How to Practice Gratitude Without Feeling Like an Instagram Cliché

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As we approach Thanksgiving (and the holiday season beyond), chances are the question of "what are you thankful for?" has either flitted across your mind or else your family's dinner table. But while this time of year might serve as our culturally-enforced reminder, the truth is that practicing gratitude on a regular basis is a research-backed way to eliminate stress and introduce new meaning into our lives. And it doesn't have to feel as corny or contrived as a #blessed hashtag, either.

"It’s not uncommon for people to balk at the idea of daily gratitude practice," says Dr. Heather Silvestri, a New York City-based psychologist. "Of course, forcing ourselves to recognize positives through the lens of some grand concept of gratefulness can feel inauthentic." But when done correctly—that is, truly recognizing those moments that inferred genuine feeling, no matter how small—science shows that practicing gratitude as a self-care ritual can significantly improve our happiness and overall wellbeing. 

Consider one study conducted by psychologists at the University of California, Davis, and University of Miami, in which participants were divided into three groups: The first group was instructed to write down things they were grateful for over the course of a week, the second wrote about things that had irritated them, and the last group wrote about events that had affected them but weren't necessarily good or bad. Over the course of 10 weeks, the gratitude group didn't just feel happier about their lives—they felt better physically to boot, and paid less visits to their doctors. 

Other research shows that these effects can last for more than a month—and even indefinitely, if you choose to make giving thanks a regular practice. One of the easiest and most effective ways of doing so is keeping a gratitude journal, which essentially serves as a log of those moments, big and small, that have made an impact throughout a given day or week. And at the very least, doing this invites us to slow down and be more mindful—since often, we're too stuck in autopilot to notice and internalize everything that's enriching our lives. "Practicing gratitude makes us pause, reflect and acknowledge what is already here," says Silvestri. "As such, we generate meaning right where we are. Being present and aware is embedded in gratitude, and these are building blocks of emotional health."

The best part: Getting started is way less of a commitment than you think. Keep reading to find out how to keep a gratitude journal.