There’s a special corner of the internet that delights in telling people to be grateful. Between hashtags like #blessed and #grateful and “thankful grateful” TikToks, it can be a little much, especially when you’re knee-deep coping with sadness, anger, resentment, and other difficult emotions.
What’s often missing from the gratitude conversation on social media is permission to acknowledge life’s complexities. As we head into a holiday season full of sentimental reminders to be grateful, you might be tempted to dismiss gratitude practices as inauthentic or forced. But the right gratitude meditation can help you strike a rewarding balance between experiencing the enlivening grace of this practice and letting challenging emotions be what they are.
Meditation teacher Diana Winston says practicing gratitude can create space for people to turn toward positive emotions that counteract, but do not erase, negativity and hardship. It can also help people notice and appreciate their surroundings in ways they hadn’t before, observing features of the landscape, for example, that they’d overlooked. The act of being present in your life can naturally lead to feeling thankful, says Winston, whose own gratitude meditation is included in the roundup of tracks below.
She notes that an effective gratitude meditation can help you access feelings of gratitude, which include warmth and connection. Skeptics should know that these tracks might encourage listeners to use visualization or reflect on how gratitude makes their body feel, language that might make them feel awkward, dorky, or embarrassed. Winston says that’s fine.
“Leave space for a complicated humanness,” says Winston, director of mindfulness education at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center. “It’s OK to feel grateful and also feel tired or annoyed.”
Unlike a lot of #gratitude content on social media, the guided meditations below don’t traffic in toxic positivity. There’s no instruction to replace negative feelings with positive ones, or to transform something painful into a reason for giving thanks.
In general, when selecting a guided meditation, feel free to skip tracks that make assumptions about the listener’s resources or abilities. If you’re blind and the meditation teacher is asking you to feel grateful for the power of sight, or if you’re struggling financially and being told to give thanks for your income, this may very well feel inauthentic, if not insulting. And if meditation isn’t your thing, Winston says there are other ways to practice gratitude, including making a gratitude list or sending a letter of thanks to someone you care about.If you’re interested in trying online guided gratitude meditations, the free tracks below range from short, straightforward instruction to more advanced or complex techniques. To further explore a gratitude practice, consider using an app like Ten Percent Happier, Calm, Insight Timer, or Headspace. (Headspace and Ten Percent Happier offer greater accessibility to all users by providing guided tracks with closed captioning. UCLA Mindful, which is free to use, offers guided meditations in American Sign Language.)
1. Mindful: A Meditation Series (Growing Gratitude Guided Meditation)
Length: 6 minutes
This brief YouTube guided meditation was published by the National Center on Health, Physical Activity, and Disability as part of a series of guided meditations. The captioned video track focuses on gratitude for being enough as you are, rather than focusing on striving for more. Among its prompts is an invitation to think of one thing that made the listener smile recently, like a meal or funny joke, and then to consider how that joy feels in their body.
2. Gratitude Meditation, Jack Kornfield.
Trained as a Buddhist monk and clinical psychologist, Jack Kornfield is a well-known meditation teacher. Hosted on Kornfield’s website, this short audio guided meditation begins with descriptions of the gratitude practices of Buddhist monks, Native people, and Tibetan monks and nuns. He defines gratitude as the “gracious acknowledgement of all that continues to sustain us” and “confidence in life itself.” The focus of the meditation is gratitude for how the listener cared for themselves and others cared for them as well.
3. The Massive Power of Not Taking Sh*t for Granted, Matthew Hepburn
Length: 12 minutes
This audio track is from the Ten Percent Happier Podcast, but it can be easily played online via iHeart. Starting with a brief intro from podcast host and Ten Percent Happier co-founder Dan Harris, it features meditation teacher Matthew Hepburn, who asks listeners to begin by acknowledge exactly how they feel. There’s no need to replace the emotion a listener currently feels with anything else, he says, and prompts listeners to think of something for which they’re grateful, whether it’s as “extraordinary” as winning the lottery or “ordinary” as breathing fresh air. He then asks them to contemplate the sensory details of the experience to make the memory “come alive” in the moment.
4. Reset & Refocus With Gratitude, Lama Rod Owens
Length: 16 minutes.
Hosted by the meditation app Insight Timer, this web-based audio track features renowned teacher Lama Rod Owens. A Black Buddhist minister, Owens is skilled at recognizing how gratitude serves people while also making room for their anger and disappointment. In this guided meditation, Owens asks listeners to feel gratitude for their connections to all beings. When thoughts turn toward anger at someone for their behavior, Owens contemplates the gratitude he might feel when people show you how not to be in the world. To learn more about how Owens balances gratitude with intense feelings, check out his 2020 guided meditation published on YouTube by Tricycle: The Buddhist Review.
5. Morning Meditation with Tara Brach: Presence and Gratitude
Length: 19 minutes
Tara Brach is among the most-well known meditation instructors, online and offline. In this guided audio mediation, published on YouTube, Brach slowly leads listeners through developing sustained awareness of their body’s sensations. This present-moment awareness then gives way to reflection on what listeners feel grateful for, and an invitation to feel that in “your body and your heart.” That gratitude, says Brach, might help you know what your prayer is for today.
6. Hammer Podcast: Gratitude, Diana Winston
Length: 32 minutes
This audio-only track is a recording of the Hammer Podcast, a drop-in meditation hosted by UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center and the Hammer Museum. In this episode, Winston, author of The Little Book of Being: Practices and Guidance for Uncovering Your Natural Awareness, spends the first several minutes talking about what gratitude means and how it can be practiced. The meditation itself begins at about eight minutes in, with a prompt to consider what in this moment can be appreciated. This might be as simple as the listener’s breath or family. Then Winston asks what this feels like in the listener’s body, like warmth or a smile, inviting them to let this feeling stay with them even as other emotions may arise.
Since the guided meditation occurred online with a live audience, it concludes with Winston reading what people dropped in the chat when she asked them to share their gratitude. Their responses included “pineapples, my apartment, free food, my cat, my dog, sunlight, joy, road trips, and my 99-year-old mom.” It’s a lovely reminder that when given the opportunity, we can all find gratitude for something, however small.