How to practice gratitude and learn the art of contentment
Practicing gratitude can help you value what you have and quell excessive desires for more. Read on to learn the art of contentment plus explore our favorite gratitude app and journal.
People talk a lot about expressing gratitude. However, they may have a superficial understanding of why and how to be thankful.
So we are breaking down the word gratitude in order to get to the root of why it’s worthy of adding to your repertoire of simple living tools.
How to practice gratitude
The art of contentment
Summary of gratitude
Best gratitude app & journal
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How to practice gratitude
Gratitude is an emotion. Not a habit. Not an exercise. A feeling.
It is a feeling of happiness triggered by the acknowledgment and appreciation of something outside of yourself that positively touches, moves, or impacts you.
This is important to understand because, like most human emotions, it can’t always be easily turned on or off at whim.
If someone walked up to you and said “be disappointed, right now” you would struggle with that request.
In order to feel disappointment your mind would have to search your memory for specific instances in which you were let down or your expectations weren’t met.
Similarly, you can’t be thankful without just cause. Mindlessly regurgitating mantras is an inauthentic exercise as it attempts to force you to feel something that you don’t.
You can cultivate gratitude but your efforts should be rooted in calling to mind meaningful moments in which you were genuinely appreciative (or being aware when these moments take place in the present).
Don’t just list out a bunch of stuff in your gratitude journal if they weren’t actually meaningful.
Sometimes nice things happen to you but it doesn’t automatically mean you care about or appreciate them.
Moreover, in order to be more thankful you need to experience more situations that you genuinely appreciate. This may sound anti-minimalist but it isn’t. It’s just being realistic.
At some point you will exhaust the number of past meaningful moments you can think of.
You can continue to reflect on those things but gratitude is similar to happiness in that the effect wears off over time (read here for more background on this).
The art of contentment
In order to continuously feel gratitude you’ll need more serendipitous situations where good (and meaningful) things happen to you, and the mindfulness to recognize them when they happen.
The main issue here is that these things are out of your control and may or may not happen on a regular basis.
So to live your life in a way that helps you cultivate a state of enduring thankfulness means putting yourself in a better position to have good (and meaningful) things happen to you.
This is within your control. This is what we call the art of contentment.
The root of the word gratitude is the Latin term “grat” which means pleasing.
When considering how to cultivate enduring thankfulness in a way that’s within your control, focus less on superficial wants and desires and more on designing a lifestyle that helps you maintain a perpetual state of meaningful pleasure.
knowing what matters most
pursuing simple pleasures
experiencing joy from anticipation
being more mindful
All of the above are important because they require an understanding of what you deem to be good, pleasurable, and meaningful.
As if you don’t know what is significant to you, you won’t be able to recognize and appreciate these things when they happen.
Let’s dive into these four methods of contentment.
Knowing what matters most
Minimalism is an ubiquitous term so when adopting it as a principle it’s important to go through the exercise of defining it for yourself (vs. automatically adhering to the perceptions and definitions of others).
To us it means three things: awareness, clarity, and focus.
First, you need to have an awareness about yourself and how you perceive the world you live in (some may call this consciousness).
From there comes clarity — about who you are, what you believe in, what you do and do not care about, etc.
Clarity, then, allows you to have focus so you can prioritize and efficiently allocate your time, effort, and resources to what matters most.
Since the world turns and you will evolve, regularly go through this exercise then apply it to every area of life, from work and finances to style and relationships.
The result is that you’ll develop an incredible ability to simplify decision-making in most areas of life.
Now your ability to simplify decision-making, as mentioned, is a key benefit here.
But sometimes you may choose to overindulge or be excessive in different areas or at different times in life.
Know that it’s not denying yourself all the time but the ease at which you can make that choice about when to say yes or no that is most important.
Pursuing simple pleasures
One of the easiest ways to integrate minimalism into your personal growth and self-care routine is to indulge in the simple little things.
One emotion that can cause a lot of unhappiness in your life, if not kept in balance, is desire.
Human beings have an inherent longing to survive and thrive which shouldn’t be ignored, as it is part of the evolutionary fabric.
Theories such as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs suggest that there are a number of physiological, psychological, and social desires that are deeply ingrained in humans.
On the other hand, research has shown us that wanting and even receiving more of certain things won't make you happier over the long run.
The hedonic treadmill is the theory that explains this. Even after major positive situations (e.g. such as getting a new car) you will eventually get used to the stimuli and return to a base level of happiness.
Then, your expectations rise and you will end up wanting something more than what you currently have (e.g. an even newer car than the new car you just bought) which can lead to a perpetual cycle of dissatisfaction.
So what can be done to strike the proper balance between nurturing your innate needs and goals while not being tricked into the “rat race”?
If money, success, and objects are superficial forms of happiness, what yields more significant and lasting levels?
