The Benefits of a Gratitude Journal
Counting your blessings is a simple and effective way to relieve stress and increase your emotional well-being
Noted American psychologist Robert A. Emmons’ instructions to his subjects were simple: Keep a weekly journal documenting five things for which they felt grateful. Be it a home cooked meal by a partner, the generosity of a friend, or a beautiful sunset they enjoyed. With just a sentence reflecting each of the five things, the exercise was hardly time consuming.
Yet, in just three weeks, the experiment yielded vast benefits. Subjects found themselves less bothered by aches or pains and emerged with stronger immune systems. Others enjoyed a better quality of sleep, sustaining longer, deeper stretches of rest, and woke up feeling more refreshed. Interestingly enough, subjects also reported feeling more alive and less lonely. When interacting with others, they found themselves with a greater capacity for compassionate and forgiveness.
For the past two decades, Emmons has studied the effects of gratitude on physical health, psychological well-being, and social relationships. His experiments, which follow over a thousand people, ages eight to 80, have time and again reflected the multitude of benefits that gratitude practices bring about.
How does the simple act of keeping a gratitude journal generate such positive outcomes? One explanation is that the ability to act happy, regardless of one’s feelings, influences the brain into processing positive emotions. In a 1993 experiment, researchers asked human subjects to tense their facial muscles and hold a smile for 20 seconds. Researchers found that ‘forced’ smiles triggered brain activity associated with positive emotions, including the part of the brain that regulates stress and the “reward circuitry” that produces pleasurable sensations.
In some ways, the act of counting and documenting one’s blessings is similar in nature. Firstly, it is an affirmation of goodness, where we recognise the good in the world as well as the gifts we’ve been fortunate to receive. Secondly, the process of journaling helps us to pause and figure out the provenance of kindness and goodness. A simple act, such as a stranger who took the time to hold the door for you, is a gesture that can easily be taken for granted if we fail to appreciate it.
Research on emotion shows that positive emotions erode quickly as it thrives on novelty. Think about how your excitement over a new home, car, or gadget has waned over time. As such, the ability to regularly reflect on our blessings helps us to better appreciate its value, magnifying the positives emotions that follow.
Think about a time where you felt both envious and grateful at the same time. Well, it’s unlikely that you’ve managed to possess these incompatible feelings all at once. If you’re feeling grateful for what you have, you can’t resent another for possessing something you do not have. By making room for gratitude, you are effectively releasing the grip of such toxic emotions like fear or anxiety. And the science supports it. A 2008 study by psychologist Alex Wood showed that gratitude can in fact reduce the frequency and duration of episodes of depression.
Yet, for all its benefits, it can be challenging to keep up with a gratitude journal. Distractions abound, chores await to be done, emails demand replies. One tactic to keep up with your practice is to keep your gratitude journal by your bedside. It will therefore be the last thing you see before you slip into bed, serving as a visual reminder of sorts. On the digital front, mobile apps such as Gratitude Happiness Journal or Three Good Things are useful for capturing your thoughts. Both apps can also be set up to send daily reminders to keep you on track with your journaling habit.
According to Emmons, once you’ve learned to count your blessings, you can begin to cultivate a deeper sense of gratitude. “As a culture, we have lost a deep sense of gratefulness about the freedoms we enjoy, a lack of gratitude toward those who lost their lives in the fight for freedom, a lack of gratitude for all the material advantages we have,” he says.
His words ring especially true during these times as the world battles the Covid-19 pandemic. Families split across geographical borders are unable to unite; vulnerable persons fear for their lives even as they make a trip out to stock up on groceries; and medical personnel on the frontlines strive to heal as many as they can, even if the end is not quite in sight.
For many, gratitude can be difficult because life itself is not easy. But as we journey through our different seasons, do your best to make gratitude a routine, one that’s independent of how you feel. Give thanks for all that’s good. Give thanks, even when you don’t feel like it. Let gratitude walk with you. When you turn back to survey the miles you’ve traversed, you’ll find a road paved with a long, ever-growing list of things to be grateful for.