Gratitude is a powerful emotion, both for the giver and the receiver, and knowing how to be grateful when you don’t feel grateful can be an invaluable skill.
Learning how to express gratitude can help strengthen relationships and create a positive feedback loop, even when you aren’t feeling grateful.
There are many things in life we can be grateful for, but sometimes we simply don’t feel that sense of appreciation. Maybe you were given a holiday gift that isn’t quite to your tastes, for example, or maybe you have an unexpected day off, but it complicates other plans.
It’s OK not to feel grateful, even during the holiday season — you don’t have to feel it to express it.
Consider the following tips to help you express gratitude and improve your overall well-being.
Why is expressing gratitude important?
“Gratitude helps strengthen relationships because it shifts attentional resources to the people around you and how they are helping and enriching your life […],” explains Dr. Sabrina Romanoff, a psychologist and professor at Yeshiva University, New York City.
She adds that learning to acknowledge acts of kindness — whether you appreciate them or not — can create a positive feedback loop where you reciprocate kind acts, gaining a sense of appreciation and value that reinforces those behaviors.
1. Gratitude conditioning
Practice makes perfect, so the saying goes.
“There are many things in our lives, both large and small, for which we may be grateful,” says Romanoff.
Learning how to recognize these things can help you practice gratitude.
To help cultivate this ability, you can:
write a letter of appreciation to someone (even if you don’t deliver it)
make it a habit to say “thank you” for everyday gestures like having the door held for you
keep a gratitude jar where you leave written accounts of daily kindnesses
journal about five things you’re grateful for each day
practice family gratitude expression at dinner time or bedtime
2. Try to seek the good
Improving gratitude can mean acknowledging that even negative experiences may have positive outcomes.
Consciously looking for the “silver lining,” or the “bright side,” can help you focus on the positive and not the negative.
“You don’t have to convince yourself something was great or enjoyable in order to gain the benefits of gratitude,” says Ileana Arganda-Stevens, a licensed marriage and family therapist from Sacramento, California.
She gives the example of struggling to get out of bed. “You don’t have to be over-the-moon excited about taking a shower, but you can acknowledge, ‘This was difficult, but I’m grateful I did it because it felt important to me to make an effort.’”
3. Allow space for gratitude and negative emotions
Expressing gratitude doesn’t mean you have to ignore or suppress an uncomfortable experience.
“Remember that practicing gratitude does not negate difficult feelings,” adds Arganda-Stevens. “For instance, being grateful that you ended a painful relationship does not mean the hurt and disappointment you feel aren’t real or important.”
Making room for gratitude in a challenging situation doesn’t diminish the difficulty of your experience.
4. Experience life’s gifts
You don’t have to wait for someone to give you a holiday gift before you recognize and express gratitude. In fact, you don’t need someone else to be involved at all.
Taking a walk in nature can be enough to explore reasons to feel gratitude. For example, you may consider walking mindfully as you observe the points of your feet making contact with the ground as you walk.
5. Consider saying ‘thank you’ with a smile
Were you given a gift, not to your liking? Even if you don’t feel appreciative, consider expressing gratitude toward the giver by offering:
a word of thanks
an acknowledgment of the thought behind the gift
“Thank you so much. This was so thoughtful!”
Worried you might not come off as genuine? Practicing your go-to expression of gratitude privately can help it feel less forced in the moment.
Why don’t I feel grateful?
It’s natural and OK to not always feel grateful.
How you approach each day can be impacted by many different factors, including:
amount and quality of sleep
mental health conditions
How you feel about someone when they bestow an act of kindness on you can also matter, says Romanoff.
“Another way to conceptualize gratitude is its relatedness to indebtedness. In this way, it is a response relating to a willing acknowledgment of our debt to another who labored for our benefit,” she explains.
If you don’t like someone, feel resentment toward them, or hold bitterness about them, it may make it difficult to express gratitude for something they’ve done.
When the gesture isn’t genuine
You don’t have to express gratitude in every situation. Backhanded compliments, malicious “gifts,” or any action that comes from a place of ill-intent doesn’t warrant your gratitude.
“Forcing ourselves to say thank you when we feel hurt or disrespected can add insult to injury,” states Arganda-Stevens.
After the fact, you may privately express gratitude for any positives that came from the interaction, such as others finally seeing that person’s true nature, for example.
Why it can be important to express gratitude when you aren’t grateful
While there are many reasons why you might not feel grateful even when a gesture is genuine, Romanoff explains these reasons —like envy — are often rooted in negative thoughts and emotions.
By practicing and expressing gratitude even when you don’t feel grateful, you help shift your attention away from negative and unhelpful thinking.
A large body of research exists regarding the benefits of gratitude. In one 2018 review, gratitude was linked to:
mental and physical well-being
improved social and interpersonal relationship functioning