One happiness habit that works is to indulge in simple pleasures — and this is not just a "less is more" cliche.
It is a foundational element of positive psychology with research-backed studies starting to reveal more about how and why it works.
Here’s how you can incorporate this tip into your life:
Take a moment to read some of the latest research on simple pleasures so you can understand the science behind the claim and get a sense of the most common simple pleasures.
Reflect on and write down your own list of simple pleasures. It can be as short or long as you want.
Schedule a block of time (minimum 2 hours) where you can indulge uninterrupted in one or more of your simple pleasures.
Save your list and periodically refer to it especially during times of annoyance, anxiety, and anger.
Much of his work has been lost but as the father of the simple pleasure concept it’s worth getting a primer on the life and ideas of Epicurus the philosopher. Here are two books to start with:
Experiencing joy from anticipation
If you want more feelings of joy in your life here are some tips on how you can achieve it through anticipation.
Germans have a word call Vorfreude that roughly translates to joyful anticipation or pre-joy in english.
Life may be too short to learn German — as Richard Porson, an 18th century English scholar, once quipped — but it’s definitely worth borrowing this word.
It doesn’t matter if you are creating a trip itinerary or looking forward to your self-care routine, you can derive pleasure simply from foreseeing pleasure.
The New York Times discussed this phenomenon in “What a Great Trip! And I’m Not Even There Yet.” Using trip planning as an example the article reports:
Turns out, there is an art to anticipation. Savoring, said Elizabeth Dunn, an associate professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and a leading happiness researcher, is an active, not passive, process.
“It’s better to immerse yourself,” she said. Reading novels and poetry, watching films and television programs, browsing fashion and design blogs that are either from or about the place you plan to visit encourages you to not only learn about your destination, but to dream, providing some concrete details for your mind to latch on to.
It may sound counterintuitive, but this building up of positive expectations and excitement actually helps our minds smooth over any minor discrepancies if reality doesn’t quite measure up to the fantasy.
“We’re less likely to be bothered by these little holes if we build up our expectations ahead of time,” Professor Dunn said. “So go ahead and assume it’s going to be wonderful.”
If you want more feelings of joy here are some tips on how you can achieve it through anticipation.
Savor the journey
When you get what you want the feelings of happiness it brings are typically short-lived. This is why the proverb “life is a journey not a destination” is so meaningful.
As this life coach discusses, humans have a happiness set point — an average level of happiness that is almost always returned to no matter the good or bad that happens in life.
So it actually makes sense to put more energy into savoring the build up to the thing or experience you desire more than the actual thing or experience itself.
As Arthur Ashe, tennis legend, once said “the doing is often more important than the outcome.”
Don’t let your life be just about getting from one end goal to another, but savor all of the moments in between.
Make time for daydreaming
You may assume daydreaming is a time waster or form of escapism best left to children, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Daydreaming is an underrated activity and it’s time to include it in your personal growth toolkit, particularly if you want more pre-joy.
In “At last, scientific proof that daydreaming doesn’t mean you’re a flake,” a Quartz reporter interviews a colleague about their daydreaming routine.
“I’m only allowed to play out situations exactly like I’d want to them to play out, best-case scenario,” she explained.
“I’m not allowed to tell myself that these ideas are dumb, or that they’d never happen or that the subject matter is stupid.
I let myself think that if it’s my heart’s desire, it’s okay to dream about in that moment.”
The research-backed benefits of letting your mind wander in this way include: more motivation, increased creativity, greater cognitive control and, lest we forget, more joy.
Frequently ask what if
Asking “what if” almost always reveals new ways of thinking, doing, or being.
It’s one of the easiest ways to get excited about what’s to come because the question gives you free reign to imagine it.
Getting in the habit of asking what if questions breaks self-imposed limits about what’s doable.
Instead of operating from a narrow or restricted point-of-view (that tends to stifle pre-joy), you’ll be eager to follow through on the fresh ideas you generate by brainstorming answers.
Just be sure to focus your what ifs on upsides and solutions to avoid undue worrying.
It shouldn’t be a line of questioning directed towards the past (e.g. what if this never happened) but a way to broaden your scope of the future.
When you yearn for something that isn’t realized it can lead to a negative emotion: disappointment.
But you don’t have to let this emotion dampen your Vorfreude. You can decrease feelings of disappointment in your life by:
thinking mostly about future events that are within your power to control
being open-minded about the possible outcomes when you are thinking of the future.
That way you aren’t completely caught off guard if something actualizes in a way that you didn’t anticipate (which is usually the case because you can’t predict the future).
Also remember Professor Dunn’s research mentioned above and featured in the New York Times: anticipating positive things actually provides a bit of a buffer against negative feelings derived from potentially subpar outcomes.
