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How to be thankful this holiday season

Here are five ways to practice gratitude in your life.

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Desserts are one thing to be grateful for this holiday season.

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Thanksgiving is less than a week away. For a lot of us, that means a season full of gratitude. While listing out the things you're grateful for around the Thanksgiving table can often feel like a chore, it's actually a powerful tool we can incorporate into our own daily lives to change our mindset, better our relationships and even improve our mental health.

There's a wealth of research and theory surrounding the practice of gratitude, so let's get into exactly what it is, what it can do for you and how you can be more thankful starting today.

What is gratitude?

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Though it's easy to forget, there's a lot of goodness in life -- just look outside.

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Gratitude is a tricky word that has escaped clear definition in the past -- is it a feeling, a thought process, an action or something else?

Robert Emmons, a leading researcher on the subject of gratitude, puts it simply: Gratitude is an affirmation of the goodness that exists outside of ourselves. It's the action of recognizing that life's not all bad. Hopefully, there's at least one good thing present in your life right now, even though it may feel tiny. 

For example, I'm grateful this morning that the sun is shining and that I didn't have to wait too long at the crosswalk outside of my apartment. Practicing the act of gratitude means training yourself to look for that one (or more) good thing and being glad that it's in your life.

What are the benefits of gratitude?

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Practicing gratitude will help you sleep better.

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Practicing gratitude sounds a bit wishy washy, right? Actually, it turns out that it has demonstrable effects on your social relationships, outlook on life and personal well-being.

Studies have shown that practicing gratitude causes people to offer more emotional support and help to people in need. One study involving monitoring brain activity using a fMRI showed that there was increased neural sensitivity in the medial prefrontal cortex, a brain region associated with gratitude, three months after the patients did their gratitude exercise. 

These findings can be, in part, explained by the simple theory that gratitude changes our outlook on life. When we train ourselves to look for blessings in our life, we find them more often. We perceive that people have actually been more kind, helpful and good, and we act the same way in return, bestowing those blessings back to people around us.

Gratitude also has a pronounced effect on two important areas of well-being -- sleep and mental health. The list goes on -- practicing gratitude has been linked to worrying less, boosting your resilience to depression and alleviating stress. It's hard to prove a causal relationship with gratitude, but this research suggests a strong relationship between thankfulness and mental well-being.

Besides making a conscious effort to say "thank you" every time someone does something nice for you, there are several ways in which you can get creative in incorporating gratitude into your everyday routine. Check out five ways to practice gratitude below.

1. Keep a gratitude journal

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Journalling will only take you a few minutes per day.

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Writing down a list of things you're grateful for may be the most obvious method, but it's tried and true. Find a frequency that works for you, whether that's writing down one thing a day or five things at the end of the week. They key is to make them as specific as possible -- I could write down every day that I'm thankful for my cat, but something better to notice is that one night she slept on my bed while my feet were cold. 

If you don't love putting pen on paper, there's a bunch of apps you can download for free to help out. Besides using a simple Notes app, Gratitude is a great option for a user-friendly journal on your phone. It'll let you attach pictures, sync to Google Drive and set reminders for your daily gratitude practice.

2. Use a gratitude jar

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Who doesn't have a Mason jar laying around? A decorated one also makes an excellent gift.

A gratitude jar is simple -- all you need is an old Mason jar and scraps of paper to write on. Every time something happens that you're grateful for, write it on a slip of paper and stick it in the jar. After a year, or whenever your jar is full, you'll have a bunch of great memories to look back on with your loved ones.

3. Document your life

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All you have to find is one second of good in your day.

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Remember the 1 Second Everyday video diary app? It's a clever way to do a gratitude practice. Every day, film one second of something that made you thankful, and at the end of the year you'll have a compilation of happy moments to remind you that life can be pretty good sometimes.

4. Meditate

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Meditation will improve your overall mental health.

Ksenia Makagonova / Unsplash

We typically consider meditation as a mindfulness practice where we try to focus on the present moment and think about nothing, but that's only scratching the surface of the intricate tradition of meditation. Another type of the ancient art involves meditating on certain ideas or sensations, including gratitude. This practice knocks out two birds with one stone -- you get all the proven benefits of gratitude and meditation at once.

There's plenty of free guided gratitude meditations online, and some paid apps like Headspace also have sessions focused on thankfulness.

5. Practice gratitude in community

Don't you just love social media? For some of us, all of the gratitude practices listed above sound awfully boring, and we would rather spend that extra time tapping away on our phones. The app Gratitude Circle provides a fun solution to this problem by combining a Facebook type community with a gratitude practice. 

You can friend people online, post moments you were thankful for with pictures attached, and scroll through your feed to see everyone else's gratitude. This way, you get your thankfulness practice without having to give up precious social media time.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.