Gratitude Meditation and Similar Practices

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Gratitude Meditation and Similar Practices

THC Editorial Team June 26, 2021
Photo by Timon Studler on Unsplash (article on gratitude meditation)
Photo by Timon Studler on Unsplash

Contents

What Is Gratitude Meditation?

Gratitude meditation is the practice of mindfully reflecting on life through a lens of positivity and appreciation.1 Different forms of meditation have historically played an important role in many major world religions and throughout a vast array of cultures. The practice of meditation arose in India around 3000 BCE as a part of Hindu tradition. The trade network known as the Silk Road helped spread meditation throughout the world. The first meditation hall was erected in Japan in the 7th century CE. Many religions, such as Judaism, adopted meditation as a type of prayer. Modernly, it is practiced in both religious and secular contexts.2 Although meditation has lingered on the outskirts of mainstream medical and clinical practices, the benefits of both meditation and gratitude are becoming more commonly acknowledged by practitioners and scientists alike.3

Between the demands of day-to-day life and the pressure of keeping up with local and worldwide news, life can be stressful. Those who are stressed and unhappy experience decreased life satisfaction and emotion regulation and can even face cognitive impairments.4 Research suggests that finding a way to appreciate and reflect on life’s gifts each day can go a long way toward increasing happiness and awareness,5 strengthening relationships,6 and improving outlook.7 Some studies suggest that gratitude practice can even support the body in several ways, such as decreasing stress and promoting healthy sleep patterns.8

Although some people assume that gratitude meditation solely promotes appreciating the good things in life, a well-rounded gratitude practice also promotes discovering positive aspects of life’s challenges.

How Are Gratitude Meditation and Mindfulness Related?

Gratitude can be defined as a feeling of appreciation,9 and meditation as a state of quiet reflection and contemplation.10 So, what is mindfulness? In the past, mindfulness has been defined by different people as everything from a Buddhist-inspired meditation practice11 to simple awareness.12

In their book Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World, Mark Williams, and Danny Penman suggest that it is the way people respond to negative emotions—rather than the emotions themselves—that disrupt mental health.13

When someone feels a negative emotion such as sadness or anger, their first instinct is often to react with anxiety or assume that something is wrong. This can be especially true in certain Western cultures, where people are taught that their ability to create happiness in life is a measure of personal success. When people listen to and buy into anxiety over experiencing an unpleasant emotion, it only results in even more unfavorable emotions. This can lead to an unending spiral of self-talk that plays like an internal record on repeat.13 Williams and Penman would argue that mindfulness is the solution to this spiral.13 

Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer, who has researched mindfulness for decades, says:14

Mindfulness is the process of actively noticing new things. When you do that, it puts you in the present. It makes you more sensitive to context and perspective. It’s the essence of engagement. And it’s energy-begetting, not energy-consuming. The mistake most people make is to assume it’s stressful and exhausting—all this thinking. But what’s stressful is all the mindless negative evaluations we make and the worry that we’ll find problems and not be able to solve them.

Langer’s definition highlights the idea that people can actively increase their ability to notice new things by centering the mind in the present moment. This is an interesting paradox that suggests that quieting one’s mind through meditation can free them to practice mindfulness by listening and focusing more actively.

Even if you can’t stop the triggering of unhappy memories, negative self-talk, and judgmental ways of thinking, you can affect what happens next. You can center and refocus on the present to stop the vicious circle from feeding off itself and triggering the next spiral of negative thoughts.13

A benefit of practicing gratitude is that it can help reframe negative situations and circumstances positively. By taking a deep breath and shutting off the negative tapes of the mind, people can free themselves to look at their emotions and challenges from a new perspective. 15 In this way, a mindful gratitude meditation session can help people notice the positive aspects of challenges. Rather than looking at challenging situations as mere problems, a gratitude meditation can enhance the ability to see them as opportunities. When viewed in this light, you could even take the chance to thank the universe for sending individual lessons that inspire growth.

Three Gratitude Meditation Practices for Every Day

There are a wide variety of techniques you can use to establish a gratitude meditation practice. Three popular, time-honored techniques include the use of mantras, guided gratitude meditation, and the practice of writing in a gratitude journal each day.

