What is gratitude journaling?
In the last couple of decades, research into happiness and wellbeing has shown that consciously choosing to participate in certain activities (sometimes called positive psychology interventions) can have a positive effect on our mood, increasing our happiness, optimism, and sense of wellbeing. One such simple intervention is keeping a ‘gratitude journal’ – the practice of writing down things that we feel grateful for, on a regular basis.
When considering activities that might increase wellbeing, different people might be drawn to different type of activities – there is no ‘one size fits all’ in positive psychology, however, gratitude journaling is a particular favourite of mine. It is something I have found to be simple and effective, and in my master’s research project on gratitude journaling, I found that most participants who volunteered to take part enjoyed the process and found it rewarding.
How do I go about gratitude journaling?
It’s easy – just find a notebook or sheet of paper and each day set aside a few minutes to think about what you are grateful for, then jot it down. I keep my journal by my bed and often write before I go to sleep, which has the added benefit that I end my day thinking about something positive. I normally aim for three things, some days I’ve had a great day and more things come to mind. What I’ve found, is that if you keep it up for a couple of weeks, you gradually become more attuned to the positive and it becomes easier to think of things to write.
What should I write about?
Whatever matters to you! I often write about things that I have done that I have enjoyed. For example, I’ve had a dog walk in the woods with a friend – I am grateful that we had time to walk and talk, that we live in a beautiful part of the country and that the sun was shining. Other days when things aren’t so good, I try to look for the silver linings. Maybe it was a bad day, but it could have been worse. Or maybe I am grateful for the things I often take for granted – a roof over my head, running water, food in the fridge.
Sometimes we feel gratitude to a particular person, but sometimes it’s a more general feeling. We can be grateful for the things we have, grateful to be alive, grateful to witness a beautiful sunset or the view from the top of a mountain. In my research project, many people commented that nature was something that inspired gratitude, and other research has shown that gratitude can be triggered by experiences of awe, such as a virtual spacewalk.
When thinking about what to write, the most important thing is that you choose what really matters to YOU, not what you think you ‘should’ feel grateful for. Maybe you have had a dreadful day, in which case trying smother negative feelings with false positivity really isn’t going to help. You can feel upset, or angry, or sad – it’s perfectly OK to feel negative emotions – that’s part of life and something we can’t escape from. But alongside those thoughts and feelings, we can look for the little glimmers of light that give us hope and comfort when times are bad.
Do I need to journal every day?
No – it might be best to mix it up a bit. Research has shown that it might be better to journal once a week, or more regularly for a short length of time as a way of helping you look at things differently – it may be if you keep at it for too long that it you become stale and it becomes a chore, which may be counterproductive. When I’ve journaled, I’ve generally kept it up for a few weeks and found that it improved my mood and helped me look at the world more positively. During that time, I would try to write every day, but wouldn’t worry if I missed some days. Now I don’t journal every day, but I often pick up my journal either when I’ve had a particularly good day and want to remember it, or if I’ve had a bad day and want to try and focus on something positive before I go to sleep.
Having said that you don’t need to journal daily, there are many people who do write daily and say that it helps them stay positive and keep things in perspective. From my own experience, I would say that the act of journaling for a few weeks makes you tune into that which is positive, and then you continue to notice things that you are grateful for even when you stop. When I feel I need another boost of positivity, I start journaling again.
What if I don’t like writing things down?
Writing things down is particularly good as it helps us to process things in a way that can be more productive than just thinking about them. For example, at school, remember that your teachers told you to write revision notes? That’s because writing things down helps your brain process things and remember them. But it’s also important you find a method that works for you – so if you would rather type into your phone, or just find a regular time each day to think about what you feel grateful for, that’s OK too. (A top tip here is to piggyback onto another habit, such as every time you brush your teeth at night.)
So what’s the point of all this? What’s so good about gratitude?
Firstly, when we feel genuinely grateful, it feels good. (And feeling good is good for us in many other ways.) If you think about how a friend been kind to you, it makes you feel loved and appreciated and strengthens that bond. Kindness from a stranger also feels great, strengthening our faith in humanity. However gratitude is triggered, if we feel grateful, we are more likely to be kind to others too.
Feeling grateful to a particular person is a common form of gratitude, but gratitude is much broader than that. If we draw our attention to the good things that we have, or that we experience, then we focus on the positive and this can stop us from dwelling on what we don’t have and put things into perspective. Gratitude also helps us savour the good things in life, which increases our appreciation and enjoyment of them, and gives rise to more positive feelings.
In my master’s research project, I asked people to keep a gratitude journal for a week and tested them before and afterwards for optimism and psychological wellbeing. There was a significant increase in the average scores of both measures after just one week of journaling. I found it particularly interesting how much the optimism scores had increased – supporting the idea that practising gratitude can help you reprogram your mind into a more positive and optimistic outlook.
Another surprising finding was that the participants’ measure of autonomy had increased – this is a measurement of our confidence in our own opinions and our ability to be independent of social pressures and concerns about what other people think. It may be that by practising gratitude in this way we are focussing on our core values and what is important to us, making us more confident in our own values and less likely to be influenced by others. An increase in gratitude has been linked with a decrease in materialism, and this may be the mechanism by which this works – we are focussing on being appreciative for what matters to us, not what the latest advert says that we should want.
A final point – reread your journal from time to time.
The first time I started journaling, after several weeks I sat down and read everything I had written, I found it quite enlightening. Firstly, it made me feel positive, revisiting all the good stuff I had experienced over the previous few weeks, but more than that, it helped me shine a light on what really made me happy. About 1/3 of my entries were along the lines of “Met (insert friend’s name) for a chat and a walk/cup of tea”.
It made me realise that my favourite bit of the day was often just that, meeting a friend and talking face to face for a while. I also realised that most of the things I most enjoyed didn’t cost anything – or if they did the cost was more about enabling some event (like catching a train to London to explore), rather than spending money on something directly (like buying clothes or some other material purchase). I found that quite reassuring in the sense that it made me realise that the things that were important to me would always be there, even if money was tight. So, after you have journaled for a few weeks, read back over what you’ve written and see what you can learn about what is important to you.
So what are you waiting for – give it a go!
If you haven’t tried a gratitude journal before, now you know what it’s all about! Pick up a pen today and try it out. Experiment with what works for you and see what you can learn about yourself along the way. Hopefully, it will make your bright days seem brighter, and on gloomy days it will illuminate the silver linings in the clouds.
Read more about Sarah Cramoysan and her other articles HERE
‘We Are The Positive Psychology People’