In this article, we explain how to practice gratitude journaling and what it can do for you. Here are some tips about gratitude journaling.
The practice of gratitude journaling can be as simple as that sentence. Even on a bad day, I know I can alter my mood for the better by focusing on what makes me happy. One unceasing source of joy is sharing strategies for happiness and well-being via gratitude journaling.
By learning to keep a gratitude journal, you too can harness the power of writing to identify and take pleasure in the things in your life, large and small, that bring you joy.
Simply reading this step-by-step guide to the why, when, and how of gratitude journaling won’t change your life, but if you take inspiration from it and establish a gratitude journaling practice of your own, that will change your life.
Read on to learn how to take control of your own state of mind through gratitude journaling.
- Step 1: Choose A Journal
- Step 2: Commit to the Process
- Step 3: Avoid Self-Censorship
- Step 4: Be Generous With Yourself
- Step 5: Journal Consistently
- Step 6: Experiment With Your Entries
- Step 7: Dig Deeper
- Step 8: Try Gratitude Journal Prompts
- The Final Word on Gratitude Journaling
- FAQs on Gratitude Journaling
- Journaling Resources
Step 1: Choose A Journal
Choosing a journal is so much fun. Many writers like me keep dozens and of beautiful notebooks with only the first few pages filled out. Take your time and enjoy this step, but remember that a journal only works when you write in it.
Focus not just on aesthetics but on whether or not it is functional for the sort of journaling you want to do. A bullet journal is useless if you prefer long-form entries, and the world’s most beautiful 8×10 inch notebook won’t do you any good if you journal on the go and need one that fits in your pocket or purse.
Page layout is probably the most important factor. Some journals are full of prompts and templates, which you might find inspiring or a waste of space. If you like physical structure, stick with a lined journal, graph paper, or my personal favorite, the dot grid layout. If you’re a doodler, you may prefer the blank pages of an artist’s sketchbook.
There are countless notebooks to choose from, but your options don’t end there. If you feel most at ease in front of a computer or using a phone or tablet, you can use a Word document or a note-taking app.
Another great electronic option is to use a delayed-delivery email service (like Nudgemail). You can use this method to send your future self a reminder of things you’re grateful for today.
This can be a great self-care strategy if you know you have a stressful day coming up when you would benefit from the emotional boost of a gift of positivity.
Step 2: Commit to the Process
When it comes to gratitude journaling, like most strategies for self-improvement, you get out of it what you put into it. There’s little point in doing it if you’re going to phone it in.
That said, the beginning of creating a habit is always the hardest part. You may find gratitude journaling difficult the first few weeks, or you may have a reflexively cynical response (asking “What’s the point?” “Why bother writing this stuff down if I already know it?” and “What would be the harm of skipping it this week?”). Stick with it.
Research from the Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley found that expressing gratitude deliberately didn’t impact week one, but after four to twelve weeks of expressing gratitude in writing, subjects reduced toxic emotions and improved mental health.
The best way to form the journaling habit is to create a routine. Some people like to journal first thing in the morning, others like to journal about the good parts of their day at the end of the day, while others need to fit it in during the day, for example, while commuting by bus. Having a designated time will help you avoid skipping journaling sessions.
However, you don’t need to journal every day. In fact, one study found that gratitude journaling had a bigger positive impact when study participants did it only once a week rather than three times per week.
Researchers speculated that overusing this technique might have a numbing effect on your emotional response. Consider picking one day each week for counting blessings from over the previous week, but be consistent.
Step 3: Avoid Self-Censorship
Write freely. Nobody is going to read this but you. Nobody cares if you use proper punctuation and spelling or if your handwriting is illegible.
Be free when it comes to the content as well. Your journal is a fine place to write about things that make you happy but that you would be embarrassed to tell anyone. Are you grateful someone trusted you with a secret?
Your gratitude journal is a great place to explore that (assuming the journal you don’t identify the person, in case someone nosy sneaks a peak). Perhaps you’re feeling grateful about cutting a toxic person out of your life. Journaling is an opportunity to vent about that.
Step 4: Be Generous With Yourself
Routine is good when it comes to journaling, but rigidity is not. Don’t try to force it. If one prompt doesn’t work for you, try another. Conversely, if you start responding to a prompt and get carried away, that’s great too.
For example, one day, I came up with a prompt to list three products I'd purchased that I got more value out of than I expected. I ended up writing several pages on the first item, a tee shirt I bought when I saw the touring theatrical production of Angels in America.
I still wear that shirt when I garden, twenty-five years later. It was an amazing day of journaling, even though I never got around to listing a second or third product. The key was remembering that how I journal is entirely up to me.
Step 5: Journal Consistently
If you feel totally stumped one day, or you’re in too bad a mood to be grateful for anything, that’s okay too. Again, don’t force it. On that day, if you’d like, try copying this gratitude list:
- I’m grateful that most days in my life have been better than today.
- I’m grateful that if I continue to work on my mindset, most days in my future will be better than today.
- I’m grateful that I am maintaining my journaling habit, even when I feel this bad.
Then make the mental commitment to get back on track during your next journaling session.
Step 6: Experiment With Your Entries
Avoid ruts and stay experimental.
If you usually write a shortlist, write a few pages about one thing. If you normally write pages, try constraining yourself to a list of ten one-word entries. And if you type, try writing by hand, or vice versa. Explore journaling nonverbally, using doodling or mixed media art instead of writing words.
Instead of writing a journal entry just for yourself, try sharing your gratitude to others. Call an old friend you’ve lost touch with to tell them you appreciate the role they played in your life. Thank the person you live with for unloading the dishwasher.
