Want to improve your outlook with a simple behavior? Give gratitude journaling a try.
People have asked me for years about the single most impactful thing they can do right now to improve their outlooks, thus improving their lives. When people asked me this several years ago, I would reply with things like, “Stop being stressed out” or “Eat better.” These are incredibly naive things to say, as if you can simply turn stress on and off with a switch, and what does “eat better” actually mean anyway?
Sure, I’ve learned that eating healthfully, moving my body, and managing stress are very important and can improve one’s quality of life drastically.
But there is one behavior that has surpassed those things in improving the quality of my life very quickly, and that’s gratitude journaling.
Gratitude Journaling 101. So, What Is It All About?
In essence, gratitude journaling involves taking some time each day to reflect on things that happened or that you experienced for which you are thankful.
Why is it so helpful? Well, there is a growing body of research, a lot of which is in the positive psychology literature, indicating that gratitude journaling can help improve our subjective well-being. Subjective well-being is fancy pants speak for happiness.
Some researchers argue, as a sort of evolutionary mechanism, we are wired to have a negativity bias — where we typically pay more attention to ‘bad’ things that happen to us because the thinking is that ‘bad’ things can warn us of danger or tell us what to avoid in the future to stay safe/healthy. Paying attention to ‘bad’ stuff is important, but let’s face it: it’s pretty depressing to think about negative stuff most of the time.
Gratitude journaling can help boost our happiness by encouraging us to focus on the positive things that happen in our lives.
Gratitude journaling is also thought to increase our level of presence or mindfulness because, once we make it a habit, we are more likely to pay attention throughout the day to things we can be grateful for. Whether it’s seeing an adorable baby duck in a pond, hearing a kid giggle hysterically, or having 10 minutes of peace and quiet with a cup of tea, we pay more attention to these things because (either consciously or non-consciously) we have primed ourselves to pay attention to things we’re appreciative of.
How to Get Started.
A couple of years ago, I started very inconsistently jotting down some neat things that happened to me. I only did it when I remembered — sometimes I would go for weeks without jotting anything down, and when I did, I wasn’t consistent in my time of day.
Then, last year, a dear friend gave me a beautiful hardbound blank journal. I started thinking about what I should write in it. The same day my friend gifted me with the journal, I came across a blog about how gratitude journaling is an awesome practice with research providing evidence about its benefits. It occurred to me that, during the previous times when I had remembered to write down the things I was grateful for, I felt better. Specifically, when I wrote those things down before I went to bed, I went to sleep with less stress and anxiety than when I neglected to write anything down.
So I decided to keep a gratitude journal using the beautiful journal my friend gave me. Below is how I approached this new practice and made it a habit.
Tips for Keeping a Gratitude Journal.
It’s perfectly fine, and probably preferable so as not to overwhelm yourself, to start small when you start gratitude journaling. It’s a good practice to set the expectation that you’ll jot down one or two items each night before you go to bed (or when you wake).
Is morning or evening a better time to journal? I personally like journaling before I go to bed. It’s a nice way to wrap up the day and it helps me go to sleep on a calm, happy note. What’s critical, however, is that (much like exercising or any positive habit) you do it at a time that you’ll stick with.
Don’t be tough on yourself if you forget, are traveling and don’t have your journal, or are simply too exhausted or hurried to pick up the journal and write anything down.
For the first few weeks, write down one or two things that happen to you during the day (or previous day if you journal in the mornings) that you are grateful for. Is it ok if you skip a day or two? Yes, absolutely. Though consistency is important, beating yourself up for forgetting can lead to giving up. So, no worries if you forget. It might be a good idea to set an alarm or somehow incorporate the journaling with an existing daily routine you have.
Over time, a neat thing will likely gradually happen as you continue journaling. Your lists become longer. And you’ll list things that, prior to journaling regularly, you might never have given a second thought to.
You will likely find yourself paying more attention — being more present and mindful — through the day.
- You might find yourself paying more attention to your interactions with other people — seeing others’ wonderful qualities, reflecting on the neat/new information exchanged in conversations, marveling at the sweetness of others’ gestures (e.g., when a stranger smiles at you or someone holds the door for you or lets you into their lane in traffic), and realizing how fortunate you are to know the people you know.
- You might start looking at sunrises and sunsets and appreciating their beauty.
- You might start studying the clouds, stars, and moon regularly.
- You might find yourself paying attention to animals and birds’ songs.
- You might begin to realize that you have so many luxuries — from silly things like a slow cooker to a car that starts on the first try — things that many others don’t have.
