How a Gratitude Journal Impacts Mental Health,
Focus, and Happiness
“In daily life we must see that it is not happiness that makes us grateful,
but gratefulness that makes us happy.” –David Steindl-Rast
Do you ever feel like you want to be more positive, but things are so tough that all you can see is the negative? I sometimes feel that way, too. Although most people would describe me as an upbeat person, I’m actually not naturally upbeat. I spend time every day “training” my mind to be more positive, because feeling positive feels so much better for me than feeling negative. (And I’ve done both, believe me!) One of the most powerful tools I’ve found to go from negative to positive is the simple practice of gratitude.
Mom was right: saying “thank you” is important. But gratitude is more than just a meaningless gesture required to show good manners. In a recent study, people who kept a gratitude journal for just 3 weeks lowered their blood pressure while strengthening their immune systems. They reported sleeping longer and feeling more refreshed upon awakening, having more optimism and happiness, and feeling more alert, alive, and awake. Wow! That’s pretty powerful for a practice that takes 5 minutes a day.
For me, practicing gratitude helps me shift my focus from what’s going wrong to what’s going right. And that’s just a much more enjoyable mindset to be in. Want to put the power of gratitude to work for you? Here are 3 easy steps to starting your own gratitude practice.
3 Simple Steps to Start Your Gratitude Journal
Gather Your Materials
You don’t need much: a piece of paper and a pen or your phone (Sanity & Self has a journaling feature right in the app if you prefer to go digital. So convenient!); a place to write, and (most important) a commitment to just do the work. Why is commitment the most important part? I know for me, there are some days when things are going crappy and I just don’t feel grateful. That’s when I need my practice the most! A gratitude practice works because it refocuses the mind on what’s good, and when we’re centered and calm, remembering what we have rather than what we lack, we’re less reactive and make better decisions. A regular gratitude practice is a tool we can use to bring our mind out of negativity and back into positivity, or at least into feeling ok. (Sometimes “ok” is all I can manage, too. But I’ll take “ok” over “crappy.”)
Make It a Habit
Pick a time you can commit to, and then journal in your gratitude journal at the same time every day. Why? It’s easy for life to get in the way. I find that if I don’t schedule the practice in and hold myself accountable, I just don’t get it done. I like to think of practicing gratitude as “mental health maintenance”: it keeps my mind focused on the positive, which helps me feel good throughout the day.
I like to journal first thing in the morning, because it sets a positive tone for my day. I’ve also journaled right before bed as part of my evening wind-down ritual, which is lovely. If work is stressful, practicing gratitude on a coffee break could be a helpful tool. The important thing is to pick a time that works for you and commit to it, say for a month. See how it feels. But give it a little time. Like anything worth doing, practicing gratitude takes some time and consistency to reap the benefits.
This part is simple: Journal about 5 things you’re grateful for today.
Here are a few guidelines to make your gratitude journal experience even more powerful:
- Pick different things every day. Challenge yourself to see the beauty and love in your world right now. If you’ve ever done a gratitude practice before and it didn’t “work,” you were probably choosing the same things every day. The practice “works” because you train your mind to see the ordinary in a new way. Find the everyday beauty by seeking new things to be grateful for. They’re there. The practice is training your mind to see them.
- Stay small and specific: a cup of hot coffee, a purple wildflower you saw on a hike, the softness of your cat’s fur. I’m always amazed that when I go looking for the beauty, I find it. You will, too.
- Five minutes is plenty! Make your practice a small, achievable amount of time. Better to do the practice every day for five minutes than to do a marathon gratitude session once a week. You want to give your brain that little “feel-good” hit every day, because you deserve to feel good every day. Accomplish this by setting a small goal and sticking to it. And even better, doing the practice every day will allow you to start creating new pathways in your brain that look for the positive, the things you’re grateful for. You’ll start feeling grateful even when you’re not officially practicing. That’s when the practice has created a mental shift and you start reaping big benefits.
- Take it in! Did you know that the brain can’t distinguish between a real event and a vividly imagined one? So if you recreate the image of the purple wildflower in your mind, you get to experience it all over again, including the way it made you feel. Experience it! Take in all that goodness that is your life. Allow yourself to really feel that gratitude–for your coffee, your kitty, whatever. I like to (1) think of my gratitude object; (2) write it down in my journal; (3) spend a moment really feeling the gratitude for this person, this pet, this thing, taking in the good feelings that I have for this person, pet, thing; remembering why I’m grateful for them; and (4) then silently say “thank you.”
I hope you found this post helpful, and that you’ll try the concept of a gratitude journaling and tell me how it goes in the comments. If you’d like to delve deeper into the practice of gratitude, be sure to check out Kelsey Horton’s series From Grumpy to Grateful, or take gratitude on-the-go with my Mindful on the Go series, (episode one is titled Being Grateful) on the Sanity & Self app. Both are fantastic for helping us remember the good that’s always around us. Thank you for reading. I’m grateful to you!
About the Author
Jimmée Greco is a yoga & group fitness instructor, and personal trainer originally from Carmel, CA , who specializes in guided breathing and meditations. Jimmée got into fitness and yoga to help people lead their best lives and become the best version of themselves. Jimmée is the friend who will take you out to coffee when you’re sad and tell you funny stories at her own expense. Her favorite way to self-care is to play music, draw, and paint. She’s also an expert knitter, chess player, and the mom of 2 kids and one corgi. Visit Jimmée online at www.jimmeegreco.com and be sure to check out her meditation and sleep content in the Sanity & Self app such as Turn Down the Volume and Reduce Stress.
Do you journal? Have you ever tried a gratitude journal? Share your thoughts & experience below.