A complete guide to gratitude + how to make your own gratitude journal

A complete guide to gratitude + how to make your own gratitude journal

Did you know that gratitude is among the psychological traits with highest impact on our wellbeing? Learn everything you always wanted to know about the subject, its scientifically proven benefits and how you can increase your daily dose of gratefulness by writing a gratitude journal


We’ll start with a definition of gratitude and move on to discuss its benefits and how it can contribute to our personal development and wellbeing. We will see why sometimes it can be hard to be grateful, and look into ways we can change that. Finally, we will learn how to add more gratitude to our lives, we’ll go through a step by step guide of how to write a gratitude journal and check which benefits this practice can bring. All of this is divided in the following topics:

Enjoy!!!

Gratitude definition

According to Wikipedia, gratitude comes from the latin gratus, meaning “pleasing, thankful”. That is a good start, but it would be nice to go a bit deeper in the concept, right? And Harvard Medical School does just that with their gratitude definition:

Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives. In the process, people usually recognize that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside themselves. As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals — whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.

Reading the explanation above, it is clear that gratitude involves appreciating and being thankful for what we have and receive. But what is interesting about this gratitude definition is that it suggests that being grateful may lead to a connection with something beyond ourselves. And that is a concept we will go back to when we talk about the benefits of gratitude!

For now, let’s keep in mind the definition that gratitude, as well as gratefulness and thankfulness, are feelings of appreciation in response to kindness, gifts, favors, generosity and other positive things we receive.

Historical interest in gratitude

The interest in gratitude is not at all new. Gratefulness has been preached by several religions and studied by philosophers since ancient times. However, it was only recently, around the year 2000, that gratitude became a hot topic also in modern western psychology.

The emerging field of positive psychology

Why did it take so long for psychologists to notice gratitude? Well, for a long time, modern psychology focused on studying mental disorders and distress. This brought us several important discoveries, but one side effect was that very little effort was made to understand what makes people happy.

Luckily, this has been changing in recent years and positive psychology is now a rapidly growing field. Scientists discovered that studying what makes us happy is as important as understanding what makes us sick, and what they are learning about gratitude is nothing short of amazing!

Benefits of gratitude

Being grateful has major positive impacts on a surprisingly wide range of aspects of our lives. Let’s have a look at what modern scientific research has discovered about it:

Gratitude and wellbeing

Although several psychological traits are known to affect our wellbeing, gratitude seems to have a particularly important role. In this study, expressing gratitude correlated more with good mental health and wellbeing than 30 other tested personality traits! 

Research has also shown that gratitude makes people happier, more satisfied with their lives and with their social relationships. Besides that, thankfulness is connected to reduced levels of stress, anxiety and depression. This possibly happens because grateful people remember and focus more on the good things in their lives instead of looking at problems and difficulties, as shown in this study.

Grateful people are also more likely to face and deal directly with their problems, solving them instead of going into avoidance, denial, or blaming themselves for things they are not responsible for.

If that weren’t enough, grateful people also sleep better than those who don’t practice gratitude.

Gratitude and behavior

Apart from all the effects on wellbeing, gratefulness also has been shown to have positive impacts on our behavior.

Gratitude is correlated with higher levels of empathy, generosity, helpfulness and altruism. As an example, research shows that grateful people are more likely to donate and to give up personal gains for the benefit of society.

Expressing gratitude has also been shown to affect the behavior of those around us. A study showed that clients of a store were 70% more likely to buy again in the same place if the staff thanked them for their first purchase. A similar effect is seen in restaurants, where clients are more likely to tip and give better tips if the check comes with a handwritten “thank you”.

What does this mean? Well, it means that when we show other people that we are thankful for what they do, they feel better as well. In other words, gratitude creates an upward spiral of positive emotions that extends to those around us.

Summarizing the benefits of gratitude

We have talked about so many benefits of gratefulness that it might be good to make a quick summary of them. Being grateful make us:

  • Feel better in general
  • More satisfied with social relationships
  • Less stressed, anxious and depressed
  • Focus on the good rather than the bad
  • Deal with problems in a healthier way
  • Sleep better
  • More generous and empathic
  • More likely to help others
  • Willing to return favors and spread good actions

… and this is just what has been found so far! Much more certainly awaits to be discovered.

