“The master said, You must write what you see.
But what I see does not move me.
The master answered Change what you see.”
Louise Gluck, Vita Nova
Every year, nearing Thanksgiving, we are inundated by advice about giving thanks. It appears that we all need instruction about feeling grateful and given that most of us lead very busy lives we often forget to breathe and take stock. But in 2020, in this time of a global pandemic, it is even more important, for our own well-being and resilience, to notice and acknowledge the positives in our lives and to express gratitude.
A gratitude journal is the perfect answer and it can take any form or shape you need. It can be as simple and straightforward as a daily list of three things that you are grateful for and bring joy into your life or as complicated as a series of meditations on what gratitude means in your life. It doesn’t matter whether you intermingle your approach; you can even mix in gratitude pages with your all-purpose journal. The most important aspect of a gratitude journal is to allow you to focus for a few moments on what there is in your life to appreciate and cherish.
If you need more convincing, a scientifically proven upside to keeping a gratitude journal is that it can improve your health. Focusing on the positive not only improves your mood, it has other beneficial effects. In 2010, Robert Emmons, a leading researcher on the science of gratitude and a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, found positive results in the following three areas for those who practice gratitude, often through journals:
- Stronger immune systems
- Less bothered by aches and pains
- Lower blood pressure
- Exercise more and take better care of their health
- Sleep longer and feel more refreshed upon waking
- Higher levels of positive emotions
- More alert, alive, and awake
- More joy and pleasure
- More optimism and happiness
- More helpful, generous, and compassionate
- More forgiving
- More outgoing
- Feel less lonely and isolated.
Emmons’ research also found that people who practice gratitude are more able to be stress resistant and to block toxic or negative feelings. I can’t think of more convincing arguments to start a gratitude journal, especially right now.
As with all journals, there are no rules to starting a gratitude journal, not about grammar, nor how frequently you should write nor how to structure it. But I’d like to offer several suggestions to help you feel free to engage with and experience gratitude in your own way.
- Choose a separate journal: Picking up a designated book when focusing on gratitude is a physical reminder that you are ready to write in the present moment. Feeling gratitude can bring you into the present moment and you may want to help this along by closing your eyes for a few moments and taking some deep breaths before you write.
- Make sure you date each page and you may even want to note where you are when you write. A journal of any kind is a document you might want to review in the future so dates and places are good ways to bring us back to the moment.
- Write at a time of day that suits you. We each have our own diurnal cycles when we are freshest or most introspective. I find that making a list at night of what I am thankful for allows me to review my day and facilitates easeful sleep. But if I want to write at length about a person who has made my day or even week, I write when I have more open time. And you do not have to write every day— writing should not be a chore but it is wise to make it a regular habit. Research has shown that writing two or three times a week can deliver health benefits.
- Start simply, but be specific. Perhaps decide to list three to five things you are grateful for or write a sentence for each. You can list the items without examination or write a more extended entry. The important thing is to spend some time learning to acknowledge and cherish particular aspects of your life.
- Look around you–sometimes the smallest things bring us happiness, a bird, a tree in flower, a sunny day, a hot cup of tea, or a conversation with a friend. On some days, there will be a person you want to write about, and on other days, simply a favorite sweater or a meal. You can make a conscious choice to define your world by focusing on the positives in yourself and the people around you.
- Expand the journal entry into a letter. There are times when I’ve written to a friend or colleague, frequently one who has died. In writing a long, specific letter thanking the person for all I’ve received from them, my feelings of gratitude and well-being increased. Once, in writing to a friend who had died, I gave the letter to his spouse, who was especially grateful to see her husband through another’s eyes.
- Be ready to compliment yourself—if you’ve finished a project, read a book you loved or were kind to someone, add that to your list. Be grateful for your own initiative and strength. And be grateful for being able to accept help from others.
- If you need prompts, there are many available prompts for writing gratitude journals– it is easy to find them with a simple online search–and they can be helpful to get you unstuck when you’re stuck. But for the most part, slowing down, becoming more observant and noting what pleases you is the most personal way to begin when you’re stuck.
Writing about gratitude is a truly effective way to rearrange your perception of your life and the world, especially if you are going through a period where you are, as Shakespeare once wrote, “on Fortune’s cap not the very button.” Centering your thoughts around what is positive can refocus you, lift your spirits, and perhaps, lighten your burdens. It can also prompt you to say “thank you” to others, a reminder I find to be a major benefit of a gratitude journal.
Start writing, write as often as you like but aim for at least two to three times a week, and try to offer your gratitude directly to at least one person a week. You’ll find that when you begin to do that, you’ll want to express your positive feelings more often.
And remember, even if you are not in a positive place, there are things to be grateful for and noting them can change your mood. As Irving Berlin wrote, “Got no checkbooks, got no banks, still I’d like to express my thanks. I got the sun in the morning and the moon at night.”
Rita D. Jacobs’ book The Way In: Journal Writing for Self-Discovery is available on Amazon and a series of articles titled “From Journal to Memoir” are available on her website www.ritadjacobs.com