Try to set aside time each morning to start your day with a session of deep breathing and a meditation practice that leaves you feeling light, grateful, and ready to carry positivity into your day.

Grateful Mantra Meditation 

One way that practitioners have been cultivating gratitude for centuries is through the art of mantras. This type of meditation practice involves focusing on a word or phrase for a set length of time.

The first known mantras were composed in India and are at least 3,500 years old.16 While mantras have long held a sacred significance in India, they have also been historically utilized in various other faiths of both Eastern and Western origin.

In modern times, mantras have become a popular form of meditation around the world. Studies have shown that mantra meditation has been effective in lowering stress levels. A 2021 study conducted by researchers from the University of Rajasthan in India found that when undergraduate medical students were asked to participate in a 3-week meditation program that involved mantras and creative visualization, they reported reduced stress.17

While some prefer to use a mantra from their native language, others prefer to use sacred languages such as Sanskrit. This is a personal choice, but the important thing is that you seek a deep understanding and embodiment of whatever mantra you choose.

To use mantras to cultivate gratitude, just follow a few simple steps. Before you begin, decide on a mantra you want to use throughout your meditation. While you can use any word or phrase that’s helpful to you, in any language, here are a few choices to help you get started in both Sanskrit and English:

  • Dhanya Vad: I feel gratitude.
  • Ananda Hum: I am bliss.
  • Kritajna Hum: I am gratitude.

Alternately, you can use the phrase “I am grateful for…” and follow it with different words either after each repetition or after a certain number of breaths.

The goal of mantras in gratitude meditation is to focus on gratitude and positivity and internalize them. It is not simply repeating the words but breathing deeply and freeing your mind to embrace the mantra’s true sound, meaning, and essence.

Here are some guidelines for when you are ready to start your meditation:

1. Set aside a specific amount of time each day, preferably in the morning, in a place where you can get relaxed and be sure you won’t be disturbed.

2. Begin by taking a deep breath through your nose, allowing your lungs to fill completely with air. Slowly release the breath through your mouth.

3. Continue taking deep breaths. Mindfully notice the air traveling in through your nose and out through your mouth. As you continue to breathe, allow your mind to quiet and feel yourself start to center.

4. When you feel ready, begin to incorporate the mantra of your choice by saying it aloud each time you exhale. Notice the vibrations your chosen mantra produces, and start to reflect on its meaning or guidance.

5. Each time you repeat the mantra, attempt to focus on it entirely. Feel the sounds of each word as you utter them.

6. Repeat the practice for as long as you like.

This practice of deeply focusing on the things you are grateful for is integral to your gratitude meditation. Adopting these affirmations helps reframe the mindset toward positivity and gratitude.

The following is an excerpt from Gratitude Prayer, by Louise L. Hay, a pioneer of the modern self-help movement, from the book Gratitude: A Way of Life:18

Deep at the center of my being there is an infinite well of gratitude. I now allow this gratitude to fill my heart, my body, my mind, my consciousness, my very being. This gratitude radiates out from me in all directions, touching everything in my world, and returns to me as more to be grateful for… I am grateful for Life now and forever more.

Guided Meditation 

Guided gratitude meditation is also a great way to enjoy the many benefits of meditation and gratitude alike. Each gratitude meditation is unique in its own way. While some encourage listeners to be grateful for often overlooked blessings, others may encourage shifts in perspective. Guided meditation involves entering a meditative state and allowing the mind to follow the voice of a teacher or other meditation guide. This form of meditation is helpful because it often provides sensory stimulation, such as images, ideas, and feelings to focus on. Those who are new to meditation might opt for this method because of its instructional nature.19 Such gratitude meditations can help guide participants to acknowledge blessings that are commonly taken for granted. Guided meditation can be a particularly great choice for those who find it challenging to practice styles of meditation that require sitting in silence. Rather than attempting to quiet your inner voice and mind, a guided meditation merely requires your mind to listen and follow the guide’s voice.