It sounds pretty good, right? Especially considering that showing gratitude is a simple habit accessible to everyone.

Why doesn’t everyone express gratitude?

Considering how good it is for us, shouldn’t we all be more grateful? We should. But unfortunately, a large part of the population don’t express all the gratitude they could for the good things that happen to them.

And why does that happen? Let’s have a look at some of the reasons.

Habit and upbringing

Many of us have just never learned to be thankful. Our cultural background or social environment often inhibits demonstrations of gratitude. Specially for men, who are supposed to be “tough” all the time. Family habits and harsh living conditions can also play a role.

Rough living conditions

Some might think: “Life is hard, and I have nothing to be grateful for“. Unfortunately, some do have much harder living conditions than others. It is important to understand, though, that expressing gratitude does not necessarily depend on how good or easy life is. We can be thankful for even the very small good things in life, also when the overall situation is not easy.

No matter how complicated life is, there are always things you can be grateful for. Appreciating these small blessings can make your life lighter an happier.

Media

News channels expose us to a large amount of negative news all the time, and that makes us think the world is a bad place. But in fact, what happens is that the media cherry picks disasters and crimes for their shows because they attract more viewers. Watching sad news all the time can give us the impression that the world is a bad place, but the truth is that there is a lot more good than bad in the world!

While the media usually chooses to focus on the bad, we should focus on the good.

Our fault-finding mind

Another reason why we forget to be thankful for what we have is that we all have a natural tendency to focus on faults and problems. This is actually an extremely useful trait which allowed our species to survive for thousands of years. By identifying what is wrong or dangerous, we can improve ourselves and our surroundings. 

However, if we focus too much on problems, we tend to miss the good things in our lives. Things we could be appreciating and enjoying.

It is extremely important to learn balance this fault-finding tendency by also developing the benefit-finding side of our brain. We should choose to focus on the good!

Learning to be grateful

All of us have some of the characteristics above, which makes us less grateful than we could be. Fortunately, expressing gratitude is a habit that can be learned. And the very fact that you are reading this post already shows that you are interested in it.

That is great! I guarantee that with a little bit of practice you can train your brain to recognize the good things in your life, both big and small, and to demonstrate gratitude for them.

Our benefit-finding mind

We can train our minds to adopt a benefit finding behavior.

This doesn’t mean that you have to start thinking that everything that happens to you is good. No. But as Tal Ben-shahar said in one of his amazing lectures on positive psychology:

… the benefit finder understands that, while things don’t necessarily happen for the best, it is possible to make the best of the things that happen .

Tal Ben-shahar

And that makes all the difference!

Remember, even during tough moments of our lives (and everyone goes through them), there are always things we can and should be thankful for!

How to practice gratitude

So how do we develop the habit of being thankful for even the small good things that we have in our lives? How can we shift our mind from a fault-finding to a benefit-finding mode?

There are different exercises that can help us achieve this (Check out our further resources section for more ideas!), but here we’ll focus on one of the most effective practices for adding more gratitude to our lives: keeping a gratitude journal.

It may take a little effort in the beginning, but with a little practice, being grateful will soon become a (very healthy!) habit.

What is a gratitude journal?

It is exactly what the name suggests: a journal in which you list and describe things that you are grateful for. No mysteries here!

When you write, you make a conscious effort to regularly identify things which you appreciate in your life. This will show your brain that these good things do exist, and you’ll start appreciating them. Further down we’ll show you evidence from scientific research about the effectiveness of a gratitude list.

Why is a gratitude journal useful?

Writing a gratitude journal may seem like a simple practice, but it actually involves several important concepts:

  • Identifying things you are grateful for
  • Thinking of why you are grateful for them
  • Writing them down on a document
  • Reading the list of things you are grateful for

All of these make you more conscious of the good around you and help you focus on benefits instead of problems.

Benefits of a gratitude journal

A research project on gratitude and thankfulness based in Davis, California, has published a number of articles describing the benefits of writing a gratitude journal. According to them, people who keep a gratitude journal are more likely to:

  • Exercise regularly
  • Be optimistic
  • Feel better about life
  • Accomplish important personal goals
  • Be alert, enthusiastic and energetic
  • Help and offer support to others

In other word, keeping a gratitude journal provides pretty much all the benefits that have been described for gratitude as a trait. This suggests that the practice is indeed very effective in helping people become more grateful!

