3 Ideas to Practice Gratitude During Tough Times + What I’m Thankful for in 2021

3 Ideas to Practice Gratitude
Elliott Appel, CFP®, CLU®, RLP®

Elliott Appel, CFP®, CLU®, RLP®

Welcome! I'm the founder of Kindness Financial Planning, LLC, a fee-only, fiduciary advisor located in Madison, WI working virtually with widows, caregivers, and people affected by major health events across the United States. When I'm not helping people live their ideal life, I'm often cooking for my wife, playing tennis, or hiking.

Last Updated on February 28, 2022


It’s that time of year where many people reflect on what they are thankful for. For those who are experiencing a loss or a challenging situation, it can be an exhausting process trying to feel thankful for something.

You don’t need my permission, but I don’t think it’s said enough – it’s okay if you are not feeling very thankful. It’s okay if you simply want “to be” and feel the pain you are in right now.

This isn’t an article about trying to stay happy, counting your blessings, or looking on the bright side.

It’s an article about three ways to practice gratitude – to actively take small steps towards acknowledging where there is a little bit of sun in your life, even among the clouds.

I’ll conclude with what I’m thankful for this year, even among the challenges and losses.

Idea 1 to Practice Gratitude: Keep a Gratitude Journal

While most people call them gratitude journals, I call mine a “thankful journal.” Regardless of your naming preference, it’s a journal where you write down what you are thankful for.

The journal can take a variety of forms. You can buy a pre-made journal, make your own using a bound notebook, or find a piece of scratch paper and start writing. The format is not what is important. What is important is the habit of practicing gratitude and writing down what you are thankful for. It’s your thankful journal – make it your own.

If you are unsure of where to start, just start writing. Seriously, start writing. Even if you are writing things you are not thankful for, that may allow you to clear your head to make space for the things you are thankful for.

Although you could write in a gratitude journal on a monthly or weekly basis, I recommend daily. Daily builds the habit. Daily gets you into the routine of frequently thinking about what you are thankful for and allowing it to impact your life. Any less frequent and it’s easy to let the time you set aside to journal on a weekly or monthly basis turn into time for another activity.

Now, you may be wondering, “what do I write?”

Does it need to be full paragraphs? Should it be complete sentences? Are bullet points okay?

It doesn’t matter!

You know yourself best – which method will allow you to develop the routine of writing down things you are thankful for?

Choose that method.

Personally, I use a blank notebook, write the date, underline it, and then write at least three things I am thankful for. See below as an example.

Gratitude journal
gratitude journal

On days when I am stressed and short on time, I stick to three things. I never do less than three because if I am finding it particularly challenging to find something, I need to stick with the practice until I find something. Everybody has at least three things they can be thankful for each day.

On days when I am particularly moved, I’ll write more. Sometimes it’s five. Other times, it’s seven. You don’t need to put a limit on how many things you are thankful for.

I use bullet points because that’s my preferred method of capturing my thoughts. If you do better with freeform, write sentences or paragraphs.

You could write, “Today, I am thankful for the sunshine because it made me feel warm and put a smile on my face.” Or, you could write, “Sunshine.”

Either way, you are writing what you are thankful for and developing a good habit.

If you are having a particularly tough day and struggling with finding things to be thankful for, below are a few ideas.

  • You are breathing. Most of us are glad to be alive. You can be thankful you are still breathing. Simple, and it gets you that much closer to an appreciative state of mind. 
  • Memory of XYZ in your past. Maybe today was awful. Maybe you can’t find anything to be thankful for today, but surely there is a memory in your past you are thankful for. A vacation? A moment with a loved one? An accomplishment that filled you with energy? 
  • A tree. Trees provide oxygen, improve air quality, and support wildlife. Do you know that feeling you get when surrounded by trees? Who is not thankful for that? 
  • A meal or drink. Even if you only had water and bread today, you can be thankful for that. 
  • Shelter. Whether you are outside in a tent or cozied up on the couch, shelter can be one of your thankful things. 

Like any good habit, it takes time to build it. It’s okay if you miss a few days, even months. I started this practice in 2013 and have skipped months, usually when life got particularly bad, but I always regretted not continuing the practice and coming back to it.

I always came back to it because it always put me in a better mindset. The act of writing what I am thankful for made me feel more thankful.

