An Attitude of Gratitude: How to be Grateful (When We Least Feel Like It)

There's nothing quite like a pandemic to put our lives into perspective, even if it does throw our day-to-day into chaos. As we adjust to life on lockdown, we're casting cynicism out with COVID-19 and probing into positive psychology. Can we cultivate an attitude of gratitude? Try these simple exercises.

Did you well up when the UK collectively got off its self-isolated sofa and clapped for NHS workers battling the coronavirus? Our hearts were bursting. That's the power of gratitude.

When times are tough, being told to be thankful can have the sting of an insult. Yet we're not reaching for the rose-tinted glasses here. Life isn't perfect. Gratitude simply hones our focus on the things that should be celebrated. Whether that's unsung heroes of the current crisis - healthcare workers, supermarket staff, delivery drivers - or the fact that you can enjoy a longer lie-in each morning.

The word "gratitude" comes from the Latin "gratia", meaning both graciousness and gratefulness. It shows appreciation for the things we receive - tangible or not - and in turn, recognises that goodness comes from outside of us, be it through other people, from nature or even a higher power, if you're so inclined.

The concept has been bandied around for millennia. "Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others" mused Cicero in the 1st century BCE. A century later, Roman senator Seneca embraced the spirit of stoic gratitude in the face of mortal suffering. Most major religions - Theravāda Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism - also espouse thankfulness as an integral step to enlightenment.

Today, the emotion has become the poster child of positive psychology and a go-to for self-help types. Over the past decade, led by California-based professor of psychology Dr Robert Emmons, scientists have found a correlation between gratitude and wellbeing. It's a boon for our mind and bodies they say; it's armour against stress and depression, a shortcut to more fulfilling relationships and better immunity, a natural remedy for sleepless nights, a boost for feelings of hope and happiness and a helping hand for our own self-worth. Of course, this isn't intended to negate professional medical help, but when we're feeling down, anxious, overwhelmed or all of the above, gratitude can be a great way to lift the spirits.

We're not the only ones caving to this joy-breeds-joy law of attraction. Richard Branson and Arianna Huffington are among the big names claiming that gratitude is the ticket to the good life. "Be thankful for what you have; you'll end up having more," writes Oprah Winfrey. "If you concentrate on what you don't have, you will never, ever have enough." Lady O reportedly writes a list of things for which she's thankful each day. "Eating cold melon on a bench in the sun." "Maya Angelou calling to read me a new poem." You get the gist.

Yet gratitude doesn't come easy. Our survival instincts focus on that which could harm us, while our minds are hardwired to like newness and novelty. We get caught in the vicious cycle of thinking "if only I had ___ I'd be happy" or "if only I didn't have to deal with ___ I'd be content". But realistically, how long does the buzz of a new spouse or house, a pay rise or shedding a couple of kilos really last?

The cynics in us bemoan the commodification of gratitude, too; that feeling needn't come with a price tag. You know what, though? If you need a £9.99 "happiness journal", a mug emblazoned with an inspirational quote or a monthly subscription to an app that gets you into the habit of jotting down a few bullet points, go for it. You do you.

In a world of haves and have nots, gratitude is a go-to for those that have had enough. It's a glass-half-full frame of mind - and lord knows that most of us could do with a gulp of that right now.

An attitude of gratitude in five simple steps

Some of these methods may feel contrived or cringeworthy, but it's believed that with regular practice - as with deepening your crow pose or polishing Spanish tenses - our capacity for thankfulness will come that little easier.

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Count your blessings

There are things that many of us take for granted: jobs, homes, family, three meals a day. More essential still we have a heart and lungs and opposable thumbs and all manner of cells and gristly bits that keep us ticking. Yes, we're tiptoeing into miracle-of-life territory, but it's pretty sunny over here. Of course, gratefulness can be found in little things too, whether that's a good hair day, a fresh drop of films on Netflix or your flatmate (finally) taking the bins out. #Blessed.

Try compiling a list first thing in the morning instead of scrolling through Instagram, or take stock as you wind down before bed. Jot them down. Say them out loud. Make it part of your daily routine or set aside a few minutes every Sunday. Aiming for five bullet points works well for us.

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Say thank you

Gratitude is a social emotion. Not only does it affirm goodness, but it also makes us see how that goodness has been supported by others. Who or what makes you happy? Write a note to a friend who makes you belly laugh, call that aunt who never forgets your birthday, hug a tree or, indeed, cheer health workers from your doorstep. It can be incredibly cathartic.

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Make visual reminders

One of the most common obstacles to gratitude is simply forgetting - being mindful of our feelings 24/7 is hard. Post-Its or photos are the most commonly used visual cues, but objects can also help refocus the mind and tap into those gratitude reserves too.

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Keep a gratitude journal

Consider this a longer-winded version of counting your blessings. Journalling will really flex your gratitude muscle. Think about ordinary events, your own attributes or valued people who contribute to your personal ecosystem.

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Perform an act of kindness

A small, often unnoticed act of altruism has been proven to boost your natural tendency towards gratefulness and spread the #positivevibes, whether it's "paying it forward" in a coffee shop, picking up litter or simply checking in on someone in need.