A Spiritual Guide to Gratitude

Uncertain times test our spirit in many ways. Feeling grateful might be a challenge when you’re missing circumstance, opportunities or people you love. But maybe that’s when the feeling of gratitude is what you need most.

“When you’re going through a difficult time, it may be hard to practice gratitude,” says Stephanie Ludwig, PhD, MA, MDiv, director of spiritual wellness at Canyon Ranch. “You want to be honest with how you’re feeling, though. Otherwise, some of these practices may feel a little forced. Start by being clear about how you feel. Gratitude is not about changing yourself, but caring about what is happening in your heart. It starts with embracing whatever is real.”

Here’s Ludwig’s advice on how to integrate more gratitude into your life and why it’s so helpful to us spiritually, emotionally and physically:

“It’s easy to start looking at the glass as half-empty instead of half-full, so it helps to look for things to be thankful for before they even happen,” explains Ludwig. There is a way of defining prayer that comes from a Native American tribe: to pray for something is to be grateful for it before it comes to you. “There’s plenty in this world that isn’t so good—those things are easy to find. This helps you to see what is positive.”

This can actually be good for your health, too: One study found that people who identified things they felt grateful for, compared to those who focused on problems in their lives, were more likely to exercise regularly, feel better physically, and were more optimistic overall.

“Simply write down three things you’re grateful for, big or small, every day or even periodically—that’s a spiritual practice right there,” says Ludwig.

Anything could make you feel thankful—a phone call from a friend, your blooming garden, your dog. Jotting these things down encourages a positive outlook and may help you accomplish more: In one study, researchers found that people who kept a list of things they felt thankful for over a two-month period were likelier to have reached an important personal goal.

It’s especially important to express gratitude often to your loved ones—and to yourself. “In your relationship or marriage, each of you could share something that you’re grateful for about the other person,” Ludwig explains. “And you can be grateful for yourself, for the uniqueness and the qualities that you carry—so take a few moments to pat yourself on the back.”

Then, continue to express it to those around you. “When you express your gratitude outward, you’re giving other people a gift.” This, in turn, enriches your spiritual health by helping you be mindful and reflect in the moment.

Ludwig adds, “It’s also contagious; and so it not only inoculates you against negativity, but protects others around you as well. Spiritually, gratitude is of the greatest benefit because it aligns our perceptions with the nature of reality—its wonder, its beauty, its superabundance. If you really look into the matter deeply, to focus on gratitude is to contemplate the Divine.”