- You might notice how great your coffee tastes each morning — even “mundane” things like how pretty the swirled pattern is when the coffee and cream mix together, how warm the mug feels in your hands, and that someone across the world worked hard to harvest the beans, etc. You might even find yourself taking a second to wish this unknown individual health and well-being.
- You might see just how much your child delights in things you have become desensitized to over the years.
These everyday things will likely become entries into your gratitude journal. So, organically, your lists will expand in length and in their variety as you increasingly pay attention to life.
After several months, it’s will likely be common to write down 6, 8, or 10 things every day that you’re grateful for — though, by no means is it necessary to write that many things down to see the benefits of gratitude journaling. And you likely won’t write down the same things day after day.
Advanced Practices for the Gratitude Journal Jedi.
After a few months, I started expanding my journaling practice to include the extra component of taking a few minutes to focus specifically on one item I jotted down. To do this, try to recall as vividly as possible this one thing that you’ve been fortunate enough to experience and what you were doing/feeling when you experienced it — the neighbor child’s laughter as she chased a butterfly; how awesome it was to have had a smooth commute to work; the kind email from a colleague; how wonderful it felt to hit a new personal best deadlifting at the gym. This extra focus — a minute or so in duration is fine — can increase the “richness” of the journaling experience and deepen your gratitude..
The other practice I’ve recently begun incorporating more is reviewing the previous night’s gratitude list the next morning when I wake up. I don’t get to do this every day because I am still dialing in how to make my mornings less frantic and trying to wake up a few minutes earlier. But, the mornings that I do have a couple of minutes to review the previous night’s gratitude list are calmer. I’ve noticed the rest of my morning feels less hurried because I’ve set a peaceful mood for the day.
It’s a mood of, “I have a lot to be grateful for. I am fortunate. I know things will happen today that I will be grateful for.”
If you journal in the mornings, then taking a few minutes before bed to review the list you generated earlier in the day is a great way to wind down.
Another excellent exercise is to review journal entries from several months prior. You’ll likely see that your initial entries were brief. They might read things like: coffee, sunshine, short commute, and gym. You might notice that your entries have become more specific over time, like: Papua New Guinea coffee from coffee truck in town; sparkle of the moonlight on a fresh snowfall; barbell bench pressing because shoulder pain is gone; or significant other had an excellent lunch meeting with a potential client and is optimistic and excited.
If you travel, you can jot down items on notebook paper, and then enter them into your journal upon getting home. I personally like doing this because I can reflect on my lists from when I travel when I’m back home entering those items into my journal.
1. Have a dedicated journal and pen.
Some people use an app on their phone or tablet for this. The important thing is to start doing it, so if doing it electronically minimizes barriers to successfully keeping a gratitude journal, go for it. The important thing is to have some sort of record of the things you were grateful for so you can revisit it and reflect both in the short and long terms.
2. Start small.
Start listing only one or two things. Don’t beat yourself up if you forget.
3. Try to be consistent in the time of day you journal.
If you prefer to do it when you wake up and reflect on the previous day, great. You might consider reviewing the list you created earlier that day before you go to sleep at night. I prefer to list my items before I go to bed at night. It ends the day on a positive note for me. When I can, I review those items when I wake the next morning, which sets a positive tone for me at the start of the day.
4. When you’re ready, take a minute or two each day to reflect more deeply on one of the items you listed.
Try to recall it in as much vivid detail as you can and describe to yourself in your mind why you’re so grateful for this experience or item or person.
5. Try to list new things each day.
As you practice gratitude journaling more and it becomes a habitual behavior, this should happen organically.
6. Every month or two, take stock of how gratitude journaling is impacting your life.
If you’re not sure that keeping a gratitude journal is having an impact on your outlook, take a break for a couple of weeks, and then re-assess. Chances are, you’ll notice that gratitude journaling, even in its most bare-bones form of listing one or two items everyday, does have a positive impact on your outlook and happiness.
Give It a Try.
People close to me know about how important gratitude journaling is to me and that I am a major proponent of the practice. I encourage you to share this practice with others if you find it helpful — either letting them know that you’re doing it and find it to be beneficial, and/or encouraging them to start.
On several occasions, I have told friends who know about my journaling that they’re going at the top of my gratitude journal list for that day. They understand it’s a way that I express how fortunate I am to know them.
Is gratitude journaling a substitute for good nutrition or exercise or getting professional help when needed? No, it’s not. But, if you try it, you might find it to be a beneficial behavior that you enjoy.
Give gratitude journaling a try. See how it works for you. Adopt your own approach, and evaluate whether this simple practice has a positive impact on your outlook and happiness.
Lead image courtesy Jochen Handschuh