Idea 2 to Practice Gratitude: Do an Act of Kindness Daily

You may be thinking, “Do an act of kindness once per day? Are you serious? I don’t even have time for myself right now!”

Yes, I am serious.

It doesn’t have to be life changing. It doesn’t have to cost you money. It doesn’t even need to take more than 30 seconds.

You can incorporate it into your everyday life. It doesn’t have to be a separate, go-out-of-your-way thing.

Kindness can do wonderful things for your life. Acts of kindness can boost serotonin and dopamine, which give you feelings of satisfaction and well-being.

Acts of kindness won’t change the situation you are in, but getting into the habit of doing acts of kindness regularly can help you feel better.

Ideas for Acts of Kindness – 1 Minute or Less

  • Hold the door or elevator open for the next person at the hospital or doctor’s office
  • Write a review for one of your healthcare providers (primary care doctor, oncologist, neurologist, physical therapist, therapist, etc.)
  • Write a review for a business you enjoy and makes your life easier
  • Donate to a charity, even if it’s only $1 (If you are looking for charity ideas, CancerCare provides support groups and many other free services).
  • Sign up for Amazon Smile so your purchases help support a charity you name
  • Compliment someone you see today
  • Pick up a piece of litter

Ideas for Acts of Kindness – 30 Minutes or Less

  • Donate old clothing to Goodwill or another charitable organization
  • Cook a meal for a friend or family member (it does not have to be fancy)
  • Invite someone to coffee and pay for it
  • Write a thank you note to someone who helped you or made an impact on your life
  • Bring extra food or a granola bar to a medical appointment and offer to share

The options to do an act of kindness are endless. It can be as simple as a compliment that takes 10 seconds or more elaborate, such as throwing a surprise birthday party for someone.

If you are having trouble getting in the habit, start small. Compliments are free and can brighten someone’s day. Try it. Watch their face when you compliment them. Take note of how you feel in return.

The truth is, acts of kindness are positive for others, but they are also positive for the giver.

Idea 3 to Practice Gratitude: Go for a Walk and Simply Observe Your Surroundings

A walk won’t solve all your problems, but I find it to be an easy “reset button” to clear your mind.

Ideally, the walk would be 15-30 minutes long, which gives you time to unwind from the everyday stressors of life. But, if you only have 5 minutes, walk for 5 minutes. Even if you only have 1 minute, walk for 1 minute. Something is better than nothing.

There are many possible benefits to walking outside:

6 benefits of walking outside
6 benefits of walking outside

Unplug and unwind from the world by going for a walk. Observe your surroundings and in your head or out loud, notice what you are thankful for. For example, you could say, “I am thankful for this tree. I appreciate the coat around me to shelter the cold from my body. I smile watching the family play together in the park.”

If you find yourself getting stuck about what to write in your thankful journal, go for a walk and put your thankful journal in front of your door or somewhere else you’ll run into it when you get back.

You may find it easier to write after spending time in nature and walking.

As you walk, you can even try a grounding technique to turn your attention away from worries and focus on what is around you.

One grounding technique to try is to name the objects around you and their qualities. For example, you could say, “I see a tree. The tree is green. It’s wide around the base, has rough bark, and is about three stories high. I see a house with four windows. The house is grey. It has a driveway with a basketball hoop.”

By allowing your brain to turn off thinking about the test results, wondering whether the treatment is working, or how devastated you are that you’ll never get to experience the laugh of your loved one again, you make room for moments of gratitude. You leave space for thankfulness.

Be kind to yourself – go for a walk.

What I’m Thankful for in 2021

Although I do my best to write daily in my thankful journal, this time of year is a natural time to reflect more deeply. Now that you have three ideas to practice gratitude, I’ll share what I am thankful for in 2021.

  1. Getting engaged
  2. Quitting my job and starting my own business
  3. Visiting 11 National Parks on a 26 day road trip
  4. Feeling settled
  5. Video chatting capabilities
  6. Spending more time with friends and family
  7. COVID vaccine

Getting Engaged

I got engaged! What a blessing this has been. It’s a wonderful feeling having a teammate in life, someone who will have your back no matter what. Someone I can laugh with, experience life with, and grow with.

