What I Learned From Keeping a Gratitude Journal
Confession: Before this assignment, I’d never even considered keeping a gratitude journal. I imagined parchment and elf-crystals and perfumed writing chambers where the air is 75 percent mulberry incense, and purple-haired millennials talk an awful lot about chakras.
Gratitude is also an example of what humans call feelings, and I have spent an awful lot of energy trying to avoid those. But as it happens, what makes me a lousy human also leaves me pretty well-qualified to gauge the effects of a gratitude journal—a tally of thanks I kept throughout December to see whether the gurus and positive psychologists are right about its uplifting power.
Science has fallen over itself proving how gratitude makes you not only a warmer person but a healthier one. “Previous research has linked gratitude to improved mental health, lower levels of anxiety and improved sleep,” says Blaire Morgan, Ph.D., a research fellow at the University of Birmingham in England. “Our own research has demonstrated a strong link between gratitude and three different measures of well-being: satisfaction with life, subjective happiness and positive affect.”
Related: The Power of Gratitude
The idea of the gratitude journal, as with most of your leading forms of mindful personal development (meditation, controlled breathing, ringing the Salvation Army bell, doing yoga in a 105-degree closet), is theoretically wonderful, a warmly resonant concept designed to blast rays of sunshine into your dull cement world of commutes and credit card APRs and Facebook. Gratitude journals are the opposite of work-intensive, requiring only a pen, pad and a handful of quiet moments. You can keep them anywhere. They’re meant to be mentally refreshing, spiritually invigorating, and free of expectation or reciprocation—a crystal-blue example of pure instinctual human goodwill.
Gratitude fosters upstream reciprocity, which you may know by its street name: paying it forward.
A 2006 Northwestern University study by Monica Bartlett and David DeSteno found that gratitude fosters upstream reciprocity, which you may know by its street name: paying it forward. The grateful among us enjoy higher self-esteem and are generally in better moods. They’re more empathetic and less inclined to vengeful retaliation. They experience fewer physical aches and pains, partly because—being in positive frames of mind already—they exercise and visit doctors regularly. In a famous example, renowned gratitude expert Martin E. Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania experimented with a number of positive psychology interventions; the most successful involved participants who wrote and hand-delivered notes of gratitude to someone who had influenced their lives.
The best part about being thankful: You can literally start reaping these benefits before you even shake yourself out of bed. “Begin the day with gratitude,” says Gregory Jantz, Ph.D., founder of The Center, A Place of Hope and a personal development author. “Find simple things: I have a roof over my head, I have work. Start small.” The effect, Jantz says, is aggregate. “As I become more grateful, I become more optimistic, more humble, more teachable. I begin to see things I wouldn’t normally see. I become more positive.”
So with those benefits in mind, I began writing my first gratitude journal entry of the month.
Related: How Journaling Made Me Happier
GRATITUDE LOG 1: OK, so here goes: Thanks to a close bus stop and my instinctual OCD, mornings are pretty chill around here. Instead of frenetically scrambling around prodding the children and occasionally flinging waffles at them, we can actually—you know—eat breakfast. Usually after the oldest heads to the bus stop, the youngest will bobble downstairs, hair frazzling out in about 40 directions, rubbing sleep out of his eyes with balled-up fists and looking as if he’d ask me for coffee if he wasn’t 5. Luckily he is 5, which means we get to spend a few minutes lounging on the couch, he and his screwy hair balled up in my lap, deciding whether it feels more like a Honeycomb or Frosted Flakes morning. I’m not going to pretend that mornings with a 5-year-old are a magic-lit Hallmark scene of redemptive sunlight, but it’s a pretty nice way to kick off the day.
Before long, I settle into a December routine: Around 10 p.m., I make tea, find a spot on the couch and dig around my brain being thankful. I start slow, writing about things that generally don’t have feelings of their own: our evocatively cluttered Christmas tree, a reasonably successful year of self-employment, safety and comfort—the usual suspects. Later I’ll improve at this, writing to friends in distant states, college buds I don’t see enough, the old crew that gathers every year for a Christmas party, my mom and myself. I can’t claim to have glimpsed nirvana, but did it make me feel lighter walking upstairs to go to sleep? Absolutely.
“Spending appropriate time thinking about what you’re thankful for—and really meaning it—helps re-focus what you’re paying attention to,” says Courtney Johnson, Ph.D., a clinical neuropsychologist with Indiana University Health in Indianapolis. “Even if it’s just, ‘I’m grateful this winter isn’t as cold as last year’s’ or ‘The sun is shining even though it’s freezing.’ ” In short order, she says, the good stuff will pop.
GRATITUDE LOG 4: This one is dedicated to my oldest. He’s midway through seventh grade—universally accepted as the worst year of schooling—and pretty well crushing it. He’s a sweet kid, imaginative, thoughtful and kind. He can be flaky and frustrating, but in a good way—his brain is firing at absurd repeating rates, taking things in and examining them. It makes him a part-time citizen of the outside world here, sure, but it means there are worlds in his mind that I can’t wait to see open up. One day he’ll walk out the door and end up somewhere exotic, tropical, freezing or remote, confident and curious. It’ll be hard to see him go, but I’m thankful that’s the way he is. He’s taught me much in the past 13 years, more than I ever thought he could, and I’m holding my breath to see what he does next.
