Stress Hack: How Maintaining a Gratitude Journal for 1 Month Made Me Happier
The Basic Definition of Gratitude and Its Role in Our Behavior
Believe it or not, these are all possible benefits of practicing and expressing gratitude. “People think they need to take medication, or go to long-term therapy, or exercise 20 hours per week, but something that takes you only five minutes could reduce stress,” says Julie Vieselmeyer, PhD, a member of the executive committee for the American Psychological Association’s Division 47, the Society for Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, who has studied the relationship between gratitude and the well-being of young people.
Gratitude, Dr. Vieselmeyer says, is simply a “shifting of our thoughts and emotions” from what’s stressing us out to what we find valuable in our lives. When our thoughts and emotions shift toward those positive reflections, our behaviors shift in a positive direction, too, she says.
I noticed that effect in myself right away. In focusing less on what was bumming me out and more on the good stuff during my journaling, my perspective certainly shifted, and so did my mood and actions toward others. For instance, on the days I practiced gratitude, I felt less worked up on the subway, I came home feeling more energized during the week, and I found myself making even more friendly conversation with coworkers compared with before I began journaling.
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The Scientific Connection Between Gratitude and Well-Being
Obviously, my self-reporting is far from scientific, but fortunately, researchers like Robert Emmons, PhD, the lab director of the Emmons Lab at the University of California in Davis, who is widely considered to be one of the world’s leading experts on gratitude, have completed some legit studies that show the real role that gratitude can play in our health and wellness.
In a study published in theJournal of Personality and Social Psychology, Dr. Emmons and a coinvestigator, Michael McCullough, the director of the Evolution and Human Behavior Laboratory at the University of Miami in Florida, found that people who maintained a gratitude journal weekly for two months or daily for 13 days experienced positive effects on their well-being.
Those who journaled once per week tended to exercise more often, were more optimistic about the future, felt better physically, and reported greater overall well-being than people who recorded their hassles or things they felt neutral about. Over a two-month period, the gratitude journaling group also was more successful in working toward their personal goals compared with the hassles- and neutral-journaling groups.
Meanwhile, the group that kept a gratitude journal on a daily basis was more likely to offer emotional support to others compared with the hassles- and neutral-journaling groups. Compared with the hassles-journaling group, the gratitude-journaling group also reported being more likely to help someone solve a problem.
Emmons was on sabbatical and unavailable for an interview at the time this story was published. But in a November 2010 article for the University of California in Berkeley’sGreater Good Magazine he writes that gratitude allows us to be more present, discourages negative feelings like envy and regret, increases resilience against stress, and boosts our sense of self-worth.
In a video for the Greater Good Science Center, he puts it another way: “I believe gratitude has the power to do three things: to heal, to energize, and to change lives.”
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The Health Benefits of Gratitude Are Both Physical and Emotional
Here’s a quick look at some of the other ways that practicing gratitude may affect your health.
Reduces feelings of lonelinessFeeling grateful may lengthen your life. A wealth of research, including a longitudinal cohort study of mostly white women published in July 2012 in theArchives of Internal Medicine, associates feeling alienated with accelerated physical decline and a higher risk of premature death. But practicing gratitude may help decrease feelings of loneliness, and, in turn, possibly improve our health, well-being, and life satisfaction, suggests a review published in May 2015 inEurope’s Journal of Psychology.
Fights symptoms of physical illnessReflecting on what you’re thankful for may improve your quality of life by helping you heal quicker. In a preliminary study published in July 2019 inPsychosomatic Medicine, researchers found that keeping a gratitude journal resulted in reduced inflammation in stage B heart failure patients. They wrote that practicing gratitude may enhance conventional treatment for the disease, and while larger, controlled studies are needed, prior research that suggests being grateful can lower blood pressure and decrease heart rate shows a similar effect.
Helps treat depression naturallyThere’s no cure for depressive symptoms, but being grateful has major potential to help. Being more grateful can increase feelings of social support, effectively having a protective effect against stress and depression, according to two longitudinal studies published in theJournal of Research in Personality.
