Does the way you practice gratitude matter?


You might be familiar with Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule—the idea that mastery has a hard minimum for time. You may also have heard the idea refuted. One important argument against the rule is that the quality of practice matters. The magic word here is deliberate.

An old martial arts joke:

Guy A: I’ve been training for 10 years.

Guy B: No, you’ve trained one year 10 times.

Perfect practice

So, if how you practice matters, then it’s important to ask how to practice most effectively. Enter Deliberate Practice. The idea moves beyond counting reps and—instead—bringing a focused intentionality to what you’re doing. Clear goals for each rep. Challenges scaled-up or scaled-down to keep you right at the edge of your ability. It’s a far more mindful form of practice. It’s like a challenging game—with stakes that rise in lockstep with your ability.

Let’s talk about gratitude

Gratitude seems to be one of those universally-accepted habits. You may not practice it yourself but you probably can’t imagine a scenario where you would push back on someone else doing so. Do we need to be more discerning, though? Is all gratitude practice created equal?

What my gut tells me

I believe that gratitude needs to create positive emotions for any real value. Can an emotionless version of the practice work? Perhaps as a gateway drug for deeper gratitude. Ok, so how do we go deeper?

Managing our feelings

The research on emotion regulation examines how can we can manage the intensity or duration of our own emotions. There are five pathways in the literature. We’re going to focus on just one: Situation Modification.

You’ll notice in the above diagram that Situational Modification is linked to one other strategy—repressing negative emotions. I’ll mention it here as a less optimal strategy. The problem with repressing emotions is that doing so decreases happiness and hogs bandwidth. A more ideal approach is to see the situation through a more positive frame. It’s a perspective flip that works like this:

I’m grateful for The Far Side

Scenario A:

“I can’t believe that someone dropped a grand piano on my foot. My life is ruined!”

Scenario B:

“I can’t believe that a missed my head. My life is saved! Seize the day!”

Situation Modification does not affect memory or stress levels. It doesn’t impair memory, increase stress, or create feelings of inauthenticity like its cousin. Just one more example in how quality of practice can differ based on approach.

How do we apply this to gratitude?

My journey toward understanding the mechanics of emotions better began with BJ Fogg and his book, Tiny Habits. A behaviour scientist at Stanford, Fogg’s work guides you to attach positive emotions to habits you’d like to develop and highlights the emotional dimension of memory. Attaching positive emotion (or relieving negative ones) is—by far—the most powerful tool for planting the seed of a habit. Fogg says that, “when you are designing for habit formation, you are really designing for emotions.”

In the case of gratitude, positive emotion is also required for real impact on your happiness and wellbeing. How do we get there?

First you need a reliable anchor in your life. What part of the day can you plant the seed for this habit? After you wake up? While you brew or wait for your coffee? Every time you speak to someone? You need to figure out what kind of prompt you can rely on—and how often you want it to pop up. This needs to happen automatically—there’s no room for time delay here. You’ll also need to ensure that the habit is tiny enough to deliver with utter consistency. Here are some ideas to get you started:

10 Tiny Habits for Gratitude

  1. After I turn the door handle, I will visualize one favourite thing about the room I’m entering
  2. After I pay a bill, I will take 10 seconds to think about how I’ve benefited from what I’m paying for.
  3. After I buckle my seatbelt, I will think about how amazing and weird it is to drive a car.
  4. After I feel myself struggling to breathe evenly, I will celebrate everything I can do with my body
  5. After I say goodbye to my partner, I will think about something positive coming up in her day.
  6. After I say good morning to my son, I’ll focus on his health and vitality.
  7. After I learn anything new, I’ll visualize it dancing around with the rest of my knowledge.
  8. After I see something scary in the news, I will look for the helpers (thanks, Mr Rogers!)
  9. After I sit down for dinner, I will take a moment to think about everything that went into the food arriving in front of me.
  10. After I send my final email of the day, I will think about how fortunate I am to do the kind of work that I’m doing.

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