But as with every major change, it can be hard to make these positive moves stick.
It takes about a month of continual work and practice to create a new habit, and practicing an attitude of gratitude is no different. With all the pressures of daily life, it can be tough to remember to take a moment to be thankful for what’s going right, instead of what we’re struggling with.
This is where gratitude journaling comes in.
What’s a Gratitude Journal?
It’s pretty straightforward: a gratitude journal is where you write about stuff you’re grateful for.
Maybe so, but it’s also incredibly powerful.
Writing things down makes them more real to us on a psychological level (and writing them by hand, even more so). By putting your thankful thoughts onto paper, you’re making them physical and real—you’re giving them more power than the stressed-out thoughts you’re not writing down.
Gratitude journals can take a lot of different forms.
The simplest is just a notebook in which you write a few things you’re thankful for every day. It can be morning, noon, or night—doesn’t matter, as long as you write them down.
You can get fancier with a gratitude spread in your bullet journal, combining writing with art to make your points of happiness more personally meaningful with little sketches and notes.
Or go simpler and keep a column in your paper planner to jot down three things you’re grateful for every day, right alongside all your notes and to-dos.
If you need a little help getting started, you can also use a pre-made gratitude journal with templates and prompts to help nudge you along until it becomes a habit.
Benefits of Gratitude Journaling
We’ve gone over some of the many benefits of being mindful about the good things in our lives, but gratitude journaling takes it to a whole new level.
Studies have shown that simply writing down what you’re thankful for at the end of the day can lower your stress levels, calm you down, and help you sleep better.
Heck, there’s even an entire branch of psychology—positive psychology—devoted to studying how to be happier and how gratitude helps us get there and stay there.
More Focus and Clarity
And it’s not just about having a smile on your face all the time. Gratitude journaling combines the benefits of freewriting—getting your thoughts out without judgment or fear—with the psychological bonuses of meditation.
Basically, writing down what you’re thankful for helps you focus on that.
You become better at ignoring the things that go wrong and appreciating the things that go right.
You can also start seeing patterns in what you’re grateful for that might help you guide your life to where you want to be.
Are you always noting down how great it feels to exercise? Maybe it’s time to think about going in a more physical direction with your hobbies or work.
Does your gratitude focus on being in nature? Make more time to get outdoors.
Do you never, ever seem to be thankful for anything at work? Time to reevaluate.
Writing down what matters to you each day, in small but significant ways, can help you to spot patterns and uncover what really makes a difference in your life—instead of what you’re doing on autopilot or what other people tell you “should” matter.
This can help you make broader positive changes to help lead the life you want.
Plus, you’re crowding out negative, anxious thoughts with positive, uplifting ones and giving yourself more and more reasons to be happy and calm.
Social scientists like to call this a “virtuous cycle,” and it sure does make a difference between just getting through the day and actually feeling good about it!
In addition to helping tune up your outlook on life, practicing mindful gratitude can actually improve your health.
“The power of gratitude goes far beyond positive psychology, happiness and emotions,” says Ben Greenfield, the author of the Christian Gratitude Journal. “From lowering blood pressure and cortisol, to increasing productivity, to improving longevity, the benefits of gratitude have now been scientifically determined to give a host of biological benefits and have established gratitude as one of the most powerful spiritual, physical, and mental emotions that exists.”
Now that’s saying something!
While practicing gratitude can help us be more appreciative of the people in our lives, keeping an actual gratitude journal can be even more powerful.
Gratitude journals are a safe space, with no judgment—you can write whatever you want without fear. If you’re really, really grateful for mud puddles for some reason, go ahead and write it!
But sometimes gratitude journals are even more powerful when they’re shared.
Once you’ve established the habit of writing in a gratitude journal, consider sharing at least parts of what you’ve written with important people in your life as a way to open up new discussion and become closer.