Aids in coping with trauma Gratitude may also help you cope better after a traumatic event. In June 2014, a shooter opened fire and killed one student at Seattle Pacific University in Washington. Shortly thereafter, Vieselmeyer and a team of researchers queried exposed students, faculty, and staff on posttraumatic stress, posttraumatic growth, resilience, and gratitude for a study published in January 2019 inPsychological Trauma. Respondents who reported feeling more grateful and resilient had fewer symptoms of posttraumatic stress and more posttraumatic growth. Put differently, being more grateful appeared to help them recover better from adversity.
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Why Expressing Gratitude Might Be as Important as Recording It
But is it enough to just write down what we’re grateful for and keep it pent up inside? In a word: no, research shows. “We need to not only experience gratitude but also express it to other people,” says Philip Watkins, PhD, a professor of psychology at Eastern Washington University in Cheney, who has researched gratitude and negativity bias in depression for nearly 20 years.
When it comes to reaping the benefits of gratitude for your relationships in particular, expression is key.
In a randomized controlled study published in October 2019 in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, researchers analyzed how reflecting on gratitude, reflecting on and expressing gratitude, and not reflecting on or expressing gratitude, affected 192 participants’ well-being and depressive symptoms. After the three-month study, the group that practicedandexpressed gratitude saw the biggest improvements in their well-being and the greatest reductions in their depressive symptoms. After one month, both gratitude groups improved more than the control group.
Telling your partner thanks may also be instrumental in improving that relationship. In a May 2010 study inPersonal Relationships, researchers observed that receiving an expression of gratitude from a romantic partner made them feel more indebted to and grateful for their partner, and therefore more connected and satisfied with their partner. This was true in men and women, researchers reported.
In another study, published in February 2011 inEmotion, participants who were assigned to express gratitude for their partners reported feeling more comfortable voicing their relationship concerns and had a more positive perception of their partner.
Finally, participants receiving gratitude from a partner reported feeling more loved in a study published in September 2019 inSocial Psychological and Personality Science.
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Why Being Grateful Doesn’t Come Naturally to Most of Us
While some people have a propensity for gratitude, most people need to work hard at it, says Vieselmeyer. That’s easy for many of us to see when we reflect at the end of the day — unless something especially positive happened (like a job promotion or a wedding engagement), you’re most likely to think of the guy who cut you off on the road, or the home appliance that broke and now needs to be repaired.
There’s a theory about why we aren’t naturally inclined to recall the positive stuff first, Dr. Watkins notes. “Bad things in our life take up a whole lot more psychological space than good things, even though, for example, many more positive things happen to people than negative things,” says Watkins, referencing a review published inReview of General Psychology.“So, we’re naturally inclined to complain.”
The good news? You can learn. “I think many people are not naturally grateful, not necessarily because they’re biologically programmed that way but because they haven’t practiced it enough,” Watkins says.
While there may be a genetic component behind the tendency to be more grateful (Watkins estimates that between 20 and 30 percent of people may be grateful due to genetics), those whoaren’tgenetically inclined — and most of all, those who don’t believe practicing gratitude will work for them — appear to have the most potential to reap benefits if they do, Watkins says. Guys specifically: Listen up! In a study published in June 2014 in the Journal of Positive Psychology, Watkins and his coauthors observed that despite past research suggesting men are less inclined to practice, express, and derive benefits from gratitude, male participants appeared to gain more from gratitude treatment than female participants.
“Many positive psychologists say, ‘If it doesn’t work for you, don’t use it,” Watkins says. “I would argue, ‘If you don’t enjoy it, then that’s the very obstacle to happiness that you need to overcome.’
“That’s probably been the biggest surprise for me: that it’s probably us grumps who need it the most,” he says.
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How to Start Practicing Gratitude Yourself
There are countless avenues for practicing gratitude, including meditating on what you’re grateful for, sending a written thank-you letter to a loved one, counting your blessings, praying if you’re religious, journaling, and even simply saying thank you more frequently, notes a November 2010 article inPsychiatry.
