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Illustrations by Iva Jericevic

Join the Local Love Gratitude Challenge

Practising gratitude is good for everyone—and now is the perfect time to resolve to make it a habit

Picture this: It’s bedtime at my house, and my three-year-old is running around naked. Once cornered, he squirms and refuses to get into his PJs, and then insists on dragging out his toothbrushing particularities endlessly. And just when he’s climbed into bed, he announces, “I have to poo!” All the while, my five-year-old son is in the bath, reciting all the potty words he knows at top decibel level and splashing water everywhere, like the bath is his private ocean. In the moment, I can feel myself descending into a state of total frustration.

After yet another trip to the potty, my little one finally hops into bed, and I head back to the washroom, where my elder son is still enjoying his bath. I sit down on a footstool, lean forward, put my head in my hands and let out a big sigh as I silently try to talk myself out of my growing annoyance. My son, suddenly very quiet, looks at me and says, “Mommy, I’m grateful for you.” Cue heart melt.

What expressions of gratitude do for others

When my son expressed his gratitude to me, what struck me most about his kind words was how they instantly pulled me out of my negative headspace. Yes, he put a huge smile on my face, but his expression of gratitude also changed the tone of the rest of the evening. I looked at him differently; felt a pleasant, warmness in my chest; and, in turn, expressed my gratitude for him and his honest five-year-old soul. My frustration dissipated and we had a lovely story time together.

Diviya Lewis, a registered psychotherapist and founder of choosegratitude.ca, says it’s no wonder my son’s statement had such a positive effect. “When you feel appreciated, it can strengthen and deepen your relationship to someone,” she says. And while most of us become accustomed to everyday routines and don’t notice what’s happening in the moment, remembering to stop and take it all in can help your life shift in positive ways. “Gratitude has an impact on our most personal relationships [by inviting us] to press pause and savour moments or particular aspects of people.”

What feeling grateful does for you

Gratitude is a way to consider the good elements of your day or life—and that can be a mood booster. Reflecting on tiny, positive moments helps your body release feel-good neurotransmitters, like dopamine and serotonin. The benefits of a long-term gratitude practice are especially impressive, says Lewis. Over time, a positive mindset can set off what Barbara Fredrickson, a professor of psychology, coined the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. It explains that positive emotions propagate themselves, eventually helping you build internal skills and resources to deal with challenges and setbacks, which leads to living a more satisfied life

Gratitude also has a prosocial component: It helps us feel connected to others who aren’t part of our social or family circles. When you’re on the receiving end of an expression of gratitude, you might be moved enough to pass that feeling on to someone else.

How to make gratitude a habit

So now that you know it’s good for you, how exactly do you build a practice, especially if you’re not used to expressing these feelings? Lewis’s advice: Start small and keep it manageable by committing to just one minute a day at first. It takes time and work to create the habit, she adds, but if you stick with it, you may start to notice positive changes in your overall well-being.

Lewis cautions that there may be times when your life circumstances won’t allow you to access gratitude. It’s important not to force it when you’re not feeling it. Give yourself permission to focus on whatever is going on, and then take up your gratitude practice again when you’re ready.

Ways you can get started

Ready to try it out? As part of our New Year’s resolutions, Local Love is challenging our readers to do one thing each day in January that shows gratitude. And we want to see you in action: Share your pics and experiences on social media, tag @ReadLocalLove and use the hashtag #locallove. We’ll be taking the challenge right alongside you, so we can cheer one another on!

We asked our co-workers, social media followers and friends at a few United Way partner agencies how they practise gratitude. Here’s some inspiration to help carry you through January (and, hopefully, beyond).

• Write a thank-you note. Research has shown that writing a note to someone to thank them for their kindness can up levels of happiness, creating a mood boost for the writer that can last up to a month. And just imagine how good the recipient will feel, too!

• Download an app. Check out this list to find a gratitude app that speaks to you. These tools are great if you’re not sure where to start.

• Practise at the dinner table. Local Love’s community manager, Nicholas Jones, and its executive editor, Jennifer Goldberg, both do this at their homes. “Every evening at the dinner table, I ask everyone in the family to answer this question: What’s one cool thing that happened today and what’s one not-so-cool thing that happened today?” says Goldberg. “Even if someone had a bad day, we encourage them to think of at least one thing that went right. A blue jay sighting? A smile from a stranger? It all counts! It’s my attempt to normalize not-so-cool things and appreciate that even on the toughest days cool things happen.”

