How to Write A Gratitude Journal
When you count your blessings, you open your life to an influx of even more.
Everything in life is a matter of perspective. Whether your glass is half full or half empty, you’re probably right, as there is always evidence to find to confirm your belief. This phenomenon applies to many areas, from self-critical beliefs about the type of person you are, to feelings of apathy or disillusionment towards life.
Deep down, in our heart of hearts, each of us is aware of how miraculous life is. To experience, to love, to laugh, to witness the profound beauty of the universe, to be able to dream and explore and express with others, to contemplate the nature of existence, on this little planet we call Earth, in the middle of an unfathomably huge universe. Well, it’s all quite something, isn’t it?
Yet most of us don’t go about our day-to-day lives connected to this feeling of awe and reverence. That’s because situations, such as our jobs or our relationships or bank balance, have surpassed life itself. Spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle encourages people to pay attention to life, and to forget their life situation, even if briefly.
So how do we bridge this gap? How do we open our eyes to the wonder, beauty, and fortune of living? Sure, you might start with reading some gratitude quotes. But I think the answer lies with gratitude, a simple-yet-powerful practice of giving thanks for what you have. This article will cover the benefits of gratitude, and equip you with practical tools to start a daily gratitude practice with the help of gratitude journals.
What are the benefits of gratitude?
Let’s return to perspective. It’s an unfortunate reality that it’s all-too-easy to take things for granted. This isn’t a quirk of the human brain; our society is tailored to encourage us to feel this way.
One look at the advertising industry illustrates why — you’re engineered to believe you have a problem that can only be solved by a product you spend money on. Fulfillment doesn’t boost the economy. Feelings of lack do.
From an ego-based perspective, there’s always more to attain, to have, to conquer. The thirst for more is never-ending. More money. More clothes. More food. More success. More acclaim. The cycle will continue, and never be enough. How often have you craved something in your life, only to get it, and lose enthusiasm after a certain period of time?
We live in an age where most of us have huge levels of privilege compared to past generations. But it’s easy to become blind to all the gifts life has to offer. That’s where gratitude comes in.
Gratitude is the practice of letting go of feelings of entitlement and paying attention to life’s blessings. It’s a core teaching of spiritual traditions and philosophies. Many great sages praise gratitude; the Buddha taught it as a necessary component of a fulfilling life, the Bible encourages people to “give thanks in all circumstances,” and Roman philosopher Cicero called gratitude the “mother of all virtues.”
The scientific benefits of gratitude
Starting a new gratitude journal isn’t all about the spiritual. In many ways, science is catching up with spiritual teachings.
Studies into gratitude have found it to boost mood, improve overall happiness, and cultivate a positive mindset. Couples who openly express gratitude and focus on each other’s positive traits, for example, are shown to have happier relationships. There is an emotional impact when you feel grateful, and make an effort to express grateful thoughts.
Physical benefits of expressing gratitude
There are physical benefits to gratitude, too. “Benefits associated with gratitude include better sleep, more exercise, reduced symptoms of physical pain, lower levels of inflammation, lower blood pressure and a host of other things we associate with better health,” Glenn Fox, an expert in the science of gratitude at the USC Marshall School of Business, said.
Fox, who has studied the neuroscience of gratitude, has likened it to physical exercise. The more you practice gratitude, the easier it becomes to tap into the feeling. Fox’s research has attempted to map gratitude in the brain, highlighting its link to brain structures associated with positive things like bonding, stress relief, and reward.
Gratitude is in itself a mindset, a way to remember to give thanks for everything life has to offer, from your morning coffee to the way the wind brushes your cheek on an autumnal stroll. It’s a way of being intimate with life. And one of the easiest and most impactful ways of starting a gratitude practice — to exercise the gratitude muscle, to follow Fox’s analogy — is by keeping a gratitude journal.
What are the benefits of journaling?
Gratitude and daily journaling is a powerful combination. Something as simple as a regular journal entry has been linked with a whole host of benefits, particularly towards mental health and wellbeing.
The daily commitment to taking time to put pen to paper is a way of untangling thoughts, processing emotions, and, of course, acknowledging what you’re grateful for, which leads to a more positive mindset, and to positive things happening in your life. A few prompts is all it takes to start the process. And if you’re interested in some inspiration, you can check out these, some of the best gratitude journals.