If you've recently read something you loved (a novel by an emerging writer or academic journal article, for example), Tweet about how great it was and tag the author.
Experimenting with how you identify and express gratitude won’t just improve your journaling. Odds are, the virtuous cycle of positivity will improve the rest of your life.
Step 7: Dig Deeper
There is nothing wrong with making your gratitude journal entry a short, simple list like the example above. If you have limited time, consistent practice of a bullet-point list of single-sentence entries is far better than nothing. However, the more you put into this practice the more you get out, so try (at least on some occasions) to write at greater length.
Generally speaking, the easiest way to dig deeper is to write not just about the thing itself but how you feel about it. If your entries tend to be short and simple, here are some prompts to help you expand them.
- Impact. Why are you so grateful for it? How has it improved your life? Has it also benefitted others directly? Or has it created a ripple effect, indirectly benefitting those around you by improving your state of mind? How can you get all of the benefit possible out of it? How can you pay it forward?
- Timing. Why was it significant that the thing you’re grateful for happened when it did? How would your life have been different if that thing had happened when you were much younger? What if it hadn’t happened for another decade?
- Expectation. Is this something you have been working for or hoping for over a long period? Or did it come as a complete surprise? Do you expect more of it in the future?
- Rarity. Is the thing you’re grateful for rare, or something you enjoy frequently or on an ongoing basis? If it is rare, is there something you can do to make it more common in your life? Or does its rareness make it even more special? If it is common, is it something you often overlook because it is so repetitious? How can you make a habit of remembering to appreciate this thing despite it feeling normal?
Step 8: Try Gratitude Journal Prompts
If you find that you’re struggling to come up with things to be grateful for, here are some prompts to inspire you:
- Write about your environment. What aspects of your home make you feel safe and secure? How has the weather been? When did you last see a beautiful sunset, smell a fragrant flower, or pet a friendly neighborhood dog? Can you take pleasure in the simple fact that there are no dirty dishes in the sink?
- Write about people. What relationships bring you the most joy? When was a moment when you felt incredibly proud of someone else? If someone is frustrating you at the moment, can you remember three reasons you love them anyway?
- Write about yourself. What is a risk you’ve taken in life that paid off? Are you glad you got certain genes from your parents, or that you didn't? Are you grateful for the ways your body allows you to do things you enjoy, like exercising, sex, or meditation?
- Write about trauma. Can you identify aspects of your past life that harmed you? Do you feel grateful now that these are absent from your life? Are there important people in your life who you met and connected with because of a shared trauma? What are a few strengths you’ve formed as a result of past trauma?
- Write about ideas. Is there a book (whether fiction, philosophy, or self-help) that changed your life for the better? What’s the best advice you ever got from your parents? What values (freedom, philanthropy, or equity, for example) inspire you in your daily life?
- Write about material objects. Do you love the feeling of lying down on your comfy bed freshly made with clean sheets? How many miles of safe riding have you gotten out of your bicycle? What are the most thoughtful gifts you’ve ever received?
- Write about goals. What is something small you’ve done in the last week that you are proud of? Can you identify a big goal that you had in the past and describe what it took for you to accomplish it? Are you currently making progress on goals that you haven’t accomplished yet (one month of consistent journaling, or two days without a cigarette, for example)?
- Write about memories. What's the most wonderful place you visited? When was a moment other people made you feel truly loved and appreciated? What are the three best meals you’ve ever eaten?
Once you establish the habit, you'll find there is no limit to sources of inspiration for gratitude journaling.
Want more? Read our guide to writing prompts.
The Final Word on Gratitude Journaling
There are so many cultural pressures that encourage us to focus on the negative that gratitude journaling may feel awkward at first. However, both the scientists who study it and people who practice agree that once you use journaling to establish an attitude of gratitude, you’ll be grateful you tried it.
FAQs on Gratitude Journaling
What Are Some Of The Benefits Of Gratitude Journaling?
There are as many different benefits of starting a gratitude journal as there are things to be grateful for. For some it might be a prompt to add to an existing journaling practice.
For others, it’s a mindfulness practice recommended by a therapist. For many people, gratitude journaling is a response to the recognition that they’ve formed a habit of focusing on the negative.
Psychology research, beginning with a foundational study from scientists Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough at the University of California, has identified various benefits of gratitude journaling. Gratitude journaling can improve your physical health and wellness (better sleep and reducing symptoms such as inflammation, for example).
Gratitude journaling offers some mental health benefits too. It can help you feel more connected with other people and more willing to offer them your support. Reflecting gratefully on your past and present can increase your optimism about the future.
Perhaps most importantly, research confirms gratitude journaling can improve your mental health and increase your subjective feeling of being happy with your life. For more on the benefits of gratitude, check out this article by psychology professor and self-help guru Sonja Lyubomirsky.
What Is The Purpose Of A Gratitude Journal?
It is a great idea to give some thought upfront to your purpose in using this technique. Some potential goals for gratitude journaling include:
1. Reduce stress, anxiety, and trauma
2. Prepare for a good night’s sleep
3. Counteract bad moods and depression
4. Change your perspective by correcting negative cognitive distortions
5. Increase your self-esteem and decrease jealousy of others
6. Become more self-aware and mindful
7. Identify bad habits you want to break and good habits you want to reinforce
8. Remember to express appreciation to those around you
By identifying your goals upfront, you will find it easier to assess the benefits and limitations of gratitude journaling as you practice it. You can also experiment and alter your practice to find the techniques that work best.
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