The Gratitude Gap and 10 Ways to Practice Gratitude

Monday November 7, 2022

Gratitude is potent self-care. In part 2 of our Gratitude deep-dive, Rb survivor Abby White explores “the gratitude gap” – a big challenge that’s easy to overcome when we know about it.  Plus how this knowledge can help children develop gratitude skills early.  And 10 varied ways to practice and strengthen gratitude year-round, during the Holidays, and even in hard times.

In part one of this article, we looked at what gratitude is and its many benefits, how it can be misused and cause harm, and how we can practice gratitude in tough times.

Two hands reach up into the sky and appear to be holding the sun. The sky is a beautiful canvas of pink and purple hues.

Thoughts powerfully influence our mood.  A single thought can quickly leach colour away – or its light can fill us with radiant joy.  Gratitude may be one of the most potent ways we can support our health and wellbeing, and it’s a skill and practice anyone can learn.  When we understand the few key challenges to experiencing gratitude, we will be well equipped to overcome them, to teach children this important skill, and to make it a regular part of our life.

What is The Gratitude Gap?

As described in part one of this two-part series, gratitude has two elements:

Inward: appreciating the gifts, blessings, and lessons that positively shape our life.

Outward: recognizing that many of these positives come from sources outside ourselves; acknowledging their impact, and showing appreciation.

Gratitude can radically improve quality of life when we are busy and stressed.  Yet we tend to give the least mind to it at these times.  We’re so caught up in daily demands that we fail to notice gratitude-inducing experiences, or to express gratitude we do feel.

There’s another big gap between parts one and two.  While being grateful is almost universally viewed as important, most people believe that showing gratitude is either unnecessary, problematic, difficult to do, or will not be well received.

Reasons for this differ.  Do any of the following resonate with you?

The person I’m grateful for:

  • Won’t appreciate my gesture of gratitude.
  • Won’t recognize or value my efforts and achievements.
  • Will think I can’t help myself.
  • Will think I’m too emotional or clingy.
  • Will think I’m trying to manipulate them.
  • Will think I “owe them” because of how I value them/their gift.

I will:

  • Be embarrassed if my gratitude isn’t appreciated.
  • Undermine my own efforts, achievements, and independence.
  • Put in less effort to support myself / pursue what matters to me.
  • Draw attention to my vulnerability / reliance on others.
  • Feel more guilt that I had to ask for / accept help.
  • Feel more indebted by focusing on how much I needed the support.

Leading gratitude researcher Robert Emmons addresses some of these concerns in the video below.

During the most challenging times, it’s no surprise that we focus less on the good things in life and find it hard to cultivate gratitude.  Yet it is at precisely these times that a little inward and outward gratitude can soothe the soul.

Now that we know about the gratitude gap, and why it happens, we can develop simple ways to overcome it.  Even in the darkest times, small actions can help strengthen this important mental muscle.

How Can We Help Children Develop Gratitude?

Gratitude can be a potent coping tool for stressed children.  When they experience extended isolation due to illness or events like recent pandemic lockdowns, gratitude can help connect them with other people in thought and action, as well as supporting their mental and physical health.

The skill and mental state of gratitude evolves over time as children develop emotional maturity.  Research shows that children under six years old express gratitude about 20% of the time.  At this age, they begin to rapidly develop empathy, which enables them to understand other people’s experiences.  We need the empathetic perspective to truly value people’s actions, and be aware of how our response will make them feel.  By age 10, children express gratitude for gifts about 80% of the time.

Teaching gratitude may be a slow process with young children.  Set reasonable expectations as you help your child develop their own gratitude habit.  The more they practice gratitude, the more skilled they will become, and the more they will benefit.

Practice Gratitude

Modelling gratitude is the best way to teach it because children take their cues from the people they look up to and feel safe with.  Tell your children when you notice the joy they bring you, and their kindness to others.  For example, when they share a toy, gently pet the dog, offer comfort, or give a compliment.  Describe what you’ve noticed, and how it makes you feel, and thank them often.

Let them witness when you serve and support others, and when you show gratitude for other people and things.  Find ways you can together share kindness with other people, just because doing so delights the soul.  Children will copy what you do, and need good examples to follow.

