Gratitude Journaling

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

 

September 29th, 2014

I’m grateful for waffles and peanut butter.

I’m grateful for my bike ride with Nate in Discovery Park and the fall colors that are out.

I’m grateful for Fleet Foxes.

I’m grateful that I’m in a position to help kids.

I’m grateful that I’m getting better at arguing with my own irrational thoughts.

 

Those are the words that I wrote nearly four years ago in my gratitude journal. It was a pretty typical entry: a random assortment of things I felt grateful for that night. The entry included relatively minor items – sensory pleasures, a fun experience with a friend, a band I’d recently discovered – as well as more significant items – a recognition of why I love my career and a reflection on my own psychological growth.

Gratitude journaling is something I’ve done for years. The exercise is simple: write down about five things you’re thankful for. It is typically done at the end of the day, but it could be done anytime. You might like doing it at part of your morning routine to set a positive tone for the day. You can do it every day, once a week, or just as desired.

The things your write down can be big or small, concrete or abstract, recently experienced or from the distant past. They can be people, events, emotions, or anything else you might feel grateful for at the time of journaling. If you can’t think of five things, write three. If you can’t think of three, write one. If you can’t think of one, try harder.

The purpose of gratitude journaling is to create a ritual in which you express and experience gratitude. I’ll let Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want, explain what researchers have learned about the importance of feeling thankful:

“People who are consistently grateful have been found to be relatively happier, more energetic, and more hopeful and to report experiencing more frequent positive emotions. … Furthermore, the more a person is inclined to gratitude, the less likely he or she is to be depressed, anxious, lonely, envious, or neurotic.”1

As with nearly all psychological traits a disposition toward gratitude can be developed through regular practice. It is therefore no surprise that researchers have found that keeping a gratitude journal increases happiness.2 And people who keep a gratitude journal even sleep better than those who don’t.2

I started gratitude journaling because psychologists claimed it would make me happier. I kept gratitude journaling because I liked doing it. It simply feels good to think about and write down what you’re grateful for.

Here’s an entry focused on a single event: a weekend visit to my uncle’s home.

 

April 14th, 2017

I’m grateful I got to visit Uncle John’s place.

I’m grateful John and Carol like playing board games.

I’m grateful for the huge cedars in the mossy forest.

I’m grateful Eric made me try an oyster.

I’m grateful for the delicious dinner Carol made with the clams we harvested.

 

This is another classic type of gratitude journal entry. I had just returned from a very enjoyable weekend visiting my aunt Carol, uncle John, and cousin Eric. Their home is on Hood Canal – an offshoot of Puget Sound – and is surrounded by dense forest. As I crawled into bed that night, I could have simply thought to myself, What a great weekend, but this would have been much less powerful than writing about it in my gratitude journal.

By taking the time to jot down some specifics from the weekend, I got a chance to relive them in my mind. In a sense, I got to enjoy them all over again. Gratitude journaling helped me really savor the memory my time there.

An entry like this also creates a record of the experience that you can revisit on a later date. While working on this post, I read through about four years of gratitude journal entries, and it was a marvelous – and emotional – trip down memory lane.

 

October 4th, 2015

I’m grateful for all my new students and new friends and new opportunities.

I’m grateful for all my old friends and the love we share, the help we give one another, and all the laughs.

I’m grateful for productivity tools and great quotes.

I’m grateful that I get to help others by sharing ideas that have helped me.

I’m grateful for writing as a flow experience.

 

This entry wasn’t focused on any particular events or experiences, but was instead focused on broader, more significant themes. It feels deeply satisfying to reflect on the really important things you’re grateful for, so this is a nice thing to include in your gratitude journaling practice. It also puts minor troubles in perspective. Thinking of the big things that are going right helps you remain emotionally strong when a bunch of little things go wrong.

 

August 26th, 2016

I’m grateful that I can find ways to feel good or at least feel okay when I’m having a hard time.

I’m grateful that I live in a time and place that has clean water, plenty of food, wealth, and freedom.

I’m grateful to myself for all the progress I made this week.

 

This was an entry used to reflect on my growing psychological fortitude, which I was working very hard to develop at the time. This had been a particularly difficult week, and didn’t have much in the way of positive events to record in my journal. But I was able to reflect on how I had used strategies to manage my emotional difficulties, and feel grateful that I had helped myself get through it. I also used that night’s gratitude journaling to remind myself of how lucky I am to live in this particular place and at this particular time in history. And I thanked myself for continuing to work hard all week despite feeling down.

 

February 9th, 2017

I’m grateful that yesterday’s crash wasn’t worse.

I’m grateful that I’m not severely injured, paralyzed, or dead.

I’m grateful for the lesson I’ve learned.

I’m grateful for all the help I got from Ski Patrol, my dad, Rebecca, and my coworkers.

I’m grateful for ibuprofen, ice packs, and heat packs.

I’m grateful I was able to fall asleep last night.

 

I wrote this entry about 32 hours after a near-death experience skiing in the Alpental backcountry. I was skiing along the edge of a 30-foot tall, frozen waterfall – a terraced cliff, covered in ice. Taking a right-hand turn near the edge of the cliff, my skis cut through the two feet of surface powder and found the ice lurking underneath. I slipped, slammed into the ice, and tumbled over the edge, smashing into the frozen waterfall’s terraces as I fell. Seconds later, I found myself wrapped around a bent-over tree that was just off the ground.

Doubled over, the wind knocked out of me, and thoroughly concussed, I struggled to comprehend what had just happened. I stood up, and pain washed over me. My whole body ached, and my lower back was sharply in pain, and my left knee didn’t want to hold my weight. I called ski patrol, told them where I was, and lied down to await rescue.

