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  • Writer's pictureKat Schultz

Cultivating Gratitude: the Hierarchy of Gratitude Practice

As Thanksgiving approaches, many of us start reflecting on what we're grateful for. Maybe we're preparing for what we'll share during Thanksgiving dinner or maybe it's just the season getting to us. Whatever the reason, gratitude is first and foremost this November.

Our list of things to be grateful for may have changed in the last few years. We continue to live through a pandemic. Life has changed and so have we. Our 'normal' has changed so much that you may find it difficult to flesh out your gratitude list.

Nevertheless, it's still very important to reflect on gratitude. Studies show that gratitude practice can improve both physical and emotional health. It can even improve sleep! Reflecting on what you're grateful for can help you increase positive emotions and decrease toxic feelings such as envy and resentment.

But how do you cultivate gratitude in your life?

Start with the basics. You may be familiar with Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, a motivational pyramid of human needs. Here's a refresher:

An image of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

It helps to follow along Maslow's original hierarchy of needs when you're practicing gratitude, especially if you're struggling. So here at Online DBT Skills, we've made our own pyramid. Ours is for gratitude practice:

A twist on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs using gratitude instead of needs.
Hierarchy of Gratitude Practice

Start at the bottom of the pyramid. Try cultivating gratitude for your needs that are most likely met such as shelter and food. Say to yourself "I am grateful for my home. I am grateful I have enough to eat." Start with just the most basic gratitude statements.

Then move up the hierarchy towards things that are often harder to acknowledge. Make a list of the people in your life whom you love and who love you in return. Just making the list will often create a swell of gratitude and maybe some surprise that there are so many people in your corner.

Next, make a list of things you're proud of. Maybe it's graduating university or a work milestone. It could include the birth of your children or their accomplishments that you helped them achieve. This can be a challenge, so make sure to start basic. It's okay if you don't feel pride or gratitude right away. Sometimes the only thing on your list at first might be "I survived." That's an accomplishment in and of itself. Don't sell yourself short. This activity will help you both feel successful and cultivate gratitude for those successes.

Now we come to the greatest change between Maslow's hierarchy and ours. Before we get to the tip, we want to focus on the little things. What are you grateful for in your everyday life? What do you see from day to day that makes you smile? The roses outside your apartment? Your cat's little wet nose? Your grandmother's wooden spoon you use to make breakfast every day? These tiny joys can make all the difference in our lives. If you're having trouble seeing these small things, try practicing Mindfulness. Use the Dialectical Behavioral Therapy skill One-Mindfully to notice the world around you as you stay in the moment. Then make a list of the things that bring a smile to your face every day.

The tip of Maslow's hierarchy is self-actualization: the reaching of one's full potential, including creative endeavors. For our practice of gratitude, this tip is being grateful for your life, believing in its importance in the grand scheme of the universe. You don't have to believe you're the center of our solar system. It's not about being grandiose. It's about recognizing that you have a role to play that no one else does. It's about feeling connected to the world. Cultivate gratitude for that connection, for your own place in this world. This is a gratitude for yourself.

The activity of moving through the different levels of gratitude can not only help you generate things to say on Thanksgiving Day, it can also help improve your daily life. You don't have to go through each level all the time. Writing down 3 or so things you're grateful for every day can ensure you keep seeing the benefits. Keep a gratitude journal to write in every night before you sleep or perhaps in the morning with your coffee. Practicing gratitude can make you feel connected, empowered, and content. Give it a go!


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