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Carolina psychologist Andrea Hussong writes about empathy and offers practical ways to practice gratitude in our lives.

Prompts like a small heart drawn on your wrist can help you practice gratitude. (Photo by Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)
Prompts like a small heart drawn on your wrist can help you practice gratitude. (Photo by Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

When we feel in control and are acutely aware of our success, we can overlook how other factors may have contributed to that success. Factors such as other people, social or racial privilege, luck or serendipity and — for those who believe — divine intervention.

But, by doing so, we miss opportunities to understand the world beyond our front door. A world struggling with diversity, equity, inclusion and justice. We rob ourselves of others’ powerful perspectives that flex our thinking and enrich our problem solving. And we fail to experience the incredible gifts that others offer us, whether or not we pay attention, each day. Our rigorous individualism may not only over-emphasize the “I” in accomplishment but also deprive us of the critical social need for connection.

This creates a societal poison.

One antidote to this poison is practicing gratitude. Many popular practices of gratitude focus on giving — mixing the idea of what happens to us when we deeply receive something with acts of generosity, volunteerism, civic engagement and activism. Although these acts may be ways that we pay forward to others the kindness shown to us that engenders the experience of gratitude, they may or may not be ways to practice gratitude itself. As a six-year-old in the Raising Grateful Child study at UNC said, “She said thank you, but she didn’t mean it.”

Practicing gratitude may look similar on the outside to these pay-it-forward actions and other ways that we show appreciation. But, unless those practices are motivated by thoughts and feelings that come with noticing the role of others in the good things that enter our lives, they fall short of gratitude. The trick is to set aside the need to protect our own sense of self, of identity, long enough take in others.

But it can be hard. Especially now. Especially when the good things in our lives are hard to see. Many things that we might usually do to practice gratitude still apply. Across a range of ways to practice gratitude, my colleagues and I note four skills: NOTICE-THINK-FEEL-DO.

  • Notice what you have in your life or has come into your life, no matter how small.
  • Think about why you have received this gift, who played a role in making it possible and why they did so.
  • Feel the positive emotions that come with receiving from others and connecting them to the real gift — the kindness, generosity or love that someone else has shown you.
  • Then do something to express your appreciation.

You can enact these four steps through meditation, journaling, writing letters, making time to talk with friends, sharing at the dinner table or other ways. Each flexes your gratitude muscles. But doing them, and benefitting from them, may require greater intention when things are tough.

Here are five intentional ways to build your NOTICE-THINK-FEEL-DO skills.

  1. Seek quiet. Unplug from negative messages that focus on what we don’t have and what we never received. Take a time-out from news feeds, social media and conversations with friends and family that are critical and condemning. By quieting these voices, we have space to hear others. You don’t have to meditate, but taking a break from the barrage invites new possibilities.
  2. Savor a memory. Do you remember a time when you felt grateful? What prompted your gratitude? Why did this gift come into your life? How did it make you feel? Is there a way that you can express that feeling to someone in your life? By practicing on a memory, we get better at noticing in the present.
  3. Don’t do it alone. This is an isolating time, and turning off negative thoughts or finding something to be happy about can be challenging without help. Ask a friend about their experiences of gratitude. Ask them to dig in, with details of what they notice, think and feel and how they show appreciation. Taking in a friend’s words and lived experiences is one way we learn all kinds of things about the world.
  4. Do it by rote, aka — fake it ’til you make it. There are journals and online platforms and many tools for helping you think about gratitude moments in your life. If trying to call up gratitude moments feels like a cheap pair of rose-colored glasses, then don’t go for the feelings. Not yet. Just notice. And act. Our thoughts and feelings are how we make meaning out of what we receive. We don’t have to always have that deep meaning to get started. In fact, we think that little kids start just the same way — by noticing and acting. People usually like to receive gratitude, so the rewards generally speak for themselves.
  5. Prompt it. I like to draw a little heart on the inside of my wrist, something I copy from my teenage daughters. My eyes catch the heart when I am typing at my computer. It serves as a reminder that I can easily access several times a day. A reminder for what makes me grateful. Prompts can be a favorite mug, a picture, a quote — anything that speaks to you or breaks your automatic reflexes during the day so that you can take that first step and notice.

A few sources for gratitude that I find helpful include:

  • The Greater Good Science Center has a wealth of good information about gratitude and other topics.
  • Oliver Saks 2015 book “Gratitude” is a heart-opener.
  • The On Being Project, by Krista Tippett, is an American Public Media Podcast with several episodes that touch on gratitude.

By Andrea Hussong (@andreahussong), a professor in the psychology and neuroscience department in Carolina’s College of Arts & Sciences, who writes about gratitude and other subjects on her blog.

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