Hands up, who’s tried to keep a gratitude journal?
The powerful effects of a gratitude journal are well documented. By simply writing down what you’re grateful for, you’ll develop a more positive mindset. You’ll become happier. Apparently, you'll even sleep better.
So why is it so difficult?
I’ve tried -- and failed -- to keep a gratitude journal many times before. Each time would be the same: The first day, full of enthusiasm. After three days I would ‘forget’ to write something. After a week I would quit, much to my relief. Gratitude journaling wasn’t for me. Or so I thought.
That changed a couple of months ago, when I was persuaded to give it one last go. Two months later, and I’m still going strong. Now I love my gratitude journal.
In a second I’ll explain what’s changed. But first let’s take a quick look at the standard gratitude journal advice.
The typical gratitude journal goes like this:
- Every day you open your (probably expensive) gratitude journal
- You write down 3-5 things that you’re grateful for
- You do this in the morning or evening, so that the positive feelings can power you through the day (or next day)
- All your 'gratitudes' should be precise, rather than general. Otherwise you end up going through the motions
- Oh, and you should reflect on each entry before you jot it down
I found that way too restrictive.
The first problem was the whole morning/evening thing. I had little wriggle room at those times of day, so I struggled to make gratitude journaling a consistent habit.
The next problem was not knowing what to write. Even when I did crack open the journal, I would sit there struggling, staring at an empty page. So I gave up ... until a book changed my mind.
Everything changed when I read The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor. Its central idea is that we have the relationship between happiness and success inverted: success doesn't lead to happiness, instead happiness leads to success. It's a persuasive book, and Achor repeatedly emphasises the power of gratitude journaling.
Then he dishes out one piece of advice that goes against the typical gratitude journal tip. It was enough to get me rolling.
The advice in The Happiness Advantage was this: write your gratitude journal at work. Set a notification at 11am for doing this. That's it.
This may seem obvious, but it was exactly the tip I needed. I couldn't squeeze journaling into my already-crammed morning/evening routine. I am able to make the time in the middle of the day.
Now you might be thinking: I can’t stop work in the middle of the day to write a gratitude journal. I had the same concern, but actually it wasn’t a problem. After all, taking five-minute breaks is something that you probably do quite often (particularly if you’re timeblocking, like the Pomodoro technique).
This worked well for about a week ... but then I noticed that gratitude journaling was becoming a struggle. Rather than making me feeling positive, it felt like a drag. Whenever that notification popped up, I would groan inside.
That’s when I started to change things.
The first problem, I realised, was the name itself. ‘Gratitude Journal’ doesn’t click with my brain. It's too sincere, too cheesy. It felt like homework!
The solution? A rename. I needed something that would light me up.
After experimenting with a few names, I landed on Daily Good Times! Now, when that notification pops up, I’m inspired to write things down and feel happy about life. I picture summer afternoons walking through a park, sun shining, people dancing, usually a group of drummers sat in a circle. (That might be some people’s idea of hell … but it works for me.)
Find a name that lights you up. Your journal, your name.
So you've got your rename. The next question is: What the hell do I write?
In the past, I would sit with my journal and ask "What am I grateful for?" For a cynic like me, this soon became a struggle. Any joy -- any gratitude -- was gone. This was a problem.
Luckily, the answer was in the name Daily Good Times! I started capturing, well, good times. This was a game-changer.
My advice for anyone starting a gratitude journal: simply jot down moments that made you happy. They can be from this morning or from years ago. It doesn’t matter.
Daily Good Times! is filled with:
- Awesome nights with friends
- Hilarious/dumbass conversations with my kids
- Great things that happen at work
Focusing on moments brings so many advantages:
Easy: Unlike some gratitude journal prompts, writing about moments doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination. If it happened and it brought you some joy, then it counts.
Specific: One of the keys to a gratitude journal is being specific. By definition, writing about moments does this.