Ben does this with his family every day. “Each night, we bring our journals when we gather at the table for dinner, and we’re able to share what it is that we were most grateful for, the Biblical truths that we discovered from the daily reading, and who it is we specifically identified to help, pray for, or serve. This is a highlight of the day! If you’re part of a family or in a relationship with a loved one, I recommend bringing your own journals to the breakfast or dinner table to share your entries and to use as fodder for deep and meaningful conversation around a meal.”
Maybe you don’t have the time or interest in sharing daily, but a weekly “gratitude date” could be a great way to connect with someone important to you over what matters to you both…and to make new memories to be grateful for.
Tips to Get Started
While journaling doesn’t have to be complicated—you can just jot down what made you happy today—there’s a few things that can help you turn gratitude into a habit.
You don’t have to write at exactly 9:54pm every day, but it helps to be consistent. Since it takes 21 days to establish a new habit, shoot for at least three weeks of using your gratitude journal every day.
And try to find a time that suits you, then stick to it. This helps gratitude journaling become a regular part of your day. Maybe you want to start the day right, so you do your journaling while you have your morning coffee or during your commute. Maybe you want to release some stress after a long day, so you keep your journal by your bed.
Whatever works for you is great—as long as you’re consistent so that you don’t forget!
It’s great to be thankful for your job, your kids, your house, or whatever—but what exactly are you grateful for?
Maybe it’s the way your daughter’s hair smells.
Maybe it’s how your job challenges you.
Maybe it’s how the light falls just right on your favorite reading chair.
Be detailed and specific with your gratitude items. It’ll make the thoughts clearer and more vivid for you, both now and if you come back to the entry in the future.
Don’t worry if you don’t have some particular number of things written down every day. It’s okay to fluctuate—some days will feel loaded with things to be grateful for, and some days you might end up writing “I had a candy bar and it was delicious.”
What matters isn’t the number of items on the page. It’s that you were truly happy when you experienced whatever it is you did, and that you’re taking a moment to relive that happiness and be thankful for it.
Flip the Situation
If you’re feeling really down and can’t seem to find anything to be grateful for, try flipping the situation.
Say you’re worried about a cough you just can’t shake. Instead of writing that worry down, focus on how grateful you are for the wonders of Ny-Quil or cough drops or mint tea with honey.
While it doesn’t make the stress or worry go away, it can help you feel more able to cope with it—which can help you maintain the energy and drive you need to get through to a more positive day and situation.
Remember the Little Things
Not everything has to be a big production. You can be thankful for little moments, silly moments—just about anything, really.
Write that you’re thankful for the Rolling Stones. That you love the way your new socks feel. That the line at Starbucks was only four people long today. That a squirrel fell off the bird feeder and made you laugh.
Whatever it is you’re thankful for, write it down, no matter how big or small.
Make It Personal
Too often, we focus on the stuff around us instead of the people.
In your journal, make an effort to specifically call out the people who you’re thankful for or who have improved your life that day. This can be family, friends, colleagues, online acquaintances, strangers, even pets.
To take it a step further, consider sharing your thankfulness with those people in the form of a little note. Everyone likes to be appreciated!
Appreciate the Act Itself
Robert Emmons, a professor at the University of California, Davis, suggests being grateful for the mere act of journaling.
He says, “don’t hurry through this exercise as if it were just another item on your to-do list. This way, gratitude journaling is really different from merely listing a bunch of pleasant things in one’s life.”
Different Ways to Use Your Journal
Just like there’s infinite ways to be grateful, and infinite things to be grateful for, there’s a zillion different ways to use a gratitude journal.
The most common is simply to write down 3 to 5 things you’re grateful for every day.
These don’t have to be huge, earth-shattering things like “got into grad school” or “published a new book” or “hit the bestseller list.” In fact, it’s often best that they’re not mind-blowing accomplishments!
While we want to celebrate our victories, practicing gratitude does the most good when it reminds us to celebrate the little stuff, too.
