How A Gratitude Journal Can Change Your Entire Outlook

Gratitude journals may provide the most important type of self-care available: Learning to treat yourself with more compassion. Here's how.

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Talk to people who keep a gratitude journal, and you’ll find a common theme: They’re all pretty grateful for the practice of gratitude journaling.

That’s no surprise. The 2000s ushered in new interest in gratitude among psychological researchers. Suddenly, departments of psychology, psychiatry, and neuroscience were all conducting studies about potential links between being thankful and overall well-being. And, indeed, some of this research suggests a link between what the scientists call gratitude interventions—including keeping a gratitude journal—and overall wellness.

The anecdotal evidence about gratitude journals is pretty convincing too. Just listen to author and lifestyle coach Suzie Carpenter.

“Gratitude journaling is something I do every day,” Carpenter tells HealthyWay. “It is an amazing tool for reconnecting with myself and my focus. It keeps me in a positive mindset and reminds me of who I am. It also [keeps] my brain from sliding down the slippery slope of not being good enough, not accomplishing enough, not being smart enough, et cetera, et cetera.”

Or what about the endorsement of Caroline Johnstone, a journaling coach and public speaker?

“Gratitude journaling changed my life,” Johnstone says. “I can’t remember who told me to try it, but I thought, ‘What the heck?’ Since I’ve journaled, I’ve become happier, found a loving relationship, put better boundaries in place, found balance, been able to deal with change more readily, and it has improved my working life, too.”

Sound good? Well, before you can enjoy the benefits of a gratitude journal, it’s important to learn just what goes into this powerful self-care practice.

What is a gratitude journal?

A gratitude journal can take many forms. It can be a cute blank Moleskine book or a diary with a lock. It can be an app on your phone. It could even be a part of your overall bullet journal. Ultimately, the best gratitude journal is one that you remember to write in regularly.

That covers the “journal” side of things, but what do we mean when we talk about “gratitude” itself? Robert Emmons, PhD, is the contemporary patron saint of gratitude interventions. He’s a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis, and author of many books and articles on how being thankful can improve lives.

From a clinical perspective, Emmons defines gratitude as “a cognitive-affective state that is typically associated with the perception that one has received a personal benefit that was not intentionally sought after, deserved, or earned, but rather because of the good intentions of another person.”

In other words, gratitude is the recognition that people are good to you, even when they don’t have to be. Expanding on that concept, you might be grateful for conditions or experiences, not just the actions of other people. You could be grateful for a sunset or a feeling or even for your own two feet. Gratitude is a healthy response to an unexpected, unearned, or even undeserved gift.

Writing in Your Gratitude Journal

So now you understand what gratitude is, but once you decide to start a gratitude journal, what do you actually put on the page? And how often do you need to make an entry to realize the benefits of gratitude journaling? How much time do you need to devote?

Relax. The first step is to remember that your gratitude journal is a gift to yourself. Don’t think of it as a burden or a responsibility. You don’t have to journal every day or every night. You can keep a daily gratitude journal, but one study actually suggests that keeping a weekly gratitude journal works even better than making more frequent entries.

Set aside 15 minutes to write in your gratitude journal. You might find it helpful to journal at the same time every week. Some journalers find it helpful to set an alarm to keep their writing on track and on time. Experiment, and see what works for you.

Now, the million-dollar question: What do you write in a gratitude journal?

Start small, maybe just three items per entry. Lots of sources suggest you write down five things you’re grateful for every time you sit down to write, but we find that it’s helpful to give yourself a little leeway. If five things occur to you, write them all down. Write down 10 things you’re grateful for if they occur to you. But when you have a hard time drumming up the gratitude, be content with just three items.

In a study of the relation between gratitude journals and health and wellness benefits (including increased energy, pleasant affect, and better sleep quality), Emmons gave study subjects these instructions on what to write on their daily journal page:

We want to focus for a moment on benefits or gifts that you have received in your life. These gifts could be simple everyday pleasures, people in your life, personal strengths or talents, moments of natural beauty, or gestures of kindness from others. We might not normally think about these things as gifts, but that is how we want you to think about them. Take a moment to really savor or relish these gifts, think about their value, and then write them down every night before going to sleep.

 Oprah Winfrey keeps a gratitude journal too; she offers an example of what she wrote in her gratitude journal on Oct. 12, 1996:

  1. A run around Florida’s Fisher Island with a slight breeze that kept me cool.
  2. Eating cold melon on a bench in the sun.
  3. A long and hilarious chat with Gayle about her blind date with Mr. Potato Head.
  4. Sorbet in a cone, so sweet that I literally licked my finger.
  5. Maya Angelou calling to read me a new poem.

Now, you might not have a world-changing poet reading her new work to you over the phone, but if you think about it, you likely won’t have a problem coming up with three to five things that get you all warm and tingly when you think about them long enough.

What You Need to Start a Gratitude Journal

As with any new project, your journey into positive emotion starts with gathering supplies. Indulge your inner crafter, and decorate your journal with markers or colored pencils. You can print beautiful templates like this one, this one, and this one, and bind them together yourself. Or you could simply grab your favorite notebook, write “Gratitude” on the cover, and date the pages.

On the other hand, you could always just buy a pre-printed gratitude journal—there are lots of options available, ranging from charmingly simple to openly inspirational.

Author Anne Bardsley has kept gratitude journals for years, and she’s had every type of notebook you can imagine. No matter what they look like, they all work the same, she says.

“My first journal was actually an account log book,” Bardsley tells HealthyWay. “It was 4 inches wide and 15 inches long. It was blue and very sturdy. It’s covered with the kids’ stickers now. Future journal covers varied: kittens, flowers, paintings, and even stick people. I have over 40 now, saved for posterity.”

All you really need to start gratitude journaling is paper and a pen or pencil. It’s not the physical object that helps, it’s the practice of staying mindful of all the positive events in your life.

The Ongoing Benefits of Gratitude and Gratitude Journals

The science on gratitude interventions like journaling is in its infancy. While some studies show powerful emotional benefits, one major meta-analysis of the research concluded that the positive benefits of gratitude journaling are limited—and that those benefits could be due to nothing more than the placebo effect.

But the research on thankfulness is ongoing. In fact, Emmons teamed up with the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, to begin a multi-year scientific project called Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude.

Emmons, for one, is convinced that practicing mindful gratitude is a powerful tool for emotional healing. His studies found that participants who wrote in gratitude journals were more likely to offer emotional support to others during the study period. Maybe that’s the greatest result of establishing an ongoing journaling habit: You might end up in someone else’s gratitude journal at day’s end, sparking a chain reaction that truly makes the world a better place.

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