The Subtle Power of Keeping a Gratitude Journal

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

It is known among the old and wise, as well as among scientists, that attitude affects happiness. For example, a rainy day could make us depressed at the lack of sunshine, or it could make us happy that there’s no dust and that our garden will be watered. We cannot change the rain, but we can reframe how we interpret the rain.

A gratitude journal is a powerful way to subtly and over time change our attitude to view ourselves and those around us with more charity and warmth, thereby improving our quality of life. There is no magic involved, it’s a simple and direct form of refocusing our minds and building adaptive habits based on a firm foundation of reality.

The practice is simple: spend a small amount of time, perhaps 10 minutes, recalling the events of the day in writing. The only rule is the writing must be in a spirit of gratitude. This doesn’t mean the events must be positive, but the attitude in writing must be. This helps in a few ways.

  1. We become more aware of our life. It’s easy to get stuck in rumination or distraction and let the real events of our day pass without our full awareness. Sitting down to recall the day keeps us checked in to reality. This alone makes life seem fuller.
  2. We develop a habit of looking for what is positive. As we step through our memories of the day, we’re looking at it all through a filter of gratitude. It’s easy to ignore what is good and see only what makes us afraid, so by looking purposefully for what we appreciate and are grateful for in our days we develop a habit of gratitude that, over time, becomes part of our moment-to-moment state of mind. We learn to see what is best in ourselves and others. Again, there is no magic, we aren’t trying to pretend there is good where no good exists, we’re simply looking for it and seeing it wherever it is.
  3. We’re forced to confront our habit for negative self-talk. Before I started keeping a journal I wasn’t aware of how constant my self-deprecation was. I did not realize how often I framed events in such a way that I felt ungrateful and wronged; my attitude was set to ‘life is shitty’ by default, and that was reflected in my writing. My impulse was to write the events of the day without gratitude, so I had to purposely re-write most of what I wrote to start. It got easier over time to consider what I was grateful for, however.
  4. We can confront our bad attitude in a concrete way. It can be hard to ‘think positive’, since we can’t force ourselves to think a certain way. We can, however, decide to write something in a positive way even if we don’t feel it. This gives us a sense of control. We can discover our capacity for clarity and gratitude on the page, and therefore realize we have at least the capacity for it in our minds.
  5. Gratitude is always possible. There is always something to appreciate. Even if our feelings are bleak, we can fill a page with things we know are worth caring about.
  6. The journal is a record of our evolution, and therefore a way to prove to ourselves that we can change, we are not doomed to be as we are. We can get better, and feel better, and see our lives more clearly and positively.

It takes just a little time and effort to put this into practice. Over time, however, it can make life seem less depressing. The world is as it is, but our perception of it may become more true to reality, less clouded and limited by our habit of seeing only what makes as fear and hurt.