Why You Need a Gratitude Journal

Garrett MacLean
Oct 7 · 20 min read

“Everybody has a plan until you get punched in the mouth.”

This is precisely what happened when my naive self chose to write about why I feel everyone should keep a gratitude journal.

Admittedly, I had to learn the hard way that I had no idea what I was talking about.

There’s still a good chance that I don’t.

Either way, don’t let Iron Mike Tyson fool you with his seasoned gray beard, recent cannabis venture in California, and his newfound self unmasked from a single toke of a poisonous frog juice. Tyson is still the same stone-cold killer he was at 20, as the youngest heavyweight champion and thus, The Baddest Man on the Planet’s unequivocal philosophy still rings true.

That being said, DMT trips can do all sorts of things to one’s subconscious identity, even for Kid Dynamite himself. Just ask author, journalist, activist, and professor, Michael Pollan.

In a keynote speech at Google HQ about the transcendental powers of psychedelics from his book, How to Change Your Mind, Pollan explained how in controlled clinical experiments with terminally ill patients, who are induced with psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) and are professionally guided with a shaman, found the best course of action to ensure the greatest potential outcome within an individual’s trip can be summed up simply: Do not resist.

If you see a door, go through it. If you come across a staircase, don’t shy away, walk up to it.

Let’s sideline the strategies for a magic mushroom trip for a moment, we’ll come back to that.

I’ll be honest, writing about the benefits of a daily gratitude journal was not similar to the Thrilla in Manilla.

No rope-a-dope to be had here.

Not even close.

It became less the 15 round Smoking Joe of 75’ and more the 30 second Marvis of 86’.

Point blank: After journaling consistently for over a year, when the bell rang and I was no longer ringside, but actually in the fight: my original ideas to write about got knocked out. They flew clear through any sort of mystical doorway and tumbled down an impossible flight of Penrose stairs. Needless to say, it soon turned into a bad trip, man. My only parting gift?

A proverbial broken jaw.

Taking this all into consideration, I firmly believe that everyone should get punched in the face at least once in their life. Literally or figuratively. The laws of nature are indifferent to the source. The benefits, however, clearly show elevated signs of beauty with each layer peeled back from life’s metaphysical onion.

For me, I didn’t do anything special or unique.

Nothing noteworthy to put on the fridge.

I just got back up and made an honest attempt to finish writing.

Hope you enjoy.

In the past year, I have been living and working in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and man do I love it here. Sure there are days when I question everything under the sun, but for the most part, I’m a happy camper.

Moving here I knew that naturally, I would lose contact with a lot of people. It’s simply the nature of the beast. Combine that with the fact, my US phone number was discontinued and I deleted my Instagram and Snapchat almost a year ago (Facebook is soon to be next).

For many out there, I have completely fallen off the map.

Gone AWOL.

No longer on the grid.

Some people, for all they know, still think I am in Thailand. Maybe I am.

However, what I want to talk about is a phone call I recently shared with my older brother and his wife. They asked me, “So Garrett, what have you learned from living out there? Isn’t the whole point to find yourself in some way?”

Despite it being well-intended, I couldn’t help but laugh at the silliness of the question. After a long pause, I responded, “I am learning what makes me happy — also, learning how important it is to surround yourself with positive people who want the best for you.”

Nothing groundbreaking here and as such, they agreed.

Afterward, I shared what’s really on my mind these days, and what later led me to originally start writing and pass on my thoughts with others (pre-uppercut-to-the-face). I said,

“Every single day I wake up, I feel like I’ve already won. I have people in my life that I love and who love me back. Isn’t that what everyone wants?”

They found this to be profound; I felt like I was just being honest and speaking my truth.

Nevertheless, I got off the phone that afternoon and I started to pace back and forth, pondering for hours on end what that means as I move forward in my life and what that could mean for others if they felt like that too.

The first image that popped into my mind was a football player putting on his helmet and buckling his chin strap while running onto the gridiron only to find the referees had already decided his team was victorious. Or a skier dropping into her final half-pipe run knowing she had already won the gold for her country.

That’s what happiness feels like.

That’s pure joy.

That’s really living.

Or at least, that’s what I thought at first.

I now believe that is just one small piece of the pie.

After all, he’s barely even stepped foot on the field, remember? And she’s definitely yet to hit the first big jump in the final heat.

What comes next? Well, I figured — that’s when you get to the good stuff.

When you feel like you’ve already won, you begin to play like you have nothing to lose.

I’ve come to the stark realization that there are people out there, millions and millions of people, who have nothing.

