You may have heard that gratitude journals are all the rage these days. People swear they create a more positive mind, leading to greater outcomes in life and a happier disposition. But do gratitude journals really work? And how can you start your own gratitude journal?
What’s all the fuss about?
Writing down the things we’re thankful for not only helps us hone in on the good things in life, but studies say it can even improve our sleep, ward off illness and make us happier.
Practising being grateful almost seems too simple to be so effective, but mental health researchers say that celebrating the good things in our life can be an incredible soul balm.
“When we don’t stop and literally count our blessings, the negative thoughts tend to dominate for most of us and that’s what we keep tending to see. This affects how we perceive reality and further blocks us going forward,” says psychologist Dr Marny Lishman.
“Gratitude may be one of the most overlooked tools that we all have access to every day. Cultivating gratitude doesn’t take much time, it’s cheap and you don’t need anyone to help you with it.”
What is a gratitude journal?
There are no hard and fast rules on what a gratitude journal has to be. You could buy a stylish book from a designer stationery store, use an app or keep a tattered notepad by your bed.
“You don’t need to buy a fancy personal journal to record your entries in, or worry about spelling or grammar,” Professor Robert Emmons, University of California gratitude researcher, tells the Berkeley Greater Good blog.
“The important thing is to establish the habit of paying attention to gratitude-inspiring events.”
It doesn’t have to be huge things either – you might just note the fact the sun is shining today or strawberries are in season or your barista remembers your name.
While there is value in simply trying to remember to look for the silver lining of situations, Professor Emmons says that actively writing down things you appreciate has more power.
“Writing helps to organise thoughts, facilitate integration, and helps you accept your own experiences and put them in context,” he says.
“In essence, it allows you to see the meaning of events going on around you and create meaning in your own life.”
What about the research?
Gratitude isn’t just another trend sweeping through the Instagram feeds (although it’s definitely doing that). In fact, there’s a growing body of research to support the practice of gratitude’s ability to create a more positive mind.
For many years, positive psychology has vouched for gratitude as a way to improve overall life satisfaction. Positive psychology research continues to show that gratitude helps people to feel more positive emotions, experience improved health outcomes and build positive relationships with others.
A 2003 study by Robert A. Emmons from the University of California and Michael E. McCullough from the University of Miami concluded that a conscious focus on blessings may have emotional and interpersonal benefits. During their study, they found that participants who focussed on gratitude exhibited heightened well-being. From the hundreds of people studied, the gratitude group reported:
- Greater happiness and joy
- Fewer symptoms of physical illness
- Greater life satisfaction
- Increased connection with others
- Better quality of sleep
More recent research from 2011 by Rash, Matsuba and Prkachin found that grateful contemplation (like having a gratitude journal) increased relaxation responses) and decreased stress responses. Compared with the non-gratitude participants in the study, the gratitude group reported higher satisfaction with life and greater self-esteem. The researchers concluded that grateful contemplation can be used to enhance long-term wellbeing and create a more positive mind.
According to Harvard University, many studies have shown that gratitude can improve relationships and lead to better work outcomes. Research from Berkeley University in 2017 illustrated how gratitude can actually change your brain – discovering that when people felt more grateful, their brain activity was highlighted in the area associated with learning and decision-making. The study specifically looked at participants with mental health challenges, finding a significant improvement in mental health in those who wrote gratitude letters.
Have we convinced you yet? It’s no wonder that the practice of gratitude journaling has become so popular. So, how do you start your own and work towards a more positive mind?
How to start your own gratitude journal
Because of this research and the growing popularity of a formal practice of gratitude, you can find an abundance of dedicated gratitude journals to buy. This might help to inspire the practice more than a blank canvas, but it’s also simple to start your own in a notebook or journal.
Gratitude journaling: The practice
Take your pen and notebook/gratitude journal and find a quiet and comfortable place to sit. You might like to close your eyes and take a few deep breaths to settle in, become present and begin to invite in a more positive mind. You could make the experience even more ritualistic by lighting a candle or creating a small altar to sit by when you do this practice.
Contemplate the things that you feel grateful for in your life. On a good day this might be a promotion, the addition of a new family member or the memory of a fun social activity. On a less than average day you can still find things to be grateful for – a roof over your head, food in your belly or a friendly greeting from a stranger. After some time, open your eyes and begin to write down these things that you feel grateful for. You can include drawings, lists, poetry – whatever feels good for you. Focus on quality over quantity. You don’t need to think of 100 things to be grateful for – there may simply be one thing that you really dive into and express.
How often should you write in your gratitude journal?
Ultimately it’s up to you how often you pause to smell the roses – the key is making a regular time to shift your focus away from things that are frustrating you to help you remember all of the positive elements of your life.
Repetition is key. See if you can habit stack this practice onto an already existing habit. For example, you may practice gratitude each evening after you’ve brushed your teeth or settled into bed(stacking a new habit on top of an already established one).
University of Canberra psychologist and body image expert Dr Vivienne Lewis says one good gratitude strategy is ending each day reflecting on three things that went well for you that day.
“Knowing that you will have to come up with three things at the end of the day [means] you will start to look out for them during the day,” she tells 9Coach.
“It changes people’s thinking so rather than thinking about what’s gone wrong or badly in the day, you look for what’s been positive and what positive things people have said.”
That said, some studies suggest leaving your gratitude reflections to a once-a-week musing is more valuable than daily journaling so that the novelty doesn’t wear off and it becomes a chore.
“[Don’t] hurry through this exercise as if it were just another item on your to-do list,” Professor Emmons adds.
Why gratitude works
Often we think of happiness as a destination we will reach when things line up perfectly in our lives – once we reach our goal weight or land our dream job or meet our soul mate, we believe happiness will be achieved
But David Steindl-Rast, monk and interfaith scholar, argues that rather than waiting for experiences to be grateful for, we would achieve far greater happiness if we began by practising being grateful first.
“We all know … people who have everything it would take to be happy and they are not happy. And we all know people who have lots of misfortune … and they are deeply happy,” he says in a 2013 Ted Talk that has been viewed more than 7 million times.
“[It’s] because they are grateful. If you think it’s happiness that makes you grateful, think again. It’s gratefulness that makes you happy.”
Enjoy the practice of gratitude, and watch how it creates a more positive mind and ripples into many areas of your life.