Studies have found journaling to be as effective as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) in reducing symptoms of depression, and can significantly reduce the symptoms of anxiety. The Greater Good Science Center has an article on the subject that showed a link between expressive writing and health, and other studies have shown journaling helps people simplify and organize fragmented thoughts, assisting them to make sense of, and heal from, difficult life experiences by using concrete language centered on gratitude.
I find journaling to be one of the most important practices of my self-development and mental wellbeing. There are many different ways to journal, including writing in a stream of consciousness style for a few minutes to get tangled thoughts out of your mind, writing down goals or recording dreams, or writing a traditional diary of daily events.
Gratitude journaling is by far one of the most beneficial, and I recommend integrating it into a wider journal practice for the best benefits. It’s one of the key elements to developing a truly gorgeous mindset, and a daily practice that can keep both negative emotions and negative events out of your day-to-day existence.
What should I write in a gratitude journal?
There are lots of different avenues to gratitude journaling, beyond the simple directive to write about things you’re grateful for. Because expressing thanks isn’t something we’re necessarily taught, don’t worry if you find it difficult in the beginning.
It might take time to switch on the part of your brain that explores your life for things to express gratitude for, especially after a lifetime of taking things for granted.
Below are a few pointers about the types of things you might wish to write in your gratitude journal. But remember, this is a highly personalized practice.
From family to romantic partners and friends, relationships provide so much meaning and richness to life. How easy is it to take people for granted?
A great example of this is appreciating the finer qualities of a partner following a break-up, or suddenly experiencing a rush of gratitude for a friend’s acceptance or kindness.
One way to incorporate this into your gratitude journal is to acknowledge the things you’re grateful for. They don’t have to be the highs — they might include the way in which someone forgave you for a hurtful comment, or the way in which someone apologizes for something they did wrong.
It might be as simple as a pat on the back or a smile of support. Relationships are filled with opportunities for gratitude, when we open our eyes to see them.
The coronavirus pandemic hit home how easy it is to take health for granted. Many people, myself included, woke up to just how fortunate good health is. Again, remember the glass half full, glass half empty phenomena.
When expressing gratitude for your health, it pays to start at ground zero, to appreciate even the fact your eyes are functioning well enough to read these words, that your lungs and heart are supporting your aliveness.
When I started diving deep into my meditation practice, I had a period of weeks where I became hyper-aware of how lucky I was that, at some point in history, someone had worked hard to invent glasses and contact lenses.
One summer I visited a lake with friends, stunned by its beauty, finding myself expressing gratitude to all the people who made my vision possible. This was a sobering experience of becoming aware of something easily taken for granted.
I believe beauty is one of the most poignant portals into a feeling of gratitude. Beauty is best experienced in the moment — looking at a sunset, or suddenly being moved by a piece of music — but you can make sure to keep a record of these moments to keep the feeling alive.
Revisiting these moments of beauty helps to reinforce the experience in memory, and make you more sensitive to similar experiences in the future. Beauty is incredibly hard to define, but it’s something we all know when we experience it.
Some of the greatest thinkers of modern times, such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson are recorded in history thanks to their efforts to express gratitude towards the beauty of nature in the written form.
The gifts of modern living
It’s easy to feel despondent or apathetic towards lots of modern inventions, from technology that leads to hyper-surveillance, to a culture of consumerism that prioritizes profit over the planet.
Granted, there are many, many issues. But there are many gifts that offer a chance to express gratitude. Most of us are fortunate enough to experience living standards far better than royalty of years-gone-by.
The benefit of expressing gratitude by recording things you’re grateful for in modern living is that it starts to expand beyond your individual sphere. Imagine how much more difficult the pandemic would’ve been without Zoom?
Now, imagine just how many people made that possible — from the invention of electricity, to the internet, to the device you used, even to the people who made the individual components and transported them to factories across the world!
The small things
What would gratitude journaling be without taking time to appreciate the small things? Of course, when you begin to express thanks for the small things, you realize they’re not small.
This is one of the most powerful practices because it trains your brain to focus precisely on the things in life rich for expressing thanks. Not just significant moments, but the deliciousness of a nice meal, or the warm embrace of a morning shower.
Like exercise, what happens when you train your brain to see reasons to be grateful in the minutiae of your experience? Then you always have a reason to feel thankful for life, despite any life situation you may find yourself in.
