I have a gratitude practice. Sort of. It used to be a lot more robust, when it was a matter of life or death (I mean that honestly, by the way; there was a point in time when digging deep and listing off a few, measly things for which I was grateful kept me tethered to the planet when nothing else would). But now that I don't "need" it, it doesn't happen every day.
It is definitely one of the top things in my toolbox, though. One of the first that is pulled out when I'm feeling cranky or overwhelmed or just plain sad. And I know it's been a while when the first few things I run though mentally as things to be grateful for start with, "at least I'm not...." If I am comparing my life to someone else's, as in, "at least I'm not part of this oppressed group or that oppressed group" or thinking about all the ways my current situation could be worse, such as, "neither of my kids is suffering from some horrible illness and I'm not homeless," I'm not really being grateful. Even though those are things to be happy about, the fact that I am conjuring up ways that my life could run off the rails taints the whole process. Instead of helping me to feel calm and centered, it is a simple reminder that at some point, one or more of those things could potentially happen and for now, I'm just dodging a bullet.
If I am also making a mental note of the number of "good" things in my life as they compare to the number of "bad" ones, that is not gratitude. It is not helpful to weigh them against each other, ticking off one thing for which I am grateful in response to each thing that drags me down. They are not figures on a balance sheet. They both exist simultaneously in my life and in my mind, but gratitude is about the ones I choose to pay attention to, where I decide to place my focus in any given moment. It doesn't make the other things disappear, it simply allows me to notice that there are positive things in my life.
When the girls were little and I quit my job to stay at home with them full time, I quickly learned that the only way to gauge my level of tangible activity during the day was to note the absence of certain things. If the laundry was folded and put away, the dishes were washed and put away, the floors were devoid of dirt and debris, I had been productive. This was completely opposed to any system of determining productivity I had ever been a part of in my work life - there you were rewarded based on the things you created and they were present. It was incredibly frustrating to me to realize that outsiders would come into my house and only notice if I hadn't done something - if there were piles of laundry and dirty dishes and hungry children. For me, gratitude is like that. For most of my day, I go about things only noticing the items that need to be 'fixed' or that don't meet my expectations. This is not always a negative thing - often I am happy to know that there is something I can do to make things better. But unless I take the time to really engage in a gratitude practice, I rarely note the things that are just absolutely right in my world all around me.
I am loathe to imply that gratitude is a complicated thing, because when I'm in the zone, it really isn't. When I am feeling it, when I am really tuned in to the goodness and abundance in my life, it is simple and pure and I am hard pressed to stop finding things for which I am grateful. In fact, for me, the key to actual gratitude is to simplify things. When I am frustrated and irritable, the best thing for me to do is to stop and look around. I see my computer and I am grateful for the ability to write and to connect with people who are important to me online. I catch sight of a glass of water on the counter and am grateful for clean water and a cupboard full of dishes. I note my sunglasses on the table next to me and close my eyes and thank goodness that I can so often feel the warm sun on my back. There is no context, no attempt to think beyond any of these things, just simple gratitude, and when I can find that place in my day, I suddenly feel as though there is more air in the room.