Gratitude Journals: Cheesy Gimmick or Powerful Tool?

A woman writing in a journal while smiling
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Open any self-care article on the internet, and you’ll find a mention of gratitude journals. To those of us with a more cynical mindset, the idea of writing down things we are thankful for feels a bit childish and silly. What is this, Thanksgiving at the kids table?

Unfortunately for us cynics, studies have shown that writing in a gratitude journal lowers stress and increases happiness. Research has found that these journals help people sleep better at night and have better, more fulfilling relationships. There is even evidence that it can help lower your risk of heart disease and ease symptoms of anxiety and depression.

That sounds really appealing, but how does scribbling a few words in a journal translate into so many tangible benefits for your life? And if you’re someone as allergic to positivity as I am, how do you embrace such a wholesome practice?

Keep It Simple

Clearly the best part about starting a gratitude journal is buying a really pretty notebook. And you’ll need a new pen, right? You’ve got to start this whole gratitude thing right.

You don’t need a fancy bullet journal or a specially made notebook with pre-written prompts. For me, the nicer the journal, the less likely I am to actually write in it. What if I mess it up? But a cheap composition notebook, of which I always seem to have several, is less of a perfectionism trigger.

While there’s some evidence that writing longhand could be good for journaling, it’s not a requirement. If you’d rather type your gratitude journal on a phone or computer, then go for it. You could record voice memos or even TikTok videos if that’s what appeals to you.

Balance Flexibility and Structure

Journaling every day for 30 minutes isn’t realistic for most of us. If you try to rigidly adhere to a schedule, you may find yourself rushing through it just to cross “journal” off your to-do list. And if you miss a day? Well, now the whole thing is ruined and you might as well give up.

Writing in your journal for five minutes every day is a good place to start. However, you may find that every other day, or even once a week, is a better frequency for you. You don’t need to write down an exact number of words or set yourself a time limit. No one is grading you on this, so if you write a little more some entries and less in others, or you skip a few days, it’s not going to be reflected on your permanent record.

Most experts recommend journaling in the evening so that you can reflect on your day. However, others find that journaling more spontaneously as you encounter something that makes you feel grateful is even more effective. There’s no one-size-fits-all formula, and you may need to experiment to see what works for you.

Who Are You Trying to Impress?

This exercise only works if it comes from a place of authenticity. You might feel like you should be grateful for your house or your job or your family. But if the thing that really sticks out in your mind is the sandwich you ate for lunch, then write about that sandwich.

Being specific is better than a vague statement of thanks. “I’m grateful to have food on the table” is less personal–and therefore less effective–than “I’m grateful that my partner took the time to make my favorite risotto for dinner.”

To be clear, the entries don’t all have to be about food. That’s just where my head’s at right now. But that’s the point–this is your journal, and you can write whatever you want in it. If you’re truly grateful that the Red Wings won this weekend, then don’t pretend otherwise. It also helps to focus on people instead of objects–the person who made the sandwich, rather than the food itself.

As you develop a gratitude practice, you may find yourself looking for more fodder for your journal. The secret isn’t writing down three things you feel thankful for each day, but in bringing more awareness to opportunities for gratitude in your life.

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