Quitting My Job and Starting My Own Business

It’s scary leaving a comfortable position. I was with my prior company for about 10 years and had worked my way up from intern to portfolio manager to associate advisor to financial advisor to director of associate advisors. I made a good living.

But, for many reasons, I decided that was no longer the path I wanted to take.

Now, I get to build my life and business more intentionally and work with clients in the way I want to work with them. Although building a business is challenging and fears creep up consistently, I am enjoying it.

Visiting 11 National Parks on a 26 Day Road Trip

When I left my job, I knew I wanted to take some time to unwind and destress from the world. Between the difficulties a pandemic environment introduced, busier than ever work weeks, and the rollercoaster of my dad’s cancer journey over the past five years, I needed some “me time.”

Ideally, I would have traveled abroad for a few months, but with COVID and ever-changing country rules, I decided I did not want to navigate the maze of rules.

Instead, I decided my best friend and I would build a platform in my car to sleep out of for part of the road trip and explore the National Parks.

I loved this trip!

As a “planner,” I designed this trip intentionally to be different. I didn’t plan more than a few days in advance. I only had a general outline of where I wanted to go. There were no deadlines other than the end of the trip to match with my fiancée’s vacation time.

Feeling Settled

This year has been the year of motion. I know we have all felt unsettled during the pandemic. On top of the pandemic, my fiancée went through the match process because she graduated from medical school this year. This meant until March, we had no idea where we would be living.

Then, I wasn’t sure what to do about my employment at the time, what to do about my townhome in Seattle, and how, as an only child, to discuss potentially moving across the country away from my family.

We picked a place to live in a town we had never been, in an area we had never experienced, and signed a lease with someone we had never met in person. We didn’t even see the exact apartment we were renting over video chat. We looked at a similar apartment. It worked out, but it was unsettling.

Then, I had to pack up the townhome, hire movers, and ship our stuff across the country. For a time period, my fiancée was without furniture. Then, I was without furniture. You learn to live with less, but life is more comfortable with some furniture.

Then, and although I put this one on myself, I lived out of hotels, AirBnbs, and my car for nearly a month.

Most of this year was actively being unsettled.

For now, I am thankful for being settled.

Video Chatting Capabilities

Imagine in the past only being able to connect through letters or the phone with loved ones. I am thankful for the plethora of video chatting services available.

I can click a few buttons and be on the phone with my mom or dad in a few seconds.

Spending more time with friends and family

In contrast to 2020, when we hardly spent any time with friends and family in person, except the occasional porch visit or socially distanced walk, 2021 felt like a party.

The vaccine changed my comfort being around others and our collective comfort.

There were engagement parties, weddings, summer barbeques, graduation parties, and more one-on-one chats not limited to an outdoor setting.

Grateful doesn’t begin to describe how I feel about those moments.

COVID Vaccine

Who else felt their entire body relax when their loved ones qualified to get the vaccine?

I know mine did.

Having had COVID in November of 2020 (hazards of dating someone who works in the hospital regularly), I was ecstatic when my parents, aunts, uncle, friends, and I received the vaccine.

The pandemic isn’t over, and I don’t know what lies ahead, but I am thankful for the extra protection the vaccine provides everybody, particularly my immunocompromised mom and dad.

There are plenty of other things I am thankful for, but as I looked back on photos and memories from this year, these were the ones that came to mind.

Final Thoughts – My Question for You

Practicing gratitude takes work. There are days where you may find you have no energy to practice gratitude. That’s okay.

There is no need to feel guilty or that you let yourself down if you just need to “be” some days.

Hopefully, with three ideas to practice gratitude, you’ll find that small actions can lead to consistency, which can lead to better thoughts through tough times.

Those three ideas are:

  1. Keep a gratitude journal
  2. Do an act of kindness daily
  3. Go for a walk and simply observe your surroundings

Remember, your gratitude doesn’t have to be life changing. Give someone a compliment. See what happens. You never know how it might change another person’s day, as well as your own.

I’ll leave you with one question to act on.

What are you going to do today to practice gratitude?

Disclaimer: This article is for general information and educational purposes only and should not be considered investment, financial, legal, or tax advice. It is not a recommendation for purchase or sale of any security or investment advisory services. Please consult your own legal, financial, and other professionals to determine what may be appropriate for you. Opinions expressed are as of the date of publication, and such opinions are subject to change. Click for full disclaimer.

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