Absolutely nothing.

I am not talking about perpetual and crippling financial struggles or serious impending health problems which are commonly the big pillars that plague people’s lives. What I am referring to is the fact that there are so many people out there with nobody to talk to.

Nobody to connect with.

Nobody to reach out to for advice.

No spouse or roommate to come home and vent about their awful day at work.

No son or daughter to play some stupid game with for the millionth time.

No girlfriends to gossip over last week’s episode of ‘The Bachelor.’

No homies to bro out with at the gym.

Nobody just to come home to, order a pizza and watch an entire season ‘Stranger Things’ in peaceful solitude.

So many are lost, without kith or kin.

Maybe that’s all in part due to unfortunate circumstances from the past or it could be because repetitive and destructive behavior can drive away everybody that used to care. Regardless, yes it’s heartbreaking, but the reality is you would never know who those people are even if they are standing right in front of you.

That is why it is so important to remind yourself how truly lucky you are to have people, those special individuals in your life that love you, support you and genuinely care what you have to say when he or she asks how your day was. I believe a gratitude journal can help in this arena.

From a practical standpoint, why is it important, or at the very least helpful, to keep a gratitude journal? What’s there to gain?

Originally, I believed the most sought-after by-product is confidence.

Well, what makes an individual confident?

By definition, confidence is the feeling or belief that one can rely on someone or something; firm trust.

In actuality, it means high self-esteem. And, or, the belief that someone, or something, you can believe you can rely on is you. The trustful relationship is with yourself living between your own ears.

So, how does one develop self-esteem then?

Some get lucky and find a mentor like a teacher or coach who instills in them through countless hours of unpaid devotion. Others get even luckier and their parents or siblings help them out from within the walls of their very home. I’ve always felt beyond fortunate to receive guidance from both inside and outside my home, both on and off the field. I understand though it’s never the same for anyone.

Others just got the sauce from the jump. I’m not talking about the juice, the sauce. Picasso knew he was Picasso from the minute he put pen to paper. Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand, knew he wanted to be an architect since he was 10 years old and by the time he was 22, the people that told him otherwise he responded through his actions by making them feel as though they, and their opinions, didn’t exist and never have. Pretty soon they started to believe they never did either.

Real or fiction, some people just have it.

For the rest of us, living out our autobiographies, self-esteem development is actually a simple equation with only a few variables: Integrity, hard work, and a little bit of luck.

Billionaire Marc Andreesen says there are 4 different types of luck: blind luck, luck that comes as a result of persistence or hard work, luck, which is actually the result of an ability to identify luck, and luck that is attracted by something you create.

The third ingredient here, Lady Luck, is not to be overlooked in stature or understated in power in any of its forms, but the other two are what I want to discuss further. Integrity and hard work.

Integrity is defined as the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; moral uprightness.

You have to be honest with yourself about what you want out of life and have the character to abide by your principles to aim at whatever it is. You have to stand tall in the face of battle because that is what you are going to face. An endless dogfight nonetheless.

Given the gift of life as a human comes with a contingency of being deployed into an internal war with your mind. The only adversary with enough artillery to slow you down is you.

If you cannot learn to control your perspective on life, you will remain as a stranded prisoner of war behind the enemy lines of your mind, continuously waterboarded with fear and self-doubt. From the lyrics of Kendrick Lamar,

“Everybody put three fingers in the air,

The sky is falling, the wind is calling

Stand for something, or die in the morning

Section. 80, HiiPoWer”

When you choose what you want out of life, a goal or a direction to aim at, you are making the implication to the world that you are in charge of the decision making around here, not your world around you. It helps to face the facts here that your environment can both work with you and more often than not, against you.

Persistence is the key here.

That’s when the second variable comes into play: Hard-work.

Hard work only works if you love what you’re working towards.

All else is torture.

It cannot be divided out into anything else.

This ties into the integrity of being honest about what you love and going after it with every ounce of your soul. To leave anything else on the table would be short-changing the wonders of the universe. Those are not good betting odds to put all your life’s chips on red for.

Hard-work has a very simple seed necessary in order to grow: Self-discipline.

There’s an important distinction to be made here because there’s a common fallacy set up backward that many blindly live by. People think discipline requires motivation. Wrong.

A motivated person does not become disciplined.

A disciplined person becomes motivated.

Many underperforming individuals, which in all honesty, is the majority of us, look at successful people and think, “Wow, look at all they’ve done/seen/accomplished/etc. If only I was motivated I could do all that and more! I just can’t get myself motivated enough to do X, Y, and Z. I guess I’ll never be successful. I guess I’ll settle for the life I have. I guess I’m a worthless loser.”

