Let’s face it, the older we get the more likely we are to encounter loss, whether it comes to us through the death of a spouse or a close friend, the failure of a marriage, or the onset of disease. When life gets really hard, how can we avoid being irretrievably pulled into a black hole of sorrow and negativity?

Gratitude, that’s how.

No matter how dreadful life seems, acknowledging the goodness, however small it may seem, can lead to a happier and healthier life.

“So often, we take our blessings for granted,” says Lisa Ryan, a U.S.-based gratitude expert, the founder of Grategy (gratitude strategies) and the author of seven books, including The Upside of Down Times: Discovering the Power of Gratitude.

“When we acknowledge what we have – not what we don’t have – it changes your life. It changed my life.”

Research has shown being grateful has physical benefits. It strengthens your immune system, improves your heart health and can even help you sleep better.

“One study showed that for every five minutes you spend in anger it actually reduces your immune system efficiency for six hours,” says Lisa. “And for every five minutes you spend in compassion it elevates your immune system for the next six hours. Choosing positive thoughts over negative emotions has a very powerful effect on our bodies.”

So where to begin? How do we practice gratitude?

“Begin where you are,” Lisa says. “Don’t wait for something magnificent to happen. Find five things you can be grateful for every day.”

Those things can be as simple as appreciating a warm, sunny day, a spouse who just made you a cup of coffee, a cat that’s curled up on your lap. Whatever makes you happy wherever you are.

Those five gratitudes can relate to the same thing (eg. a loving spouse) but the challenge is to find a different way to express that gratitude. It might be that your spouse is supportive of your work, makes the bed that day, or brings you tea. It means appreciating the positive emotion you experience – even from small gestures.

NEXT: 4 steps to help you experience gratitude

gratitude-2Here are four steps Lisa says can help you experience the transformative power of gratitude.

1) Start a daily gratitude journal: “It doesn’t have to be pages and pages of journaling. Nobody has time to do that,” says Lisa. “Just write down five things you’re grateful for on a daily basis. When I started doing that in 2009, within a very short period of time I noticed substantial changes in my life.”

2) Recognize that gratitude takes practice: “Gratitude is like a muscle.The more you work on it, the stronger it gets,” Lisa points out. “And it’s not about waiting to win the lottery. Look in the average and the everyday stuff – where we take so much for granted. This is what strengthens our gratitude.”

3) Look at your relationships with others: “Express your appreciation for people while they’re on the planet,” says Lisa. “Be conscious and say more positive things to people you love – while there’s time and you can.” Being positive is potent. (Research shows, for example, that to have a strong marriage, for every negative thing you say to your spouse you have to say five positive things to make up for it.)

4) Be thankful for what you have – now: “Be grateful for the good that you have in your life at this point in time. Here and now. Saying ‘thank you’ is so powerful,” says Lisa, pointing out this truth equally applies to business since the number-one reason customers leave is they feel unappreciated. It’s also the number-one reason employees leave a company.

“Gratitude changes your perspective,” says Lisa. “No matter what you’re going through if you can find one good thing to be grateful for life gets easier.”