This daily gratitude routine can train your brain to be happier

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Life is hectic and often we feel we must carve out time to reflect and feel gratitude. We do yoga, do a little meditation, splurge on retreats and book expensive spa treatments. These can all be wonderful ways to practice self-care, but if we want to sustain and grow happiness in our daily lives, we should incorporate gratitude into every possible moment.

Over time, we won’t even have to think about it, and we’ll see the effects in our frame of mind — and possibly in our brains.

Science shows we can train ourselves to experience thankfulness more often simply by paying attention to our lives differently.

“People who intentionally cultivate gratitude show greater neural sensitivity in the medial prefrontal cortex, a brain region associated with learning, rational thinking and decision making,” says Ellie Cobb, PhD, a holistic psychologist and the director of psychology for Thankful, a social enterprise and lifestyle brand focused on gratitude. “Science shows we can train ourselves to experience thankfulness more often simply by paying attention to our lives differently. Attention is like a spotlight in the brain, as whatever we repeatedly bring attention to becomes stronger and brighter over time.”

Marinelle Reynolds, a licensed clinical social worker, points to a study by Greater Good at UC Berkeley, finding that participants who practiced gratitude were happier and less depressed. “They even found that practicing gratitude can make lasting changes in our brains. Practicing gratitude is a skill, you don’t have to be born ‘optimistic’; or have a life that’s been free from problems to be able to use it. Little daily routines can be helpful at training your brain to see the world through with a grateful heart.”

Here’s a daily routine that does just that:

When you first wake up

Gretchen Rubin, a happiness expert and the author of many books, including “The Happiness Project” and host of the podcast “Happier with Gretchen Rubin”, finds that it helps to set reminders or prompts around gratitude.

This can be as simple as “setting the screensaver or passcode on your phone to be a reminder of gratitude,” she says. Perhaps your password is your child’s birthday, and/or the background image on your phone is a picture of you and your mom. You can change these up to keep refreshing the things you are grateful for.

When you leave the house

Gratitude prompts are also helpful when you’re in a hurry in the morning. You can choose practically anything that you see or pass everyday to be your signal for happiness.

“When you’re getting in your car or opening the garage door, use that as a catalyst to think about how happy you are to be going out in the world,” says Rubin, adding that these same habitual activities or landmarks can inspire a moment of appreciation when you’re returning home, too. “Have a specific threshold that you cross that reminds you of your gratitude.”

If you aren’t happy about say, going to work, then just “be grateful to be alive,” says Rubin, adding, “You can think about the past. What would my college-self think if I were to know where I am today? Look at all I’ve managed to do.”

When you sit down for a meal

Mindful eating is a great way to practice gratitude, but you can take it a step further by following the advice of Kristin Koskinen, a registered dietitian nutritionist, who recommends keeping a photo food journal, a technique she uses with her clients.

“Like many Americans, [my clients] are in the enviable position to choose what they eat. Even if they don’t love their choices, they can be grateful for the food that nourished their bodies and that — good, bad or indifferent — they were able to make that choice,” says Koskinen. “For those who do keep a food journal, consider using it as a place to note points of gratitude throughout the day. Who isn’t thankful for a cup of coffee in the morning? You may not love that you ate a piece of birthday cake at a party, but you can savor the blessing of being with friends and family.”

Rubin notes that the traditional religious gesture of saying grace before a meal is one of the oldest forms of daily gratitude — and you don’t have to be religious to practice it.

“At dinner, your family can go around the table and say a few things that they are grateful for,” says Rubin. “It’s a deliberate practice that cultivates gratitude. It may not work for every family, but it could for yours.”