Life story ends. Credits roll out. Drive safely.

It doesn’t have to be that way though.

Successful people are self-disciplined because they are driven almost to the point of an obsession. They are willing to endure pain and forgo any happiness today in hopes they gain something in the long run.

(Short Term Pain = Long Term Gain)

Muhammed Ali said it best, “I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.”

Now that’s all we know him by, ‘The Greatest’. Forever and always.

Now, how does one become self-disciplined?

The first order of business and the most crucial prerequisite is a firm understanding of one basic principle: Nobody is going to do shit for you.

Not now, not ever.

Yes, amazing people will help you out along the way and those shared individual moments are to be cherished and never forgotten amidst the climb to the arbitrary summit of your goal. At the end of the day though, it comes back to you. You have to be the one that wakes up to get things done. You have to be the one willing to give a small ‘no’ in order to move close to your bigger ‘YES.” Do yourself a favor by remembering every time you say yes to something small, know that you are saying no to your bigger goal.

Got it. So, now what? Now you have to make a decision.

“What am I going to focus on and where’s a good place to start?”

*Hint-Hint* Write in a gratitude journal.

It’s all a matter of repetition. The more you notice things you’re grateful for, it becomes second nature. You will begin to see there are no failures in life, there are only lessons to be grateful for. If you continue practicing daily reps of gratitude, you will recognize the failures as lessons faster.

The speed will be on your side.

Speed kills.

Particularly any instance in which you feel less confident about yourself or when your self-esteem has been ambushed. The benefits are that gratitude will become easier and easier to exercise. It will soon become a habitual superpower, and then a part of everything you do. It will be ready at your disposal when you need to go into the phone booth and come out with a cape on to save your day, or even better, someone else’s.

Remember there are millions and millions of people alone. If that’s not enough, keep in mind some people are in such a lousy situation in life at that moment, they simply can’t muster the strength to get out of bed to feed themselves or feel that leaving the house is comparable to lifting the weight of the world off their chest. So, beyond the personal benefits of gratitude, take it a step further and do it for those that can’t.

If someone is having a bad day, and they have nobody else to share their sob story, but with you, find it in you to point out something to be grateful for. Often times, people share their pain not because they want advice, but simply to be heard. So, shut up and listen. Use that moment as an opportunity to exercise gratitude. Listen attentively so you can find something to point out which may turn his or her’s day or week around. That could be all it takes to turn someone’s life around. After all, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

When I attempted to wrap this up with wisdom bestowed from Spiderman’s Uncle Ben and his dying words, I couldn’t help but laugh at myself because I knew I was in trouble. I was chasing my own tail only to be found back at square one. I continued on asking:

What’s the tangible take-home message here?

I kept peeling back the layers of the onion, like Tommy Devito pestering on in ‘GoodFellas’. Some of the best dialogue that has ever been written.

Hats off to you, Scorsese.

It sounded more like, “Confidence how? Integrity, like I amuse you? What makes you feel so good about yourself from writing in a journal?

That’s when I got knocked out.

It was not akin to Tyson of 97’ biting Holyfield’s ear off and spitting it on the ground.

The head of my clean-cut outlined concepts suffered complete and utter decapitation.

And it was the best thing that ever could have happened to me.

When I got back up, here’s what I thought of when I came to.

I can sit here and write all I want, to appreciate the first rays of sunshine that filter through the glass window pane and warm up your bedroom in the morning or the meditative drops of coffee that drip into your mug filling the stillness of a peaceful morning. Bullshit. These are bromidic novelties found in your current life situation that merely scratch the surface to an iceberg below.

“Count your blessings. Develop an attitude for gratitude. Be grateful.”

Everybody already intuitively knows these things from an intellectual level. Self-esteem, confidence, yadda, yadda, yadda, that’s just the watered down, PR version for why you need a gratitude journal.

So, why bother even writing about it? Fair question.

Here’s what I figured out for myself and seeing that I am a normal human being, I wanted to share what I discovered.

Once you accumulate enough passages, you can go back and start to read what you wrote. You can spot what the trending topics are of your mind’s own internal Twitter feed. You may be surprised by what you learn about yourself. Sunrise after sunset, you start to realize that most, if not 90%, of the thoughts, had throughout the day are just regurgitated versions of the ones you had the day prior.

There are things that you are excited about or worried about. Things you wish would end or just start already. This, that, or the other thing. The list goes on and on into the oblivion.

