Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

This Ancient Strategy Can Help You Practice Deep Gratitude

How "memento mori" can help you enjoy what you have while you have it.

Key points

  • When we become shortsighted, we lose perspective and become ungrateful.
  • The Stoic philosophy "memento mori" puts life back into perspective and helps us practice deep gratitude.
  • Combining "memento mori" with mindfulness or a gratitude journaling habit can be a powerful combination for practicing daily gratitude.

A while ago, I talked with a mother (we’ll call her Brenda) and her daughter, Kim. At one point, Kim complained about how much her aging mother called her. “She calls me like 10 times a day! It’s so annoying! Wouldn’t it drive you crazy?”

This is an example of how short-sightedness can cause us to lose perspective and become ungrateful. We only consider the immediate convenience, or inconvenience, to ourselves—we rarely look into the future.

Because there were a few things Kim hadn’t considered up until that point.

“Kim,” I said, “it probably is annoying for your mom to call you that often, but have you thought about the fact that one day will be the last day you ever talk to her again? There will come a time when she’ll be gone. Your grandmother (Brenda’s mother), died last year.”

“Brenda,” I said, turning to her, “do you wish you could talk to your mom just one more time?”

“More than anything,” Brenda mumbled, tearing up.

“I never thought of it that way… well, now I’m about to cry!” Kim said, half joking. Kim never complained about her mom calling her again.

Most of us only appreciate things in hindsight.

  • We only miss walking when we break our legs.
  • We only miss the smell of our grandmother’s cooking when she’s gone.
  • We only appreciate intimate gatherings with friends when we haven’t seen them in years.

When was the last time you took a deep inventory of everything you’re grateful for? Or, do you take most things in your life for granted?

There’s always something we can be grateful for in the present moment. But we have to prime our minds to look for it.

Thankfully, there’s a simple psychological strategy from Stoic philosophy that can help: memento mori.

The Case For Stoic Gratitude

“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” —Marcus Aurelius

Memento mori is a concept from ancient Stoic philosophy that roughly translates to “remember death,” or “remember you will die.” It isn’t meant to be fatalistic or depressing. It’s meant to empower us—to use our mortality to live fully.

Because when we become shortsighted, we lose perspective and become ungrateful. Memento mori puts life back into perspective and helps us practice deep gratitude for what we have while we have it.

If we take memento mori a step further—as a reminder that everything ends—it primes our minds to want to hold onto what’s going on around us. Think of being at a bar when “last call” happens—you instantly want just a little more time with your friends or one more beer. Your mind tries to root itself in the present moment. But before last call, you weren’t paying much attention to the moment.

A lot of people joke about how they wish they could wipe their memories of their favorite book, just so they could experience the joys of reading it for the first time all over again—because that’s a high they’re chasing the rest of their life. But we can’t do that. We rarely take the time to savor a good book as we’re reading it; instead, we impatiently race to the end, as if there’s a prize at the finish line. But the prize is the reading itself, the journey we get to experience along the way with Frodo, Harry, Eragon, or whoever our favorite characters are.

What advice do we give young people? “Enjoy your youth while it lasts!” We were told the same thing, but did we enjoy it? Were we grateful for what we had when we had it, or did we take it all for granted and only now, when it’s gone, do we appreciate it and wish we could go back?

Remember it will end.

Two Exercises To Practice Gratitude

“Enjoy the little things in life, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.” —Robert Brault

Here are two ways to shift your mind into gratitude mode so you can be happier and weather the storms life throws at you—now and in the future.

1. Practice mindfulness.

Mindfulness allows us to focus our awareness on the present moment—our breathing, our thoughts, our surroundings—and makes it easier to find things to be grateful for throughout the day.

Mindfulness also helps us be more present and intentional. When we’re with family, we’re fully present with them instead of distractedly playing on our phones; or focusing our mind on the sounds of a bustling city street as we walk downtown instead of mindlessly hurrying to our destination. It teaches us to take in the moment for what it is and find joy in it.

2. Keep a gratitude journal.

Write in it in the morning to prime yourself for things to look for in the rest of your day. Then write in it in the evening to review the things from your day you’re grateful for.

These entries can be bullet points or single sentences—you don’t have to fill out a page if you’re new to journaling. Don’t overthink it; just list out stuff to be grateful for.

Try to list five things for the morning and five for the evening. If you can do more, great. If you can’t hit five, look harder. They’re there somewhere—they just might be easy to overlook.

To get you started on practicing gratitude, here’s a brief list of simple cognitive reframes to switch your mind into gratitude mode:

  • When you can’t find a good parking spot: “I’m grateful I have a car.”
  • When your partner is snoring: “I’m grateful my partner is alive and that I get to sleep next to them.”
  • When your new puppy poops on the carpet: “I’m grateful to have the memories of them when they are a puppy, because I know they will grow up too soon and I will miss the times they were young.”

These practices can help you shift out of complaining mode and into gratitude mode, which is a much better mental state to be in.

Anytime a family member’s phone call is inconvenient—or basically any time you’re not feeling grateful—memento mori could help you snap out of your reverie. Remember it will end, so be grateful in the here and now for what you have while you have it.

More from Psychology Today

More from Corey Wilks Psy.D.

More from Psychology Today