Moment Album: Over time, your journal becomes like a photo album, but for moments instead. It's there to revisit whenever you need.
Clock-able: I soon realised that I was clocking good moments as they happened -- partly so that I would have something to write. “Is this cheating?” I wondered. Of course not! The whole point is to look for positives. Far from cheating, it means that the journaling is working.
You might think “I don’t have any good moments to write about”. If so, great -- you will definitely benefit from this exercise. I guarantee that there have been some positive moments in your past, however small -- a friendly gesture or a fun conversation. It might take some effort to think of these, but it will get easier as you work out your positivity muscles. And then you’ll be flying.
Once you've grown the journaling habit you can develop some more writing prompts. Here are some of mine:
Bad Times (with a Positive Twist): Take a bad thing that’s happened, and try to look for a positive take on it. This is tricky at first -- it’s like the ultimate positivity workout. But you'll soon start to look for the good in everything. Example: I recently fell over while running, badly scraping my knee. It was nasty -- there seemed to be no positive spin. After a bit of thought, I turned this into an Injury Comparison bonding session with my 5-year old.
Read about Others’ Lives: Reading about other people’s lives can be a source of inspiration. It can give you a direct contrast with your life, and make you reflect. Example: I was reading read Trevor Noah’s fantastic autobiography, “Born A Crime”. In it, he talks about growing up without proper water. This gave me a lot to think about.
Repeating Ain’t Cheating: Are you allowed to talk about something twice (or more)? Damn right you are! Revisiting those good moments is a great thing. So long as it doesn't become rote.
Sneaky Affirmations: Sneak in moments that remind you that you’re awesome. Boss said you're doing a great job? Write about it, and expand on what you've done well.
Here are a few other tips that I've found useful:
Write As If No One’s Reading: The saying goes “Dance as if no one’s watching.” The same is true for a gratitude journal. Don’t get bogged down with thoughts like “What if Ellen reads this?” (a) she won’t, and (b) you’re writing about good times, so she’ll probably appreciate it. Good times often involve other people, and so you should feel okay to write about that.
Be Relentlessly Positive: For me Daily Good Times! is a Positive Only zone. After all, it's like my optimism gym. There are plenty of places in my life to be balanced or considered -- this ain’t one of them. Sure, some of the things I write make me sound borderline hippy-dippy insane. But remember: Thank as if no one's reading!
Pick a Format that’s Convenient: Digital or paper? Don't get hung up on it. Do whatever works for you.
It Doesn’t Have to be Daily: Don’t feel pressured to write in the journal every day. Doing so can add to the grind. Twice a week will still give you those benefits. (And you can keep the name Daily Good Times! … because it’s your damn journal.)
Fewer Items: You might find that 3-5 items is too many. In that case, start off with 1. The main thing -- particularly when starting -- is to make it easy for yourself.
Reread Your Good Times: Soon, you'll have a collection of your awesome moments. Any time you need a pick-me-up, then it will be there to read over.
The main lesson is: Do whatever you can to make gratitude journaling fun. For example, decorate your journal. If images are your thing, then post them in there. It all counts!
So does gratitude journaling -- or Daily Good Times! -- work?
For me, the positive workout is almost life-changing.
Let’s use an example: recently, my car died. Previously, that would have seemed a disaster. Juggling work and child care proved a challenge, not to mention the costs. However, through writing in Daily Good Times! I started to find positives -- friends who helped out, improved knowledge about cars (check your coolant level, folks!), the fact that it wasn’t that bad. Life moved on.
This has been the general pattern. I feel more in control.
(And if you’re cynical about that … then you definitely need to try gratitude journaling.)
Gratitude journaling changed for me once I decided to make it fun. The key was
- Keeping a consistent time (this can be at work), and
- Focusing on Happy Moments
If you've struggled with gratitude journaling before, give it a try. And remember: have Good Times!
Have you kept a gratitude journal? What worked for you?
(Header Image from Pixabay Photos)