Every now and then, a new idea will bob to the surface. If it’s a really good one, it will shake your foundation’s very core of who you think you are or who you think you’re supposed to be.

These moments can be painful because they cause you to question your life’s purpose or your overall existence.

This is the doorway to walk through, and the staircase to follow up.

Remember, don’t shy away.

Recognize these moments, with or without the magical mushrooms, and embrace them for what they really are, moments of growth.

One of the best things I came to learn from reading a year’s worth of daily entries is I love to write. I don’t do it in the hope of one day becoming famous or rich from my typed words. I do it because I, like anyone else, have a deep urge to express myself honestly. I happen to find I receive the most joy from doing it this way. Everyone’s different. Find what makes you tick.

In fact, if I never make a dollar from writing, I know I’ll be perfectly okay. But, I also know that if I don’t write, as ghastly as the words spew out onto the screen of my laptop some days, I won’t be okay.

Simple as that.

I’m not going to sugarcoat the dark side of this. Despite my loving of this chosen medium, it is painfully challenging to sit down and write. In other words, to establish the First World Order, fight the Resistance, and “put your ass where your heart wants to be” as Steven Pressfield would say in his most famous book, The War of Art. The moment I noticed this internal struggle, even for something I like to do, was when my understanding of keeping a gratitude journal started to unravel. I wondered,

“Why is it the things we’re good at, or the things we’re even just okay at and like to do, cause us the most resistance in doing?”

“Why do we all continue to do things that we feel are not right for us while holding ourselves back from pursuing what we know is true?”

These questions brought me to Matt Damon’s character in Good Will Hunting. The classic story of the wicked smart, Boston janitor that solves complex problems on the chalkboards of Harvard unrecognized during the late hours. When confronted with his natural gifts, he wants nothing to do with any of it. Finally, he cracks and shows his, and all of ours, true fragility in the human spirit. We come to learn that his character feels that too much happened to him in his youth, that he doesn’t respect himself, and would rather hang out with his low life friends.

The worst part of the story is he doesn’t even see it. He’s blind to the fact that everyone around him including his childhood best friend, new girlfriend, and a pair of professors, are all tearing at the seams because of how much potential they see in him and it is being wasted by washing it down the drain. It is agonizing for both the audience and the other characters.

This is the same story for all of us.

When we look at our friends, kids, anyone in our social circles, all we see is a beautiful world of untapped potential. Unlimited opportunities are waiting to be explored and when we see that they are not being acted upon, it makes us sick and infuriates us.

From our own perspective, our anger stems from us wishing the other person could and would do better if they just applied themselves more, but deep down, much further from the surface, we too know the same is true for ourselves. The problem we face is generally speaking at an individual level, something that few are willing to admit, we just don’t like ourselves.

Our lack of self-respect eats at us at the deepest depths of our souls. We don’t deem ourselves worthy of a quality life because either something happened to us or we did something that we feel is irrevocable. This could be an experience from our past, an expectant outcome in our future, or is evidently happening right now. So many are suffocated of any hope for something greater placing them on the verge of an all-out meltdown. It’s amazing to think that people can actually overcome learned helplessness, get along with others, and carry on with their day in a civilized manner.

To do so, we seek out a variety of coping mechanisms and everybody copes differently, some even reach a virtuoso level in how they conceal their pain. Food, work, sex, power, or even charity disguised in hopes he or she is viewed as an honest and virtuous person. Whatever it is, it can lead to a dark feeling of emptiness. The point being is that we all choose our own ways to pile on crap to cover up our suffering, but the destruction within steamrolls forward uninterrupted. That is unless you do something about it.

Now, before moving any further. Let’s not forget, there is a huge amount of value in making the intelligent and conscientious move to ‘give up’ in your current quest in order to pivot and do something else. Maybe, as a result, you end up pursuing something even greater and it provides a deeper level of meaning in your life. This is not to be overlooked, but that being said, let’s get real for a second because there’s a couple of ways in which things can go from here.

Yeah, you got problems, own up to them. Accept the fact that maybe you are a complete loser and your relationships, job, etc. are what they are because you are not taking responsibility for them. I’ve certainly done my fair share of making things worse just as much as the next guy and I’m not proud of it either. The key here is to refrain from judging yourself too harshly, accept reality as it is, learn from your mistakes, and keep moving forward the best you can.

The next option available is to continue ruthlessly judging ourselves which quickly turns malignant. We begin threatening those around us because, in them, we see parts of ourselves that we detest. As a result, our ego is under siege and we feel coerced to counter-attack. This is merely a disguise forged to shelter our own fears to no avail. Your Move Chief.