On the way home and over the next several days, I came to realize just how lucky I had been. I should have been much more injured. How close had I come to breaking my back? What if I had hit the tree with my ribs or my face instead of my stomach? What if the tree hadn’t been there at all and I’d landed on my head? I easily could have died.

Then it really started to sink in: The way I had been skiing for years was profoundly unwise, and this was my wake-up call. There were dozens of times in the past decade when I had skied along the edge of much larger cliffs, never thinking twice about the consequences of a fall. I was lucky to have fallen where I did. I was lucky to have experienced only the mildest imaginable consequences of such a fall. I took this lesson to heart and resolved to never again ski so recklessly.

Thinking that you can find the “blessing in disguise” when something bad happens can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Lessons like the one I learned are often there, but you’ll only find them if you look for them.

Writing in my gratitude journal the night after my accident helped me process this lesson. At the time of writing it, I was still in a great deal of pain, and I wasn’t exactly “happy.” But I was able to reflect on how much help I had received since the accident and feel thankful for that. And I was able to feel grateful for the lesson I had learned and thank my stars that it hadn’t been worse. This was helpful: My psychological fortitude was bolstered by forcing myself to write down what I was grateful for.

 

January 20th, 2016

Today I learned that Phil died. I’m grateful to have known him, to have experienced his love, his humor, and his complexity. I’m grateful for the fun times we shared and for the growing up we did together. I’m grateful I don’t have to suffer this loss alone. I’m grateful for all my friends and family, and for the love and support we give one another. I’m especially grateful to Rachel for staying up late to comfort me.

 

Phil and I met during the first week of our freshman year of college and had been friends for almost 13 years. When a buddy of ours called me out of the blue with the news that Phil had suddenly and unexpectedly died, I was devastated.

I did many things to deal with the grief, including writing in my gratitude journal. I won’t pretend this offered some great relief to my sadness, but it did help me process this event in a healthy way.

 

Okay, now that you’ve seen the full spectrum of what might go into a gratitude journal, let’s turn to the psychology question that the research raises:

Why does gratitude journaling make people happier?

I think the answer to that question has to do with self-perception: the mind’s tendency to decide how to think and feel based on what you do. As I’ve written previously, there is a bi-directional feedback loop connecting thoughts, emotions, and actions:

Since you can’t control your emotions directly, mastering the feedback loop that controls your life requires that you work on taking control of your thoughts and your actions, and gratitude journaling is a way to do that. Even if you’re not feeling grateful at this moment, getting yourself to think of things that you’re grateful for can change how your feel. And writing about what you’re grateful for is even more powerful than just thinking about it.

Writing is an action that forces you to think, so it influences the feedback loop from two angles. Writing also facilitates better memories and clearer thinking by lightening your cognitive load. Furthermore, actions speak louder than thoughts because action requires more effort than thinking and the mind pays special attention to things we put great effort into. Writing, more than mere thinking, leaves a strong imprint on your mind.

This makes gratitude journaling a powerful intervention you can use when feeling upset. When you feel like everything is going wrong, it’s very hard to think of things that are going right, even though they surely exist. But if you pull out your gratitude journal, and force yourself to right something, you’ll have to think of something to be grateful for, and this will shift how you feel. You’ll remember that some things are, in fact, going well.

On my worst days, when I severely depressed, I couldn’t get myself to write anything, but the gratitude journal still proved useful. I would read through some old entries to remind myself that good things had happened in my life. This rekindled in me some hope that things could get better.

Although gratitude journaling can feel good in the moment, this isn’t its main purpose. The real goal is to produce a lingering change in consciousness that increases happiness and resilience for the long run. Done frequently enough, gratitude journaling inevitably starts to rewire the brain.

By regularly and deliberately focusing on what you have to be thankful for, you will change your habitual way of seeing the world. You’ll start to notice more things to be grateful for throughout the day, and you’ll feel more appreciation than normal for the good things you would have noticed anyway. What you choose to focus on shifts, and you become more predisposed to joy and wonder.

“Gratitude is not only an emotion, felt when receiving a benefit gladly, but it is also a stance toward life.” –Robert Emmons2

We know this rewiring of the brain is possible because of the science of neuroplasticity. Dan Siegel, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA, explains:

“One of the key practical lessons of modern neuroscience is that the power to direct our attention has within it the power to shape our brain’s firing patterns, as well as the power to shape the architecture of the brain itself.”3

Gratitude journaling is one way you can privately wage war on the materialist culture that we live in. And make no mistake, it’s an uphill battle. You’ll be working against thought patterns that have been carved into your brain by advertisers who perpetually flaunt what you don’t have. Robert Emmons, author of Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, explains how big of a problem this is:

“Here’s a frightening statistic: by the age of twenty-one, the average adult will have seen one million TV commercials. By playing on our desires and fears, these ads fabricate needs and cultivate ingratitude for what we have and who we are.”2 (emphasis mine)

Gratitude journaling is a way to remind yourself that you already have much to be thankful for, that you already live in abundance. Emmons says:

“By cultivating gratefulness, we are freed from envy over what we don’t have or who we are not. It doesn’t make life perfect, but with gratitude comes the realization that right now, in this moment, we have enough, are enough.”2

 

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Works Cited

1 Lyubomirsky, Sonja. The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. Penguin Press, 2007.

2 Emmons, Robert. Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007.

3 Siegel, Daniel, M.D. Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation. Bantam, 2010.