Guided meditations that focus on gratitude will lead you through a series of thoughts that acknowledge a range of things you may be grateful for in your life. Depending on the unique gratitude meditation you use, you may be encouraged to be grateful for things such as:

  • food and water
  • the ability to sleep under a roof each night and wake up in a warm bed each morning
  • your five senses, which give you constant access to the world around you
  • your family and loved ones
  • your ability to make money
  • your pets
  • the present moment

Gratitude meditations that help people shift their perspectives encourage practitioners to be thankful for people and events such as the following:

  • people in your life who have taught you who you don’t want to be
  • challenging lessons you learned in the past that made you into the person you are today
  • constant changes that add an element of adventure to your life
  • unanswered prayers that could have had unforeseen consequences

If you’re curious to learn more about the rewards of a guided gratitude meditation practice, there are several different outlets you can explore. The first is to sign up for a class in which a live teacher will serve as your meditation guide.

Alternately, you’ll discover that many meditation leaders post guided meditations online. You can download apps such as Insight Timer, which offers thousands of free guided meditations, or even find great options on YouTube simply by searching “guided gratitude meditation.”

Gratitude Journal

Putting your gratitude on paper is also an effective means of achieving the benefits that gratitude has to offer. Gratitude journaling is the simple act of listing things for which you are grateful. This can bring you better health and happiness.20 Research suggests that gratitude journaling can help cope with stress, increase sleep quality, and promote prosocial behaviors such as generosity.21

For example, in one study, Emmons and McCullough of the University of California and the University of Miami, respectively, assigned groups of participants to one of three 10-week writing assignments. The first group was asked to write about things they were grateful for each week, the second group was asked to write about daily irritations, and the third group was asked to write about things that had affected them in general.21

Each group was also asked to keep track of their moods, physical symptoms, health behaviors, life outlook, and coping behaviors. At the end of the study, the group assigned to gratitude journaling exhibited higher positive benefits across several areas, including optimism and life outlook. They even showed the tendency to exercise more.21

To test out the benefits for yourself, set aside a few moments to commit your gratitude to paper every day. Each day, attempt to list at least three things in your life you are grateful for. You can record everything from major events, such as a job promotion, to something as simple as food, clothing, or shelter. The content of your lists doesn’t matter as much as your commitment to taking the time to reflect and think about how grateful you are for each list item. Focusing on gratitude in this way stimulates the parts of the brain that are responsible for gratefulness and leads to feelings of joy and increased altruism.22

Although you can use any notebook for this kind of practice, various gratitude journals are available for purchase. There are even free online gratitude journals that allow you to privately post about the things you are grateful for each day.

Potential Benefits of Gratitude Meditation

The benefits of gratitude meditation on the body, the mind, and relationships have been well documented through extensive research. In particular, studies from a range of fields, such as psychology and evolutionary biology, have shown that a regular gratitude meditation practice can result in the following:

  • increased happiness and satisfaction with life
  • higher self-esteem7,23
  • increased focus, awareness, and ability to live in the moment
  • a heightened sense of purpose and meaning
  • strengthened support of physical health24
  • better decision-making skills
  • increased motivation and productivity
  • reduction in stress25
  • increased feelings of kindness and compassion
  • enhanced ability to rest and cultivate healthy sleep patterns
  • strengthened social intelligence skills and relationships
  • increased resilience that supports mental health recovery

The benefits of gratitude and meditation can be a powerful combination to improve well-being on a holistic level. Not only does practicing gratitude produce a variety of personal benefits, but studies suggest that its effects can also extend to those around us.

One study conducted by Francesca Gino of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Adam M. Grant of the University of Pennsylvania demonstrates how simply saying “thank you” or otherwise showing appreciation to others can, in turn, inspire them to be kinder to people in their own lives. Simple comments that acknowledge someone else’s helpfulness can help them feel valued.26

Summary

In essence, gratitude meditation can be a powerful tool for cultivating joy in people’s lives and those of others. Regularly practicing conscious moments of gratitude can teach people to experience greater appreciation throughout the day and increase the likelihood of passing their own joy on to others.

References

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  2. Chow, S. (2021, March 18). Meditation history. News Medical.
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    https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760903157182
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