Along your life’s journey, if you’re lucky, you’ll live for 80 years. 60+ of those will be working, then you’ll die. Along with everyone around you. Nobody wants to talk about this, but the reality is that it has immense health benefits of keeping such thoughts at the forefront of your mind.

More likely than not, you’re not going to accomplish or attain anything worthy that people will honor and mourn your death for more than 24 hours before they go back to their own lives talking about the one person who got up from the lunch table to go to the bathroom while you unload on them how dumb you think they’re the last comment was all the while, you and everybody else, never cease to break eye contact from scrolling through his or her Instagram.

Yes, this is cold, but these are the facts.

As terrible as your life situation may be right now, and some people do get dealt an unbelievably bad hand, this is not an excuse or a fast pass to being a bad person. Be grateful for the fact you were born with the innate responsibility to make something out of your situation. If you don’t and would rather pour gasoline on the fire, know that you are putting on a facade that you actually know what you’re doing and that something, is more meaningful than what your next-door neighbor is up to.

Meanwhile, you are dying a slow death without any meaning. You wait impatiently for Friday night, so you can take your car out that you’re financing out to the bar to pay for drinks on your credit card to impress a girl across the bar that couldn’t care less about the Uber idea you had a decade ago that was ‘stolen’ from you.

You ain’t fooling us.

Paulo Coelho writes in the Alchemist, “Everyone seems to have a clear idea of how other people should lead their lives, but none about his or her own.”

We can’t help but adhere to our genetic code, packed with greed and envy, and look over our shoulder to compare ourselves in every sort of meaningless category. Every time you log onto Facebook, somebody is getting engaged, having another kid, making a boomerang at Sunday’s brunch clinking Mimosas together, curing diseases, solving world hunger, and winning the Nobel Peace Prize. If that wasn’t enough we invented ‘Throwback Thursday’ to relish amazing moments through perfectly curated photos and captions from years ago to fill the void of a boring Tuesday at work when the boss isn’t around.

I’ve seen it.

I’ve done it.

Guilty as charged.

It’s like the gratitude game is rigged and if that’s the case, a gratitude journal is the OG Grand Theft Auto cheat code that drops a helicopter onto the sidewalk while you’re 5-star gangster escapes the oncoming gunfire.

But hey, my job does suck. I do hate my boss. And I happen to love my trip to the Cliffs of Moher from a decade ago. If I want to share pictures of it, I can post whatever I want. So, screw you!

Yes, this is a perfectly reasonable response. Live your life.

Make no mistake though, Billionaire CEO or homeless drunk, we’re all out here just guessing.

Just trying to do what we can to put two and two together so we don’t mess up things more than we, and the rest of the world have already. In the same token, some people aren’t even trying to make it better and they represent each drop of gasoline falling onto the flames.

I challenge you instead to choose to be someone that makes the audacious attempt to put themselves together despite everything happening around them and do the one thing after the next in order to help themselves turn into a less messed up version than they are now. Maybe, as a result, the world around you, your office, your school, your community, becomes a less messed up version of itself and creates ripples out to the world becoming less messed up than it was yesterday. Maybe! Who knows!

Let’s wrap this up. Here’s the tangible take-home message.

Inside all of us, there is greatness to be had and we each inherit a responsibility to share this with the rest of the world to better the lives of others. This is what gives our lives meaning.

Both happiness and suffering are ephemeral and as such, illusory. The cause of the former today becomes the consequence of the latter tomorrow. You must go beyond and work to relentlessly condition yourself to be grateful. Face your unique path of life’s suffering head-on and always know you are in complete control for your actions.

It is our greatest gift to ourselves.

This is a life long process that includes varying levels of pain and you must be willing to not run away from that pain if a meaningful life is what you seek.

At the end of the day, maybe things will work out.

Maybe they won’t.

Shit happens.

Things could blow up in your face and you could have no fault in it whatsoever. You still have to take responsibility, and honor the fact that you have the power to do something about it.

So, whether you use a gratitude journal as an empowerment tool to set the right tone at dawn or at dusk, as a reflective instrument for self-growth from the day’s learned lessons, take of this what you may, a little, a lot, or just one thing: Be grateful every single day for the life you were given, or suffer the alternative, the dreadful pain the world dishes up cold whether you like it or not.

The choice is and forever will be, yours and yours alone.

The Startup

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Garrett MacLean

Written by

San Diego Native. Colorado Buff. Teacher in Ho Chi Minh City.

The Startup

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