So let’s start!

How to write a gratitude journal – step-by-step

  1. Get a notebook or create a file in a computer where you can write
  2. Sit down in a quiet place
  3. Start by writing the date. You always want to be able to remember when you wrote each entry of your journal.
  4. Write down at least five things things which you are grateful for.
    • Don’t know where to start? Don’t complicate it, even small things count.
    • It can be an event that happened to you, someone you have in your life or something you own. Something nice you saw on the street earlier today or someone’s smile. Something that a friend did for you, a tasty meal you had or a piece of clothe you’re wearing. A thought that crossed your mind, a feeling you had earlier today or a beautiful flower you saw. Anything that you enjoyed in any moment of your life.
    • If you haven’t done this before, it may take a while to realize how many things we have around us that we can actually be grateful for. But as the days pass and the practice continues, your mind switches to a benefit-finding mode and it will get easier to find them 
    • It’s ok to write the same thing in multiple days. If something keeps coming to your mind, it just means you really appreciate it. Isn’t that great? Write it down!
    • If you want to write more than 5 things, just do it!
    • It’s your gratitude journal, so write what is important for you. Don’t think ” should I write this?”. Just write it!
  5. When you are done, close the notebook or file.
  6. Repeat tomorrow!

If this is your first time figuring out how to write a gratitude journal, we suggest you do it for 30 days in a row. This way you can get a good feeling for the practice and what it can do for you.

For those who have done this before (or if you want to continue it past the initial 30 days), keep reading to see our suggestions of how often to do it!

A few tips:

Write regularly

If you’re feeling particularly uninspired on a certain day, write at least one word that represents something or someone you like. Writing just one word  is much, much better than skipping a journaling day, because it tells your brain that you are keeping the habit.

Consistency is important to make your body and mind understand the exercise and feel its benefits. After the initial 30 days period, you can adjust the frequency according to your preferences (See “for how long should I practice” below)

When you start the practice, it may feel a bit like you’re “faking gratitude”. As if you were just writing a list of thing you should be grateful for, but the feeling is not actually genuine. Don’t worry, the feeling will become genuine as you get more used to it.

Make it a routine

It’s much easier to write a gratitude journal if you make it a routine. A good way of doing that is to connect writing to other regular activities that you already do. For example, you can make your gratitude list:

  • Every day just after lunch,
  • First thing in the morning, right after waking up,
  • In the evening, just before going to bed.

In this way, the activities you already do will serve as a mental and behavioral anchor to help you build your new habit.

Another possibility is to define a time for it:

  • Every morning at 8am,
  • Evenings at 9pm.

And the idea here is to make your brain understand that those particular times are dedicated to journal writing

What if I can’t find things I’m grateful for?

If you’re not used to gratitude, in the beginning it might be hard to figure out exactly what to write. Don’t worry, this is completely normal. We guarantee that after the practice you’ll be much more conscious of the good things that happen to you. In fact, after some time, your brain will be so used to it that you’ll do it automatically. You’ll start identifying good things and feeling grateful for them without even having to think about it.

Writing just a list of item X going into details

There are different approaches you can choose when deciding how to write your gratitude journal. Listing what you are grateful for will help you get better at identifying good things in your life. That is already great, but going into more details can help you develop a true sense of gratefulness.

Describing what is it about those things that you appreciate can help your brain understand how valuable they are to you. So when you write your journal, you might want to take some time to say what is it about a certain  person that you like, what aspect about a particular experience that made you happy, and so on

Read your gratitude journal

Every now and then, take some time to read your gratitude journal.

Reading what you wrote will remind you of all the things you are grateful for. It will help you focus on the good by reminding you of amazing people, things and experiences that you have in your life.

I promise it is going to be a very rewarding reading! Here are some suggestions of when to read your journal:

  • Once a month
  • On special dates of the year (i.e.: your birthday, thanksgiving..)
  • Whenever you feel a little down and need something to cheer you up
  • In the end or beginning of the year
  • Whenever you feel like it!

How often to write a gratitude journal

In the beginning

If this is your first time writing a gratitude list, we recommend you to follow it for a 30 days without interruptions. That will give you time to experience the practice and feel some of its benefits.