Watkins says writing may not be for everyone, and it may actually get in the way of our positive emotions. “It’s probably because it interferes with our analytical mode,” he says, explaining that it may make us put our lives more into perspective, leading us to also recall negative emotions.
The ideal frequency is also up for debate. While the Greater Good Science Center notes the benefits of practicing gratitude may max out at three times per week, Watkins says other studies show the more you do it (especially if you’re new to the practice), the better. “There’s conflicting research on what the most effective frequency is,” says Watkins, adding that it “probably varies by person and by mechanism.”
Watkins recommends starting by reflecting on a few things you’re grateful for once a day for a couple of weeks, and to then try backing off to reflecting one to three times per week. But if youcanpractice gratitude often, do it! “I’ve been surprised at how, when people do this every day for a couple of weeks, you see a bump in happiness, but the happiness keeps on going over time,” Watkins says. “That’s why I think counting your blessings helps people. It probably trains them to think in a more positive mind-set and look for the good in their lives and appreciate it.”
To help jump-start your gratitude practice, Vieselmeyer offers the following tips:
Come up with a plan. Treat practicing gratitude just as you would brushing your teeth, hitting the gym, or planning healthy meals. To be successful, you need to make gratitude a habit. “Consistency is number one,” says Vieselmeyer, adding that being realistic to start is important. If reflecting every day isn’t reasonable, try doing it every other day, for example. In my case, I used an old journal and recorded my blessings each morning, first thing, two days per week, because that’s the frequency and timing that were most feasible for me to maintain.
Make yourself accountable.To stay on track and potentially boost the benefits of gratitude, grab a close friend and start journaling on what you’re each grateful for. This way, Vieselmeyer says, “You have that accountability to keep you on track, and then you can share some of the things you’re thankful for, and that increases the social bonding.”
Have a long-term perspective.Even if you’re not stressed right now, practicing gratitude is worth it for the long haul. After all, stress happens to all of us! “If you can cultivate this trait now, think how much more powerful that will be when the stressors do happen,” Vieselmeyer says.
Try different approaches.“Everybody is different in their need for stimulation,” Vieselmeyer says, “and I’ve found that over the years of coaching, some people figure out a diet and exercise routine, and maintain it, whereas other people have to find ways to refresh it.” So if journaling works for you, stick with it, but if you get bored, change it up. “Maybe you purchase yourself a fun new journal. Maybe instead of writing down things, maybe you draw pictures, maybe you focus on one thing, such as nature or your relationship … maybe you write a letter or give back to your community,” she says. “You can find new ways to engage gratitude rather than just writing it down.”
Think outside the box.In the past, I tried to maintain a gratitude journal but felt like I ran out of things to be grateful for! I call it (unofficially) gratitude burnout. Apparently this is not uncommon. “It can be really hard work!” Vieselmeyer says. Fortunately for many of us, coming up with new things to be grateful for can be easier than it seems. “Maybe it’s the little things: traffic was a little lighter today. Maybe it’s not great, but it’s better than yesterday,” she says. Similarly, maybe your finances aren’t where you want them to be, but you have enough to buy yourself a pick-me-up coffee from Starbucks. You can also find inspiration from unexpected people. “Kids are like, ‘I’m thankful for that stuffed animal and my bed — that I get togoto bed! If you’re struggling to find something you’re grateful for,” she says, “find a child in your life, and they’ll give you some examples."
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What I Learned and How I Changed After Keeping a Gratitude Journal
This time around, I didn’t have as much trouble coming up with my blessings. I started to think of the doctor’s appointments for my injured ankle as a privilege. After all, not everyone has company-provided health insurance or can afford to see a pain specialist. My finances aren’t exactly where I want them to be, but theydoallow me to have the things I need, and many of the things I want: a good roof over my head and clothes to keep me warm, but also happy hours with friends and occasional nice dinners with my loving boyfriend. And that awful commute? At least I could read my book on my delayed train, rather than needing to keep my eyes focused on the road in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Being mindful of everyday blessings, whether they’re general or specific, is all it takes, Vieselmeyer says. “It’s not ‘I won the lottery today!’” she says.
Video: How to Keep A Journal
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