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Attending to the Good versus Gratitude/How to Actually Get Grateful

Rebecca Wilkinson Artwork

We know being grateful makes people happier—it also makes them healthier, more resilient, and more connected to others.  But how do we actually build the gratitude muscle?  Gratitude journals?  Gratitude lists?  Counting your blessings and good fortune?

Attending to the Good
Those are good ways to start, but we may grow immune to their benefits if our lists get repetitive to the point that they feel stale.  We develop what is called the hedonic treadmill, wherein we adapt to the practice and it no longer has the same impact.  We suggest a practice called “Attending to the Good” in which we focus more specifically on what is going well in our lives at a given moment.

3 Things That Have Gone Well in Your Day
The simplest way to do this is write one-three things that have gone well in your day.  Even if it’s early in the morning, things you discover might be as simple as snuggling with one of your pets or a brisk walk that got your body moving.  Sometimes it can be grander, like gratitude that we and/or someone we care about is alive and well.

Counteracting the Negativity Bias
This counteracts the negativity bias, the natural human tendency to overlook what is going well and to give more attention and weight to what seems to be problematic or out of alignment with our expectations.

Extending The Scope of What’s Going Well
If you want to take the practice a little further, you can follow it up with these questions:

  • Think about what is going well in your life in general.
  • Think about what is going well for others in your life.
  • Think about what is going well in the world.

We suggest other practices such as:

  • Focusing on your tailwinds over headwinds (what facilitates your life over what challenges we face)
  • Practicing positivity—quick moments of feeling better though nature, animals, play, helping others, using our strengths, humor, curiosity, etc.  Go here for a useful handout on ways to instantly feel better.
  • Savoring—don’t just attend to the good, actually savor it. When things are going well, check in with what that really feels like and cultivate it, make it persist.
  • It made Lee, during a rough week, feel better.  She then sent it to Rebecca, who was also having a rough week, to lift her spirits too.
    Example of positive recall.  Postcard of Sydney, Australia that Lee, Rebecca’s mother, got while she was visiting there many years ago.
    Positive recall, remember and share with others your memories of moments that have gone well.
  • List negatives you avoided. We obviously want to catalogue positive events and the good in our lives, but we can also consider negative events that we either consciously or unconsciously avoided.
  • Use visual reminders of what enhances the quality of your life (people/creatures, places, and things).
    • Make art that ritualizes and symbolizes the things that enhance your life.
    • Take photos.  OK, yes, artificially pausing life to snap a photo of it can take away from the immediacy of our enjoyment and connection, but memory fades quickly and photos instantly evoke recall
    • Make art (it can include those photos) as further visual reminders of those times.
  • Share your gratitude, appreciation, and observations about what is going well. It has much more impact on you and spreads to others.

Other Resources
Click here for a helpful free handout on gratitude and attending to the good.

We also highly recommend visiting’s blog on the topic.  They provide a thorough overview of both the practice and science of gratitude.  Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center also has a great blog on the effects of gratitude on the brain.  

For the Academics
For the academically minded, we also include some links to both seminal and current research  into gratitude and wellbeing.

  • Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 377–389.
  • McCullough, M. E., Emmons, R. A., & Tsang, J. A. (2002). The grateful disposition: a conceptual and empirical topography. Journal of personality and social psychology82(1), 112.

Gratefully yours, Rebecca and Gioia

Art Activity
Write about three things that went well today.  Make a sketch of those things.  Do this for a couple of weeks–see what emerges and how it makes you feel.