I won’t sugarcoat this part: Midway through the monthlong exercise, I grew pretty tired of gratitude. As with anything that demands daily dedication, my journal started to seep into the sticky ground of chores, rather than mental wellness. The kids would go to bed, the dishes would be put away, and I’d grab a book and sit down and think, Oh wait. Dammit. I need to go be grateful for something. Gratitude is wonderful; forced gratitude is kind of a nag.
The problem, I realized, is this is when I needed the exercise the most, when I’d just as soon have checked out for the day, gone to sleep or watched the pointless fourth quarter of a blowout Chicago Bears game. The idea wasn’t the journal—that was easy enough—it was the tireless persistence of the journal, the cumulative effect. I couldn’t bail just because I was sleepy.
So because it was late and I was grumpy, I aimed my entry low and settled in to be thankful for video games. It was a balmy 6 degrees that night, with a wind chill of are-you-kidding-me-with-this. After dinner, my wife had broken off to wrap presents, so I adjourned upstairs to accept my son’s challenge in a fierce game of Super Mario Kart 8. Sadly, my youngest had not consumed enough pasta to earn him a turn at the controller, so, relegated to the role of observer, he waddled up to the couch and popped right between his big brother and me. For a good 20 minutes, that’s where we sat, my boys and I, tucked safely inside on a warm couch on a bone-chillingly cold night letting our brains melt into oatmeal together. I’m not going to say this was a magical moment on par with seeing your child perform a recital or nail a game-winning three-pointer or earn a graduate degree. But, as a little in-between, a little cut-scene in the midst of our real lives, it was a pretty good one. Before, I might have missed it.
Related: 5 Ways to Amplify the Good Life
GRATITUDE LOG 15: Today I have decided to be grateful for the winter chill, which is hard, because cold is stupid. So it’s with gritted teeth and a 48-oz. chum bucket full of hot chocolate that I say the following: I am thankful for you, cold, how the snow sparkles in moonlight, how I can stand at the dining room window and look outside into the water-blue landscape with my family tucked under flannel blankets upstairs, how the snow hangs onto the Tiki lights on the back porch. I’m thankful for how Bing Crosby sounds best in the December nighttime, how “Silver Bells” means Chicago to me, how my son scribbled HI DAD in the snow on the back porch. I even like scarves. All things being equal, I’d whisk us all to the Caribbean tomorrow if we could, but since I’m here, sprinting from indoor haven to indoor haven, I should make the best of it, focusing on the good in the cold, the way it blankets both me and all my friends and family. Lord, that was hard.
A hiccup. If you’ve never had the pleasure of visiting the Midwest in December, close your eyes and imagine flat, cold and gray, punctuated occasionally by ice storms. Here on the western edge of the Eastern time zone, darkness falls around 4:30 p.m., which means if you put in a little effort, you can go an entire workday without seeing the sun. Add in the hapless former Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, the brown slush that accumulates in your wheel wells and the knowledge that once the new year turns, you only have four more months of it, and yeah. Winter is long here.
The house, following suit, had turned cold. My wife and I had been inexplicably short with each other for a week, quick to annoyance and cleverly sarcastic comebacks. We chalked it up to some lingering winter malady, probably picked up from her children’s hospital job or one of the kids’ schools, the germs within exacerbated by winter and forever closed windows. The Christmas to-do list rattled around my laptop every few minutes, reminding me that yuletide joy had a deadline. It was, as you might guess, an exceedingly lousy time to keep a gratitude journal. It took this icy low point to make the miracle happen.
Late Sunday night, as is my custom/survival requirement, I went to prepare coffee for the following morning. I don’t know what compelled me to look at the label that night, what impulse drew my eye upward from the routine, but that’s when I saw it, looking at me, taunting me, smirking like the guy who runs the Death Star. Decaf. The tiny word on the label. I could live to be 100 and never understand why coffee companies print that word so unbearably small on their labels.
Having non-coffee in the house is simply not an option for me. I would rather not have walls.
Naturally, I went directly out in 34-degree Midwestern sleet to buy the coffee-coffee, ungratefully chucking the decaf straight into the outdoor garbage can. Two days later, the sleepy, snappy malaise that hovered over our house like some gray beast was gone, and holiday joy had returned.
GRATITUDE LOG 24: While the journaling exercise eventually made my heart grow a few sizes and gave me a greater appreciation for my many gifts, it apparently did so with about the same power as caffeine. Obviously I am grateful to know this.
The idea of a gratitude journal is worthy; the commitment, difficult.
The idea of a gratitude journal is worthy; the commitment, difficult. I told myself I’d stick with meditation after a similar monthly experiment for SUCCESS last spring; concentrated mindfulness hasn’t exactly become a daily routine.
Still, my journaling taught me a lesson that proved similar to that monthlong flirtation with meditation. Probably, by the time you read this, I’m no longer keeping my gratitude journal. It very well might fade, like a disappointing percentage of my attempts to inject productive self-improvement into the spaces of my day generally reserved for stuff such as Super Mario Kart 8. Even at the dawn of the new year—or especially at it—ambition makes a grand, striding entrance, and in short order it is knocked on its silly face by the machinery of daily life, in all its own grand, dull meaning.
At the same time, the seeds of gratitude are there, and they’ll remain. Somewhere in my cluttered, crowded brain folds there’s the notion that gratitude heals. The seed of the idea—to shut up and give thanks more than once every few months—is planted. How it sprouts is up to time. “If you wake up and think, I am grateful that today, blank” says Jantz, “you begin to think in a different way.” And that part worked for me. Well, that and the real coffee.
This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of SUCCESS magazine.
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