Why and How to Keep a Gratitude Journal
Simply expressing thanks can boost your outlook and even your health
No matter how troubled the times, Thanksgiving is a day when many of us focus on our blessings. Now scientists say that if we incorporate more of this kind of gratitude into our daily lives, we might be not only be more joyful but healthier and less stressed as well.
But how do you do it? One proven way, according to University of California at Davis psychologist Robert Emmons, PhD, a leading expert on gratitude research, is by keeping a gratitude journal.
With a gratitude journal, even things we've learned to take for granted can make us feel good again.
“Our emotional systems like newness," says Emmons. "We adapt to positive life experiences so that before long, the new spouse or house doesn’t feel so new and exciting anymore." But keeping a gratitude journal, he says, helps combat this. “We notice the positives more,” he says, “and that magnifies the pleasures you get from life. Instead of adapting to goodness, we begin to celebrate it…to appreciate its value and not take it for granted.”
A gratitude journal offers long-lasting benefits, according to Emmons. He and others have found that people who practiced gratitude through journaling experienced a lasting boost in both mood and health.
Tracking people who kept a gratitude journal, Emmons found they consistently had lower blood pressure, fewer aches, pains and colds and better sleep than those who didn’t. They felt more optimistic and less lonely and isolated. They also felt more alert and took more joy and pleasure in life. They even exercised more and took better care of their health.
Related: Exercise Rx for Depression
People with a grateful disposition also appear to recover more quickly in the face of serious trauma, according to Emmons.
Here are some suggestions for keeping your own gratitude journal, courtesy of scientists from the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC) at the University of California at Berkeley.
Journal weekly rather than daily. Aim to write at least five things you are grateful for once or twice a week. Research by psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, a professor at UC Riverside and author of “The How of Happiness,” found that people who wrote in their journals only once a week gained more happiness in six weeks than those who journaled three times a week. Emiliana Simon-Thomas, PhD, science director of the GGSC, agrees. “Humans tend to become desensitized if things become routine, and that seems to include journaling."
Think quality, not quantity. It's better to savor deep gratitude for one thing than to jot down 10 things you're grateful for, says Simon-Thomas. Christine Carter, PhD, the director of the GGSC and the author of “Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents,” recalls one day when her daughter Fiona was sitting on her lap braiding Carter’s long hair. The little girl looked up at her mom and murmured, " This is going to be one of the three good things I’m thankful for tonight." “She was savoring gratefulness,” Carter says.
If possible, focus on your relationships. By sharing her gratitude with her mother, Fiona was reminding herself that other people were there for her. Focus on the good things that others have done for you. Sometimes looking at pictures of friends and family helps, according to Simon-Thomas.
Remember the bad. Emmons advises people to think of the worst times in their lives, then remember that they got through the trauma and made (or are making) their way out of the dark. The contrast between bad times and good can make the latter easier to recognize — and feel grateful for.
Other gratitude strategies
Not the journaling type?
For people who follow a religion, prayer can be a powerful form of gratitude, according to a study published in the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality. Other studies echo this finding.
If you aren't religious, concentrating on what you’re grateful for during meditation may be effective as well, according to the Harvard Mental Health Newsletter. Or try writing a gratitude letter. A 2005 study found that writing, and then reading, a letter of gratitude to someone increased feelings of gratitude even more than keeping a weekly diary.