It is also easier to make a habit out of it if you do it regularly. If you are not used to journaling and you decided to write only once a week, there would be a greater risk that you would stop after two or three weeks simply because you forgot to do it or lost motivation. Don’t let that happen! Keep the practice going!

After you’re familiar with the practice

After 30 days you’ll be much more familiar with how to write a gratitude journal, and by then you can choose if you want to keep doing it daily, or if you want to reduce it to a few times a week, once a week, etc. At that moment, you’ll be much more used to identifying what you are grateful for, and you can reduce the frequency of the exercise with less risk of losing the habit.

Pay attention that even if you decide to do it once a week, you should still try to insert the practice in your routine, so that it’s easier to keep it going. As an example, you could write your gratitude journal every Sunday before going to bed, or every Monday morning before going to work.

Is it possibly to overdo it?

With all the benefits we’ve been talking about, it feels like you could never overdo something such as writing a gratitude list. Still, some specialists suggest that this could happen. 

One study suggests that people who write once or twice a week in their gratitude journals may actually feel better about it than those who write everyday. So it’s not that writing too often will cause you any harm, but it might make the practice a bit less effective in terms of boosting wellbeing.

The explanation to that could be related to hedonic adaptation: the fact that once we get used to something good, it has a smaller effect on increasing our happiness. 

We still think that it’s worth it to do a 30 day intensive practice when you start writing your journal. This will be a very good training for identifying things to be grateful for, specially if you’re not used to doing it. Afterwards, if you feel that you’re writing a bit too often and that this might be affecting how you feel about the practice, you may consider reducing it to once or twice per week.

What to expect

As we mentioned before, by doing a gratitude journal you can expect to become better at identifying the good things in your life and at appreciating them. And this can have a very significant positive impact on your wellbeing.

Notice that most of the benefits you get from thankfulness are subjective and correspond to gradual improvements. This means that it might be hard to notice them unless you regularly keep track of how you feel. Think about it: can you remember exactly how you were feeling on a Tuesday 3 weeks ago? And would you be able to say if you are happier now than 2 Thursdays ago?  Unless something special happened on those particular days, your answer is probably no….

In a way, that’s not a problem! By practicing gratitude you’ll most likely increase your wellbeing, whether you remember how you felt before or not. But still, you might want to be able to track this progress, right?

And how can we do that?

Combining practices

A very good way to keep track of how you’re feeling through time is through a personal journal. A personal journal and a gratitude journal are related practices and really complement each other.

You can include your gratitude list as a part of your regular journal entries. And by writing your thoughts and emotions on the journal you can easily track how you were feeling each day. This way you can see how your wellbeing has been changing through time.

Just remember that we always have ups and downs, so don’t expect to be happy and positive all the time! On average, though, you should notice several benefits.

A note about privacy

If you feel like what you are writing on your journal is personal and you don’t want other people to read it, you might want to check the tips about privacy that we  give in our journaling guide.

Further resources

Want to learn more about gratitude directly from experts in the subject?

  • Have a look at our selection of books about gratitude, where you can read about how gratitude changed other peoples lives, learn more about its benefits and how to include more gratefulness in your daily routine.
  • These 10 fantastic gratitude TED talks will teach you a lote and motivate you to spread thankfulness all around you
  • Read some of our daily gratitude quotes which were selected to inspire you and make you think  

Looking for more ideas of how to include more gratitude in your life?

Summary

  • Expressing gratitude means recognizing and being thankful for the good things in our lives
  • Gratitude has been a topic of religious and philosophical interest for hundreds of years, but only recently has western psychology started studying it
  • Grateful people are more likely to be happier, optimistic, empathic, altruistic and energetic. A thankful person is also less likely to be anxious, stressed or depressed. 
  • Gratefulness creates an upward spiral of positive feelings and actions involving us and the people around us 
  • There are several factors that can make people less grateful. These include upbringing, living conditions and exposure to negative news in the media. It’s important to counteract those.
  • We can learn to be more grateful and practice becoming a benefit-finder instead of a problem-finder.
  • Learning how to write a gratitude journal is a great way to exercise thankfulness in your daily life. The benefits of this practice have been scientifically shown in several studies. 
  • For best results, write a gratitude list a few times per week and make it part of your routine

We wish you happy journaling and don’t forget to share your thoughts, experiences and opinions with us!

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