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Gratitude: The Secret to Happiness

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Maybe you thought it was money, sex or food, but experts are saying that the key to happiness is something entirely different. It's something that anyone can have at any time. It's simple and it's vital. It's gratitude.

Gratitude is the practice of noticing and appreciating the positives in the world (particularly in your own personal world). Shifting the focus from what you don't have to what you do have can have a profound influence on your moment-to-moment mood and emotional state, and it can have a huge impact on your physical health, as well. In fact, there is a burgeoning field of research -- positive psychology -- devoted to looking at the contributing factors of happiness and well-being.

Recent research shows that a daily gratitude practice can lead to increased concentration, enthusiasm, optimism and satisfaction -- not to mention improved sleep quality and a greater sense of connection to others.

So, what if gratitude isn't part of your current repertoire? The wonderful thing is that gratitude can be learned. And practicing gratitude doesn't need to take a whole lot of time -- perhaps one of the best parts about it. Do what is easiest for you: write a list at the end of the day, take two minutes before you eat a meal, or think about it on your daily commute. Cultivating gratitude within ourselves ultimately has a positive impact on the people around us and on our communities. People who practice gratitude are more capable of being empathic, and more likely to help others with a problem or challenge.

What prevents us from reaping the significant benefits of this simple practice? Like many other things that are good for us, perhaps it feels unfamiliar, too spiritual, or just hasn't been cultivated into a habit. Although Thanksgiving is behind us, there's never a bad time to commit to a practice of gratitude. Often it's easy to lose sight of Thanksgiving's true meaning: noticing and giving thanks for all that nourishes us, including friends and family, community, and the food on our plates. Starting a daily gratitude practice will allow you to reconnect with the deeper meaning of the season and to more fully enjoy it.

1) Slow down and be mindful.
One of the first steps in practicing gratitude is slowing down so that you can notice all the things there are to feel grateful for. It's often the little things that end up being the most significant. Finding the extraordinary in the ordinary takes attention and mindfulness. The beauty in a flower and the smile of a stranger are places you can start.

2) Keep a gratitude journal.
Writing down the things you are grateful for takes just 10 minutes and can increase your overall well-being significantly! It can be as simple as writing five things you are grateful for in that moment, either daily or every other day.

3) Shift your focus.
Instead of viewing your world through a lens of all the things you don't have or are missing out on, try shifting the focus to what you do have and what is going well. Try to help yourself look at things with a fresh perspective. You can hone in on a small detail that you appreciate, like someone holding the elevator door for you when you were in hurry, or the way your friend remembered to ask about the big presentation you were nervous about.

4) Take a snapshot.
If you are having a difficult time picturing something that you are grateful for, try taking a mental snapshot of a person, place or moment that you feel grateful for. Hold that visualization in your mind for a little while.

5) Make it a practice together.
Take five minutes at the end of each day with a friend or family member (meal times are good) to share with each other three things you are each grateful for, or a few positives from your day. This can set a nice tone to end the day, and having a conversation can make you feel more connected.

6) Declare your thanks and inspire others.
I know someone who committed their Facebook status update, every day in November, to express something they are grateful for. Something this simple can shift your daily experience and in the process inspire others.

7) Practice generosity.
The practice of giving to others will help you connect with just how fortunate you really are. There are many things you can offer that don't require money: your attention, your time, a kind word, a thoughtful phone call or e-mail, a compliment, or a music playlist. Your gift will inspire gratitude in others and perpetuate a cycle of generosity, gratitude, abundance and ultimately happiness!

If you want to feel happier, start by incorporating a small dose of gratitude into your daily habit, whether it is on your commute, during a break, at a meal, or before you go to bed -- it all adds up and can be very valuable to your health and well-being. You can also use it to inspire others.

How will you begin your gratitude practice? Will it take days, hours or minutes to experience the happiness that comes from appreciating the little things life has to offer?

Joshua Rosenthal is the founder of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, the largest nutrition school in the world, offering online nutrition education.

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