Chores and Responsibilities

Age appropriate household tasks are also valuable learning tools.  Children come to understand and value the work that goes into maintaining the home.  They experience a little of the effort you invest in keeping them safe, clean, clothed, fed, and happy.  They learn the importance of teamwork as each family member does their part to help, and they develop appreciation for the often unseen things other people do for them.  As they receive gratitude for their contributions, their own gratitude awareness evolves.

Children and the Gratitude Gap

Most children are taught to say “thank you” for gifts, services, and help they receive.  Through their own experience, they learn that people feel happy and valued when they receive appreciation.  But it’s important to separate the good manners of giving thanks when teaching children about gratitude and how they can practice it.

In the video below from the 2014 Greater Good Gratitude Summit, Developmental Scientist and Clinical Psychologist Dr.  Andrea Hussong discusses how parents can help children learn gratitude.  She notes that in her research, most parents focus heavily on encouraging expressions of gratitude, with little or no time given to noticing the good things, or the thoughts and feelings they generate.  She describes a three-step approach that can help children learn these key concepts of gratitude that set it apart from basic good manners.

  1. Awareness: Noticing the gifts, support, and help they receive.
  2. Meaning making: Describing what they think and feel about those good things.
  3. Behaviour: Expressing gratitude for the people, things, and experiences they value.

Focusing on all three steps in turn helps children learn about, and develop, genuine gratitude.  For example, rather than telling a child they should be grateful for the gift they received and say thank you for it, this model looks like:

  1. Awareness: “What a lovely gift! That was a very kind thing for Grandma to do.  She really cares about you and wants you to feel better.”
  2. Meaning making: “I can see you’re smiling – what are you thinking?” Or “How does it make you feel?” Younger children may need help to name their emotions as they describe or act out what they feel.
  3. Behaviour: “Do you want to let Grandma know how much her gift has helped? How would you like to do that?”  Encourage children to find their own heartfelt way to express their appreciation, offering suggestions if needed (e.g.  make a card, create some art, write a poem, bake/cook something, call or visit to say thank you).

As they add meaning to the good things in their life, children may also feel and express hard emotions, just as adults do.  This process supports emotional growth, and helping children to safely hold pain and gratitude together also teaches them how to avoid the dangers of toxic positivity.

True gratitude is often tinged with sadness, anger, guilt, grief, worry, fear, and fatigue.  But it also brings joy and light and hope.  And especially when children take the lead, its expression can be wonderfully creative, exuberant, quirky, colourful, tasty, messy fun.

10 Ways to Cultivate a Regular Gratitude Practice

The act of deliberately noticing and expressing gratitude may feel contrived at first.  Regular practice is key to nurturing this mental state so it becomes a natural process.

There are many ways to do this.  Here are some suggestions to begin.  They can all be used year-round, and with children.  They can also be adopted for the Holidays to create a festive gratitude tradition.

1. Keep a Gratitude Journal

Journaling involves recording the things we are grateful for.  Approaches vary, but all prompt us to reflect on something good we have received or experienced.  Be specific about your thoughts, feelings, and sensations when recalling the experience.

Sometimes this process stirs up difficult thoughts and feelings, and this is where gratitude journaling can really nurture growth.  It helps us gently lean into our thoughts, feelings, and experiences, rather than pushing them away.  As we draw them into the light with curiosity and compassion, we deepen our self-awareness.  It also allows us to look back at previous entries, and appreciate how much we have grown.

Some examples of journaling activities:

  • Describe a highlight from the day – what happened, where, with whom, and why was it so meaningful?
  • Describe a special person in your life – who they are, how you met, and why they are so significant to you today.
  • List three things you’re grateful for today – what each is, how it came into your life, and why it matters to you.
  • Use a writing prompt, such as: Where do you feel most peaceful / energized / happy, and why? You can find many prompts like this online, or choose your own.
  • Young children can draw or craft in a journal to express their gratitude.

How you journal is up to you too.  Options include:

  • A beautiful blank journal to be used only for gratitude practice.
  • A published gratitude journal designed with prompts for every day of the year.
  • A gratitude app.
  • Record voice memos.
  • Dictate entries into a notes app.

Maintaining a gratitude note on your phone makes it easy to record moments of gratitude throughout the day that you can return to later.