Illustration of a calendar next to a side table and each day is marked with a heart

• Do a daily reflection. “At the end of the day, I say a thank-you prayer about what and who I am grateful for in my life,” says Tanja Thani, manager for special projects at Distress Centres of Greater Toronto. You don’t have to be religious or pray to a god—just name (out loud or in your head) the things and people you’re thankful for and how they add light to your life.

• Make a connection with sales staff. All too often, we order coffee or pay for groceries without removing our earbuds or while staring at our Instagram feed. Make a commitment to put all distractions aside when you’re interacting with sales staff. Make eye contact, give them a smile and say thank you.

• Create a visual reminder. “It can be useful to create visual signifiers in your life that remind you to be grateful,” says the staff at @twentytwentyarts, a Toronto organization that produces socially conscious art projects that raise awareness and visibility for mental health, addiction and homelessness. “Whether it’s a bracelet, a patch on your jacket or simply an image on the back of your phone, visual cues are wonderful at connecting us with gratitude.”

• Do a small kindness. Shovel a neighbour’s walk, offer to pick a pal’s kid up from school, buy the guy in line behind you a coffee or drop a homemade meal off to someone you love just because.

• Make a date. It may help to dedicate a specific time of day to practising gratitude, such as when you drink your morning coffee, when everyone sits down at the dinner table or even at a red light during your commute.

• Give back. “We believe that one of the best ways to show our gratitude is to give back. If you can lend a helping hand, then do so. Try spreading positivity and showing appreciation in ways that money cannot buy,” advise our agency partners at the Boys & Girls Club of East Scarborough. Try volunteering your time or mentoring someone who needs it.

• Try the silver linings experiment. In Lewis’ own gratitude practice, she spent a month building awareness around the things she complains about most. “Once you do that, you can see if you can change your thinking and find that silver lining. This might work with the smaller things that are often seen as annoyances in your day,” she says.

• Make a gratitude collage with your kids. My son’s classroom came up with this clever idea right around Thanksgiving. The kids created a giant collage of photos and cutouts from magazines that showed things they felt grateful for. It generated some very touching (and sometimes hilarious) conversations, too.

Illustration of a woman crouching down to smell the flowers

• Be grateful for yourself. I know, self-affirmations feel a little cheesy. You don’t have to stand in front of the mirror, but try thanking yourself for showing up, for taking on a hard task or merely for making it to the end of the day in one piece. You matter, so remind yourself of that.

• Change your relationship with what’s going on. “Winter used to be such a miserable time for me. I was full of complaints,” says Lewis. One day, she decided to reframe her thinking and intentionally noted all the positive aspects of the season, such as her warm coat and cozy apartment. “That invitation to change my mindset has shifted my idea about something as simple as walking outside in the cold,” she says. Lewis doesn’t find winter intolerable anymore—something she never thought possible. Try applying this technique to anything or anyone in your life.

• Be one with nature. “I literally stop to smell the roses,” says Tara Monks, development manager at Distress Centres of Greater Toronto. “I believe in stopping to smell flowers, in feeling the sun on your face. Going for a nice stroll in High Park helps ground me and appreciate the small things.”

• Say thank you at work. Adam Grant, a professor at Wharton business school at the University of Pennsylvania, has published very compelling research that shows how expressing gratitude in the workplace can boost employees’ self-efficacy and -worth. Next time someone does something for you, look them in the eye and say thank you, specifically mentioning what they’ve done.

• Catch a kid in the act. Our friends at Moorelands Kids, who run Moorelands Camp, watch for instances of campers being kind. The Moorlands Kids’ team try to catch kids doing good, and when they witness kindness they make sure to lavish them with praise. Workers make sure to thank the child for making a good choice, and then explain why their positive action helped make the community a better place. Kids light up when they’re on the receiving end of praise, and they often pay it forward.

• Ask someone, “How are you?”—and listen to the answer. “Give them space to answer honestly,” says Thani. We often rush through this greeting ritual, but stopping to really hear a person’s response can help build connection.

• Smile at a stranger. It’s so simple, but it will make them feel seen.

• Celebrate every step on your path. “We encourage women and girls to be grateful for their journey—the milestones they have achieved and the goals they are still working towards,” explains Caitlin Watts, human resource manager at the Elizabeth Fry Society of Peel-Halton. “The goal is not to block out challenges or past hardships, but to approach adversities from a different perspective. We have to focus on our strengths in order to move forward and make impactful changes.”

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