When you are working toward long-term goals, it can be difficult to maintain focus on the positive. If optimism does not come naturally to you, it’s easy to emphasize the obstacles and stumbling blocks rather than the progress you are making toward your goal. In order to keep your motivation high, it is crucial to acknowledge the wins. And the best way to ensure that you notice the good things in your life is to write them down. Keeping a gratitude journal has helped prevent us from missing all we have to be grateful for and kept our eye on the prize of our long-term dream.
Why Keep a Gratitude Journal
We keep a gratitude journal just because it feels good and it reminds us to be thankful. As it turns out, a number of scientific studies have shown concrete benefits of gratitude journaling. In 2015, Psychology Today published an article citing several scientific studies about gratitude which have shown, among other things, that gratitude improves physical and psychological health, improves empathy, and actually leads to better sleep. Last year, an article in Time Magazine added the benefits of patience, better relationships, and willpower to that list. Researchers at NIH have found the direct neurological causes for these outcomes. Gratitude increases activity in the hypothalamus (hormone levels and eating and sleeping control) and the brain’s use of dopamine.
So why not just think happy thoughts? There is value to translating your thoughts into whole language. In other words, simply thinking grateful thoughts is not as powerful as writing them down. Additionally, research indicates that using handwriting to record gratitude (vs. speaking or typing) is a more effective way to reap the full physical and emotional benefits.
So gratitude is one of those incredibly rare things that both feels good AND is good for you! Given that, a regular gratitude practice is a win win for you and for your life goals.
How to Start a Gratitude Journal
Starting a gratitude journal couldn’t be easier. Pick a way to record the things you are grateful for and find a place you want to keep them. This doesn’t have to be an expensive fancy, leather journal. It doesn’t even have to be physical! Here are a number of places you can keep a gratitude journal:
- An expensive fancy leather journal (I admit it. My personal choice)
- A blank notebook
- A pack of index cards
- A file on your computer
- A recording device – you can simply speak your grateful thoughts into your smartphone’s voice app, or even an old fashioned tape recorder if you are averse to writing them down
- An app – yes, there are gratitude apps. For some people, using a gratitude app on their ever-present phone helps them carve out the time to regularly stop and be grateful. A couple of good free apps are Grateful and Happy Feed.
Personally, I prefer the fancy journal method. I find that using a nice smooth pen to write on clean white paper in an attractive notebook gives weight to my gratitude ritual. It also makes the practice something special that I look forward to each night.Gratitude is one of those incredibly rare things that both feels good AND is good for you!Click To Tweet
What to Write
Writing a gratitude journal could not be simpler. Just write down what you are grateful for in your life. This could take the form of a simple sentence, starting with “Today I am grateful for….”. Or just a bullet point “my daughter had a really great first day of school.”
Some people recommend listing 3 or 5 things that you are grateful for. However, studies show that benefits are greater for those who go with depth rather than breadth. Just going through the motions of gratitude won’t do it. So pick a single thing that you are grateful for and think about it specifically and thoroughly.
It is helpful to identify specific and unique events that you are grateful for. If you simply write “my children” every day, you won’t get the same benefits that identifying a specific thing that happened that day will yield. And you’ll be bored as heck by day five.
So be specific. Sit with your day for a moment and ponder what events really gave you that warm emotional boost. If you had a tough day and aren’t feeling very grateful at all, try to identify the bright spot in all the crap. Maybe someone held a door for you when your hands were full. Or you treated yourself to some Americone Dream and you are happy that Ben & Jerry went into the ice cream biz rather than used car sales.
Studies also show that being grateful for the people in your life can have more benefits than focusing on things. So make sure to identify the things you are grateful about your kids, devoted husband, or your ever-loyal cat (pets are people too!).
How to Keep a Gratitude Journal Long Term
You actually do not need, or even necessarily want, to utilize your gratitude journal every day. Much like noting the same gratitude every time, writing every day is a recipe for boredom and hedonic adaptation. Studies show that recording grateful feelings 3 or 4 times a week is better than trying to generate a novel gratitude every day.
Most experts recommend recording your grateful thoughts either first thing in the morning or just before bed at night. Those who advocate for the morning say that this can get your day off on the right foot. I am in the evening camp. I enjoy going off to dreamland with positive thoughts of the good things that happened that day. Either way, you should create a ritual around your gratitude journal, using the same method at the same time each day. Rituals help us to start a new habit and to appreciate the special parts of our day.
Paul and I have been keeping gratitude journals for the past couple of years. We’ve found them to be incredibly helpful in reminding us of the positive developments in our lives. And that energy has helped us keep our eyes on the prize of working and planning for our poker pilgrimage. If you aren’t keeping a gratitude journal, give it a try. And if you are, let us know how it’s working out for you!