Many gratitude advocates recommend daily journaling.  While a few minutes of daily reflection can be very beneficial, it isn’t helpful or practical for everyone – especially at very busy times or during high stress.

Find the rhythm that works for you.  For example, writing in your journal every three days or once a week.  If you’re in a rough place, and journaling stirs feelings of indebtedness and guilt, focus your writing on less stressful things, like a location where you feel calm, or a single object that delights you, and the memories attached to it.

A single magenta pink rose blooms bright against green foliage, and large, vicious-looking thons grow along its stem. Text reads: “We can discard the rose because it has thorns. And we can honor the thorns because they help grow the rose”.

2. Grow the Rose

This lovely three-step exercise invites us to actively notice and express difficult experiences, thoughts, and feelings alongside the good.

  1. Rose: What went well today, and why am I grateful for it?
  2. Thorn: What was hard about today? Why?
  3. Bud: What one thing can I work on to make tomorrow better? Or What am I looking forward to tomorrow?

3. Gratitude Jar

Whenever you notice something good or you feel grateful, note it on a piece of paper and put it in a jar.  Write a few lines about the person, thing, or experience, reflecting on how it impacted you, and how you feel.  Keep a notepad and pen ready by the jar.

During the festive season, add at least one gratitude note every day to create a Festive Gratitude Jar you can revisit throughout next year’s Holidays.

When you use this practice throughout the year, take a little time each week to re-read and reflect on some of the good things in your life.  This is a great way to nurture a gratitude culture in your family, and to learn more about each other’s experiences.

When you feel low, pick a piece of paper from the jar, and reconnect with something you have already appreciated.  Simple pleasures that you may otherwise forget.

4. Meditate

There are various ways to meditate on gratitude – here are two of the easiest.

Mindful Nature Meditation

Mindfulness involves focusing on the present moment without judgment.  A nature meditation is a simple way to engage all our senses, and notice things for which we are grateful.  This is possible whether we are walking down a city street, hiking a country trail, walking the dog in our neighbourhood park, or simply sitting at an open window.

Pay attention to your breath, to what you see, hear, smell, taste, and feel around you.  What are your senses telling you?  What you are truly feeling?  Can you identify one thing for each sense that brings you joy or comfort?

Focusing on what our senses encounter anchors us in the present moment, releasing our mind from internal chatter.  It reduces the temptation to create a falsely positive story, while keeping us connected with all our genuine feelings.  It raises awareness of the beauty around and within us, and the gratitude we hold for those things.

Guided Gratitude Meditation

Guided meditation is a mindfulness tool that aids relaxation while focusing on something specific.  Recorded meditation sequences ease the listener into a meditative state.  The host talks through the process step by step, with easy to follow instructions for breathing and visualisation.  You can simply listen, let go of the day and all burdens, and rest in the moment.  As you follow the instructions, you will become less focused on troubling thoughts and feelings that can prevent your connection with gratitude.

When you listen to guided gratitude meditation at bedtime, the soothing effects will likely lull you into asleep before the session ends, with little or no recollection of it in the morning.  Many people find it most helpful to use guided gratitude meditation as a seated or walking practice during the day.  Doing any gratitude meditation in the morning sets you up well for the day ahead.

Here is a short guided gratitude meditation. Many are available for free on YouTube and podcasts like Meditation Minis. As well as samples of tracks available for purchase via apps, and audiobook stores.

5. Pray

Gratitude is central to prayer across all faiths.  Whatever higher power you believe in, expressing gratitude can evoke profound appreciation, awe, and peace.  Prayerful reflection creates space to marvel at the gifts and miracles of life, from the breadth of the cosmos to the calm of this next breath.

6. Reverse Gratitude

Think about a key turning point in your life that has led to something good, and imagine how your life would be without that important experience.  Research shows this practice of “mental subtraction” deepens the sense of having a meaningful life, and appreciation for the people, possessions, experiences, and lessons that bring good our way.

This exercise neatly harnesses the human habit of comparison.  It avoids the harmful effects of comparing with others by inviting us to deliberately create an imagined version of ourselves against which to compare our current self.  In this way, we can develop a deeper appreciation for the events that have positively shaped our lives.

