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A gratitude journal is, at heart, very simple. It’s the act of taking a few minutes to write down things that you are grateful for.
In fact, in some ways, is is deceptively simple. The truth is that gratitude journaling carries a host of benefits, and that the act of ‘being thankful’ has been a part of philosophical and spiritual life for most of human history.
Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn’t die; so, let us all be thankful.Buddha
Benefits of a gratitude journal
Keeping a gratitude journal gives you something to look back through when times are difficult. It’s a chronicle of all the good things and events in your life.
Gratitude improves mood and reduces anxiety.
…the brain can only focus on so many things at once, so when you’re thankful for the good things that might occur on the future, gratitude replaces those negative feelings and worry evaporates.The Upward Spiral
Your gratitude journal helps you realise what things are actually important to your wellbeing. It gives you more self-awareness, and is a reminder to focus on the people and activities that truly bring you joy.
The truth is, our brain has a negativity bias. We are more likely to remember someone who insults us than someone who compliments us. And we are more likely to remember a bad day than a good one. This is good for survival, but less good for staying happy! A gratitude journal is a way of overcoming that negativity bias.
How to start a gratitude journal
Journal two to three times a week
To achieve the best benefits, you should try and write in your gratitude journal two to three times a week. It may seem counterintuitive, but this is a habit that actually has more benefit if it is done a couple of times a week rather than every day.
The theory is that the harder it is to think of things you’re grateful for, the more you’re inclined to feel worse instead of better. So, if you struggle to come up with things to feel grateful for, you’ll end up feeling worse about your life. But if things quickly jump to mind, you’ll feel happy and thankful. Trying to gratitude journal every day carries the danger of turning it into a rote activity with a risk of writer’s block.
Spend 10-15 minutes
There should be a physical, written record. Whilst sitting quietly and reflecting on good things is a positive thing to do, the real benefits come from the act of writing. Translating our thoughts into written language maximises their impact and deepens the feelings that were already there.
Use a dedicated journal
You should ideally have a dedicated notebook for your gratitude journal. You may be someone who journals already. I would advise not mixing your gratitude journal up with more in-depth or less positively focused writing. This is because you want to look back through your gratitude journal later and see just the good parts of your life. There are some beautiful examples of dedicated gratitude journals on Etsy*, but any new notebook will work.
I would also suggest keeping your gratitude journal in an easy to reach place, such as on your nightstand. You should see it before you go to bed, and be reminded to write in it. As with all habits, the more you remember to do it, the more likely you are to keep doing it.
What should be in your gratitude journal?
The answer is ‘whatever you want, as long as it works for you’. However, I do have some tips for what to focus on.
Firstly, you should aim for 3-5 things for each day that you journal. An entry can be brief – you aren’t writing a diary here! Instead, you should look back over the day and effectively bullet point the highlights. However, do make sure you are putting in enough detail that you’ll remember it later. “I’m grateful for my children” is good, but “I’m grateful that my children put on a silly sock puppet show and made me laugh” is better.
Take it seriously
Studies have shown1 that just ‘going through the motions’ of writing down things we think we should be grateful for doesn’t actually have any positive impact on us. This isn’t an exercise to write down three good things. It’s an exercise to feel gratitude, reframe the day, and focus on our own positive emotions.
Make sure you aren’t writing things down that you think you should be grateful for. Maybe you got a promotion at work, and surely that’s a positive thing? But if that promotion is for a career you don’t really want, and carries a whole lot more stress and responsibility, you probably don’t feel that grateful. In this case, don’t write it down.
Take your time
This shouldn’t feel like a chore, or an item on your to-do list that you need to tick off before you can go to bed. Instead, it’s about cultivating a mind-set. It’s about choosing to see the gifts we all have in abundance. It’s about reframing our feelings about the day — maybe we were busy, maybe we had an argument, maybe we failed to get everything done that we should have done. But we can still appreciate a few minutes with a friend, the easy abundance of our favourite tea or snack, and the feeling of cool, clean sheets at bedtime.
As you write each item down, take a few moments to visualise what happened and how you felt. You are making a conscious effort to feel good about this moment or person.
Include mementos. By all means stick in concert tickets, photos, receipts, or souvenirs. Just make sure they are all things that will make you smile later!
Gratitude journaling is a simple, easy and effective way to improve your outlook. It will boost your mood and make you happier. What do you have to lose?
1 See this paper (PDF) on An Experimental Longitudinal Intervention To Boost Well-Being.