Writing prompts to get you started
The above areas will hopefully give you an idea of the types of topics you can cover in your gratitude journal. As you get used to journaling and increasing your gratitude practice, it can help to have some direction. The below writing prompts can set you in the right direction:
What are you grateful for?
The classic go-to. When I first learned of a gratitude technique in meditation, the practice was to ask the question, let go of judgment, and then see what the mind would present. I recommend a similar approach to journaling. Ask yourself what you’re grateful for, and then see what you feel called to write. Don’t judge it! It’s totally fine if what you list appears insignificant or not right. The practice is cultivating the attitude of gratitude, not worrying about specifics.
Who in my life right now am I thankful to?
This primes your mind to explore your relationships for reasons to be thankful. It’s a tough, tough truth to swallow, but everyone you know and love will one day pass on from this Earth. Being aware of this reality allows for greater appreciation of the people in your life, presently, and the things they do for you, or simply who they are.
What abilities do I have to be thankful for?
Call me sentimental, but at one point in writing this article, I started to feel a wave of appreciation for my ability to write. Writing makes me so happy, and through the wonder of technology, I get to share insights about something as meaningful as gratitude with you, dear reader! What a gift that is. Can you think of things in life made possible by your abilities?
Who helped make this possible?
The Oscar-winning speech comes to mind. “I’d like to thank…” As cheesy as it can be, it’s understandable why in such a moment of achievement, actors look out into the crowd and express their appreciation for the people who made it all possible. But you don’t have to be acknowledged on the world stage to do so. Pick anything in life you are grateful for, and consider who helped make this possible. Was there a mentor or friend who taught you the ropes? Or a parent or guardian who instilled you with values that inspired you to have the courage to get to where you are?
Hopefully, the above writing prompts have sparked your creative juices. As Jiddu Krishnamurti once said, “To ask the ‘right’ question is far more important than to receive the answer.” There’s a skill in knowing what questions to ask to ignite a feeling of gratitude towards life. The seed of truth lies in all relevant questions as if a part of you already knows what miracles already exist in your life, waiting to be seen.
A few pointers on making the most of your gratitude practice
Although ever-present existential bliss and gratitude is a nice aim, it’s likely that you won’t always feel connected to the gifts and blessings of life. That’s okay. Gratitude isn’t a way to dismiss the difficulties of life or to bypass challenging emotions. Work on simultaneously accepting your emotions, rather than judging them as bad or wrong, through practices such as mindfulness.
Spiritual traditions emphasize the quality of letting go when it comes to gratitude. You can practice this directly in meditation, by bringing to mind something you appreciate, and then letting go of any expectation of how you’ll feel.
Don’t express gratitude just to feel positive feelings! Allow the practice to be consistent. It’s likely you will feel a new appreciation for life, but the practice can’t be taken for that purpose alone.
Gratitude is a way of humbling yourself to something greater — be it other people in your life, the mystery of good fortune, or guidance from a higher power. That’s the core of the practice. It’s not a mental activity, either. How easy is it to robotically list all the things you “should” be grateful for? Genuine gratitude is a heart-based practice.
When it comes to expressing gratitude, I know firsthand the potential for it to backfire when feeling depressed or anxious. The “shoulds” can become a shortcut to feeling guilty, usually accompanied by judgments such as “why can’t I be grateful for all the good in my life?” In these situations, don’t force gratitude, but instead try your best to see through the fog, and find small glimmers of appreciation.
Regarding the practice itself, many people advocate listing three things you’re grateful for each day. That can be highly productive. But it’s not for everyone — one study found that counting blessings once per week had a strong impact on well-being, whilst three times per week didn’t. “That suggests that for most people, at least on average, three times a week was too much,” study author Sonja Lyubomirsky said.
What matters more than any fixed ideas is to find your personal rhythm and what works for you. Maybe you enjoy taking time on a Sunday afternoon, warm coffee in hand, scented candles lit, to reflect on all there is to be grateful for the week.
Maybe you journal gratitude after morning meditation, or maybe you do spontaneously as much as you can.
Like a delicious meal, gratitude is best shared. If after exploring gratitude and reflecting on some beginning writing prompts, you start to feel appreciation for others or life itself, why not take a moment to share that with someone you care for with a quick message or a call? With that said, I’m off to follow my own advice…