There are many benefits to keeping a gratitude journal. The time you spend purposefully thinking and writing the parts of life that fulfill you can pay dividends. Research-based tips – and your favorite pen – can help you on your way to creating your very own gratitude journal.
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Make It a Routine
All sectors of society have researched the science of creating habits. Medicine, business, parenting – we all want to know how habitual behavior impacts our lives. Keeping a gratitude journal to help you feel happier, over the long term, has to be part of a habitual routine. Select a time to write in your journal, such as first thing in the morning or at bedtime. Plant cues to remind yourself, like keeping a pretty journal on your nightstand. Write in your journal often enough to create habit-forming behavior, but not so often that you become immune to the impact of conscious gratitude.
Write in Detail
Writing a gratitude journal should not be another thing to cross off your list. If you're approaching it this way, you're cutting yourself short. Be present and conscious of the notations you're making. Lists are great and easy, but also remain at surface level. Journal in detail, deeply, about the one thing that has recently impacted you. Remember, you aren't being graded here. There are no gold stars or brownie points. In theory, this practice was researched to improve happiness and gratitude levels. And who doesn't want to feel happier? The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley has more researched tips on how to approach writing a gratitude journal.
Acknowledge the Negative, Too
Tough times happen in life. We fight with our spouses. Our kids break bones. Any number of troubling obstacles can hurdle us from feeling grateful. But if we rush through the struggles, or worse, fight to find gratitude constantly, we fuel emotions of anxiety and defeat.
Authored by the chair of the psychology department at Wellesley College, "The Positive Power of Negative Thinking" advocates the benefits of balanced thinking and harnessing the power of "defensive pessimism" to achieve goals – and feel grateful, too. So, in those moments of struggle, allow yourself to feel the negative, and don't stifle your anxiety with unrelenting responsibility of gratitude.
Uncover Gratitude in Unexpected Moments
The purpose of keeping a gratitude journal is to help us savor the fruits of life – our families, our environments, our blessings. But beyond that, do we have more gratitude to uncover? Challenge yourself to find gracious qualities in life's difficult moments. Did your boss underestimate your skills? Thank her for the motivation to prove her wrong. Did you wake up to find that your car has a flat tire? The moment when you see the tire is stressful, but later on, be grateful that you weren't driving when the tire gave out.
There's a difference between feeling grateful and being grateful, and it's OK to be one without the other.
Practice Gratitude for the Right Things
To show gratitude for a big house and a new car seem like obvious entries in your journal, but according to research by Michael McCullough, a leading gratitude researcher at the University of Miami, the connection between materialism and gratitude would surprise you. In the paper "Is Gratitude an Alternative to Materialism?” written for the Journal of Happiness Studies, McCullough contends that people who are consumed with the accumulation of wealth and material acquisitions are less likely to be happy than those who are grateful for what they currently have. He states, "In contrast, grateful people – people who readily recognize the many ways that their lives are enriched by the benevolent actions of others – tend to be extraordinarily happy. They experience high levels of positive emotions, low levels of negative emotion, [and] are generally satisfied with their lives."
Instead of showing gratitude for material things for the sake of ownership, focus on what those items afford you. A warm home makes your kids feel safe, allowing them to enjoy their childhoods without worry of where they'll sleep at night. A working car allows you to visit loved ones, volunteer at a homeless center or take a road trip. Think of what money allows you to be and do – not just have.