7. Replace Sorry with Thank You

Words and their meaning matter!  Many people (including me) say “sorry” far too often, loading it with self-critical subtext.  Think about how saying “thank you” instead can change a conversation.  It shows appreciation for the other person, rather than heaping unjustified guilt on ourselves.  This small change can boost our own gratitude, and reduce our negative self-talk.

For example, if you’re declining an invitation or request for help, consider replacing “I’m sorry I can’t do that because…” with “thank you so much for asking me.  Right now I’m fully committed, but I truly appreciate that you thought of me.”  I’ve used this very statement several times recently, with genuine sentiment, and each conversation felt more respectful and enjoyable than an awkward, guilt-ridden “sorry”.

8. Show Appreciation for Others and Yourself

Write a gratitude letter telling someone how much you value them, just as they are – their personality, outlook, friendship etc.  Be specific and genuine.  For example, describe how their sunny disposition or quiet presence lifts you up, or what the quality time you share means to you.  Tell them about the impact they’ve had on your life.

Send your letter, or hand-deliver it.  Some research suggests that reading a gratitude letter aloud to the recipient has the strongest positive impact for both parties.

Don’t forget yourself!  Regularly writing a gratitude letter to yourself can be a powerful way to nurture self-compassion and self-love, especially in tough times.

Aim to send at least one gratitude letter a month to yourself or to an individual, organization, or business making a positive difference in your life.

Daily pressures often mean we don’t have time to write to the people who bring goodness into our lives.  But we can still gain much peace from the simple act of thinking about that person as we go about our day.  Send them thoughts of gratitude, and hold them up in the quiet of your heart.

9. Do Random Acts of Kindness

This is a selfless act of giving in which the giver may remain anonymous, and never expects anything in return.  Create a list of small actions you can do alone or together as a family.  You could write each one on a separate piece of paper, place them in a jar, and pull one out to do once a week or throughout the Holidays.  Random acts of kindness generate positive feelings for both giver and recipient, and strengthen our connections – even when the gesture remains anonymous.

10. Volunteer

Reflecting on our own circumstances and experiences can motivate us to volunteer, and volunteering inspires deeper reflection, while nurturing compassion for others.  Research also finds that volunteering improves health and brain function.  Purposefully doing something good for others releases the happy hormone, dopamine, and the love hormone, oxytocin, deepening human connection and an overall sense of wellbeing.

Volunteering comes in many forms.  A few examples are:

  • Giving physical items to a project.
  • Donating to someone’s fundraiser.
  • Planning and hosting a fundraiser.
  • Participating in a sponsored event and gathering donations.
  • Short-term or one-off volunteering to support a specific event.
  • Regular volunteering with a specific charitable service or institution.
  • Serving on a charity’s advisory panel, sub-committee, or Board of Directors.

When your children witness, or participate in your volunteering, explain why it matters to you.  For example: “I’m so grateful for / I wish we’d had support when you were in treatment.  I want to ensure all kids and their families feel supported”.

Encourage children to volunteer as their age and abilities allow.  Recognize that their interests and approaches may differ from yours.  Help them use their unique ideas, skills and talents to identify and support the causes they feel passionate about.

If you’re interested in volunteering with World Eye Cancer Hope, please visit our Give Hope section, or contact us to discuss how you’d like to get involved.  And look out for our New Year blog to find out how you can get support future family/survivor events, the One Rb World conference, and more.

A diverse group of 9 people (different ages and ethnicities, etc.) are standing in a row, arms around each other, all wearing the same shirts with the word “volunteer” written across the front. The background is grass, trees, and a hazy, sunlit sky.

Letter V from our 2021 Alphabet of Hope.

Have you read part one of this article?  We looked at what gratitude is and its many health benefits, how it can be misused and cause harm, and how we can practice gratitude well in tough times.

About the Author

Abby’s father was diagnosed with bilateral retinoblastoma in Kenya in 1946. Abby was also born with cancer in both eyes. She has an artificial eye and limited vision in her left eye that is now failing due to late effects of radiotherapy in infancy.

Abby studied geography at university, with emphasis on development in sub-Saharan Africa. She co-founded WE C Hope with Brenda Gallie, responding to the needs of one child and the desire to help many in developing countries.  After receiving many requests for help from American families and adult survivors, she co-founded the US chapter to bring hope and encourage action across the country.

Abby enjoys listening to audio books, creative writing, open water swimming and long country walks.

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