, or you can exchange gratitude texts with friends, both making it social and building in some accountability. To hear how Brene incorporates gratitude practice into her family life, watch this.

2. Make a plan.

New habits do not just happen. Take some time to strategize before you begin.

  • When will you practice?

  • How many gratitudes do you want to share?

  • How much time can you realistically commit to the practice? Remember, a daily practice will be the most effective, but some practice is better than none. If you can, dedicate some time to gratitude every day.

  • Build self compassion into your practice, recognizing that you might miss a day here and there, and that’s part of being human.

3. Get good at it.

Below are some tips that can make your gratitude practice even more impactful. Let these guidelines create the foundation of your practice:

  • Focus on what is instead of what will be.

  • Be specific. Instead of “I’m grateful for my family”, you might say “I’m grateful for the time I got with my son this morning giggling while he ate Cheerios”.

  • Include what might seem ordinary.

  • Feel the gratitude as you write it. What happens in your body as you give time to your gratitude practice? What do you notice happening inside?

4. Commit.

One of my colleagues often shares that we have to practice something for at least 40 days before we’ll really uncover its capacity to support us. Give this gratitude practice a try, and a good one. Consider trying it for at least 40 days before making any determination. And, remember, be gentle, and keep self compassion as your companion in your practice.

Never discount the power of your practice. Not only is gratitude a doorway to joy, it’s also highly contagious. The gratitude you share with others will inspire them to feel grateful as well, and the joy will spread. So, this holiday season, it is my deepest hope that you celebrate the joy your practice can cultivate not only in yourself, but also in those you love.

Now, let’s eat!!


If you’re looking for support in practicing gratitude, check out Diane’s gratitude practice, just added to our On-Demand Library and highlighted as our pop up this month! Our monthly pop up is free the first Tuesday of the month for 48 hours. Or, consider signing up for a free trial to get unlimited access to hundreds of practices just like it that can support your continued healing. We’re here for you!


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