Going through tough times is an inevitable part of life. We’ve all experienced varying challenges in some form or another, ranging from job loss, relationship problems to chronic illness. It goes without saying that experiences like these can leave us feeling overwhelmed, lost and in despair. 

Seeing that difficult situations are an inevitable part of the human experience, learning to cope is an invaluable life skill to have. And experts are telling us that gratitude may be one of the best ways to protect ourselves emotionally and mentally when the storm hits.

What is gratitude and why is it good for us?

Experts define the two defining characteristics of gratitude as:

  1. Recognising and appreciating the positive events or things in one’s life
  2. Acknowledging that the source of these good things are external (at least partially) from oneself

Gratitude is a universal human experience, and is both felt and expressed by people across cultures and religions. It’s no wonder that multiple research studies have consistenly shown how it’s positive effects impact us in various ways. 

For example, this study demonstrated that when we reflect on the good things in life, our general sense of well-being also increases. And if you ever feel like you tend to “forget” positive experiences quickly, gratitude actually helps the positive emotions to linger around a little longer. 

How gratitude helps us build resilience

And the benefits of resilience doesn’t just stop when things are going well in life. A recent study conducted by Georgia Southern University has taken the study of gratitude even further by demonstrating that it actually helps us to build resilience  —  the ability to thrive under tough circumstances. 

In this study, participants were divided into two groups  —  one performed a gratitude task, while the others didn’t. Those that underwent a gratitude intervention were asked to mindfully recall things they were grateful for. The results of the study showed that participants who performed the gratitude task reported more emotional coping skills based on a survey, compared to those that didn’t perform the task. 

As to why gratitude makes us more resilient, the answer is twofold. Firstly, positive emotions like gratefulness help us to widen our mental openness and creativity. “The idea is that our minds actually work better when we are grateful — allowing us to be more creative, more optimistic, and more capable in our endeavors,” says clinical psychologist, Dr. Lillian Nejad

Secondly, a grateful mindset is also more likely to encourage help-seeking behavior. “Grateful people are more likely to seek support, utilise the resources available to them and approach problems directly and with a positive outlook. They also try to find the potential for learning and growth.” says Dr. Nejad. “Because grateful people use effective coping skills, they are less stressed when problems arise.”

4 ways to practice gratitude

Practicing gratitude doesn’t have to be an elaborate exercise. There are many simple ways to cultivate a habit of gratitude, as explained by Dr. Nejad  —  many of which can be easily incorporated into our daily lives:

1. Practice mindful gratitude

One of the best ways to start cultivating an attitude of mindfulness is to start thinking intentionally about things you’re grateful for.

“Do a gratitude mindfulness exercise, even two minutes a day, focusing on what you are grateful for can make a difference to your emotional well-being and have a positive effect on the structure and function of your brain,” says Dr. Nejad.

2. Have daily gratitude conversations

“When you talk to your family or friends, ask questions that lead to a grateful perspective,” says Dr. Nejad. “You can do this directly by making it part of a daily ritual. For example, during a family meal to ask everyone to name one thing that they were grateful for that day.” 

She adds that a more subtle approach may also be taken by asking them what was the best part of their day in a casual conversation, and then sharing your own experiences.

3. Start a gratitude journal

Sometimes the act of writing can help us to turn abstract thoughts into concrete ideas. So why not apply that to your gratitude practices? 

“Write down three new things a day that you are grateful for and one positive event your experienced during the day,” suggests Dr. Nejad.

4. Give back to others

Lastly, we often spend so much of our time looking internally and evaluating ourselves. Doing something positive for others is a really good way to help us look beyond ourselves and our own personal circumstances.

“It’s easy to get frustrated by your daily demands and forget how fortunate you are, says Dr. Nejad. “Make a difference in others’ lives through thoughtful and generous acts like: actively participating in fundraising opportunities or volunteering.”