Being more mindful
There's a sure way to be happy that is taken straight out of the Stoic handbook – be more mindful about both the good and not so good experiences.
When you find yourself in an awkward, agitating, or adverse situation, sit in it for a while.
Linger there just a bit longer than you normally would and meditate on the moment.
Because once you do pull out of that negative situation you'll have a greater sensitivity to the seemingly small positive things that you typically take for granted. They won't seem so trivial after all.
This doesn't mean you should initiate or invite unnecessary drama into your life.
You don't need to play into the extreme and put (or keep) yourself in a highly stressful or painful state just for the benefit of this exercise.
Instead, focus on the minuscule things that you give more energy to than is warranted (by the way you react to them).
That silly situation you tried to ignore but still ended up allowing to turn your perfect day into a disaster.
The awkward exchange that you fled from but had you feeling self-conscious for the next month.
That tinge of hunger that so easily broke your will to eat well and led to a binge fest.
When you run from your discomforts it keeps you from learning how to manage them and they end up having more impact on you than they should.
You also lose sight of just how special the small pleasures are. It's hard to truly appreciate things that you have always had at your disposal.
Instant gratification often leads to perpetual dissatisfaction when you can't get your way, and this is the antithesis to minimalism.
That’s because dissatisfaction is an intense emotion that indicates an inability to be at ease with your current lot in life.
So you continuously seek something else or desire something more. Or you lose resilience and start to buckle at any minor challenge you are faced with.
This puts you in an agitated state which can potentially lead to conditions like depression and nervous breakdowns.
But you don’t have to coax yourself into being content in any situation.
You merely need to be mindful of how the inability to be content can escalate to the extreme, so you can bring your desires back into balance. Here's how:
Live in the present
You can’t change the past or predict the future, so try not to let what was or what could be disrupt what is.
Be mindful and appreciative of this moment, since it’s one you can control.
Check social influences
Humans are quite impressionable when it comes to social judgment and comparing/contrasting is a human dilemma.
So be aware of anyone who stirs up envy, so the situation doesn’t steal your joy.
Learn from adversity
To the main point above, when you do go through hard times be sure to linger in them a bit and draw out insights.
What you learn can help you better manage and direct the outcomes of other tough circumstances.
Instant gratification is a modern-day phenomenon and must be kept in check if you want to be more contented. Learn how to master it.
What situations do you find yourself fleeing from (and inadvertently giving more power to when you do)?
What if you addressed them instead of ignoring them? Lingered there instead of running?
You can easily contrive contentment out of the contrast to subpar conditions.
Stay in that uncomfortable place for a couple of more minutes than you normally would, and see how it enhances your perspective.
Summary of gratitude
Gratitude, like other positive feelings, has many proven psychological, physical, and social benefits.
But if you just go through the motion without understanding how this emotion actually works, you’ll miss out on these benefits.
Unfortunately a lot of gratitude resources miss the big picture by encouraging well-intentioned but overly simplistic exercises.
Chanting mantras, saying thank you, or writing down a bunch of nice things that happened to you today only gets you so far.
Practicing gratitude is not a passive but an active emotional state.
You must put yourself in a position to experience good, pleasurable, and meaningful moments by learning the art of contentment.
The combination of circumstances outside of your control, amplified by your own actions, will lead to more happiness and thankfulness.
So here is a succinct definition of gratitude to consider:
Gratitude is a feeling of happiness that comes about when you are conscientious of how external circumstances positively impact your life.
Cultivating more gratitude depends on experiencing more good, pleasurable, and meaningful moments, that are worthy of thankfulness.
This requires understanding what’s good, pleasurable, and meaningful to you, recognizing when good, pleasurable, and meaningful things happen, and exerting some level of influence on your environment to increase their odds of occurrence.
Best gratitude app & journal
We are a big fan of beautifully designed journals that you are actually proud to keep with you and write in when inspiration hits.
Journals that incorporate prompts are even better as, instead of a blank slate, they encourage you with ideas to reflect on.
The stunning Jour app is our favorite private and portable digital journal.
Jour offers you a step-by-step approach to feeling more gratitude along with other self-care benefits.
However, we also suggest making time to write in a physical journal which can help you connect with your thoughts in a deeper way.
For that reason, we went on a hunt for the best physical journal and highly recommend the bullet or dotted notebooks by the German brand Leuchtturm1917.
Specifically designed for journaling, these high-quality Leuchtturm1917 notebooks feature:
bleed-proof, acid free paper
easy to wash hard cover
dozens of colors to choose
thread bound and flat open
table of contents
expandable inner pocket
Moreover, the lovely minimal design will make you want to take it out and show it off often.
Thousands of five-star reviews don’t lie and we can vouch for their quality and durability, so if you are serious about practicing gratitude and perfecting the art of contentment then consider the Leuchtturm1917 collection.
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