So give yourself some applause for having folded and put away the laundry right after it was washed instead of waiting a week. Be grateful for the way the air smelled on your morning run. Give thanks for how awesome that ice cream cone tasted this afternoon. Take a moment to appreciate how good it felt to have coffee and laugh with a friend.
Simply list out a few of these things each day, wherever you’ve decided to keep your gratitude journal, and you’re on your way to a more positive mindset!
Instead of listing off what you’re grateful for today, write a short story about it.
This can be fictional, using the thing you’re grateful for as a prompt to write a new piece. Or it can be narrative nonfiction, turning the thing that’s made you smile into a beautiful vignette from your life.
You get the benefits of practicing gratitude and developing your writing chops all at the same time.
Plus, you never know—the characters and scenarios you develop could take on a life of their own and turn into your next book, giving you yet another thing to be grateful for!
Consider adding photos, sketches, movie ticket stubs, café receipts, pretty leaves, or whatever catches your eye to your gratitude journal.
Gratitude doesn’t always have to be intangible—sometimes we can be super-thankful for being able to go to a concert. Or maybe you just want to record the feeling in a special way, like with a chunk of the napkin you doodled on in the moment or a petal from a flower at the event you went to.
Go ahead and turn your journal into a scrapbook! If it adds to your gratitude and happiness, it’s all good.
Having a lousy day? One of the best ways to use a gratitude journal doesn’t involve writing in it—it involves reading it.
When absolutely everything seems to be going wrong, grab your journal and leaf back through it. See what you’ve been grateful for lately and take a few moments to really remember what it felt like to do each thing you’ve noted down.
It’s like a meditation break, but focusing specifically on things that matter to you personally and that uplift you. You’ll be feeling a little calmer and steadier in no time, ready to keep on making progress and racking up things to be grateful for.
Journals To Get You Started
You don’t need a special journal to get started writing down what you’re grateful for each day. A simple composition book or pocket notebook will do just fine!
But when you’re trying to make something a habit, sometimes it helps to get a little excited about it—and a fantastic new notebook might just encourage you to actually crack it open every day.
If you want to be able to doodle, sketch, and be creative with how you record your gratitude each day, consider a blank notebook suitable for bullet journaling. We’ve rounded up a bunch of great gear for this kind of journaling.
There are also “intro to gratitude” journals that can help you get started. Many include inspiring quotes and prompts to get you started, like the “Today I Am Thankful For…” journal or Gratitude: A Journal.
Looking to combine creative stretching with your gratitude? Start Where You Are offers daily inspiration and creativity prompts in addition to places to note what you’re grateful for.
You can also find journals aimed specifically at your spiritual side. Ben Greenfield’s Christian Gratitude Journal frames gratitude as a way to connect more deeply with your religion and spirituality, making prayer and practice the same. You can also find more general spiritual journals, like Tiny Buddha’s Gratitude Journal that might be more your style.
Want to DIY? There are templates you can use inside your regular paper planner or a three-ring notebook to help you out! This four-part worksheet prompts you to be thankful first thing in the day and helps you see how you’re growing from your experiences. Other printables remind you to be clear about why you’re grateful for something or give you prompts for each day.
Heck, there are even apps to remind you to practice gratitude. If you use an iPhone or a Mac, check out Day One, where you can add photos and links to your journal. There’s also Mojo, which promises to help you train yourself for improved mindfulness.
For Android users, there’s Bliss, a free gratitude journaling app. Growth Journal helps you turn your gratitude practice into actionable insights on your life, complete with handy reminders to log your gratitude for the day.
You can also participate in an online gratitude community like Thnx4, which allows you to record your gratitude moments, share them with others, and get a custom gratitude profile at the end of 21 days of practice.
Regardless of what type of journal you choose or how you end up using it, the important thing is that you do use it.
It doesn’t take long to use a gratitude journal—just a few minutes a day.
But the time is well spent—you’ll boost your mood, focus your mind, adjust your attitude, improve your health, and deepen your relationships.
All from writing a few sentences a day!
What are you grateful for today? Share with us in the comments!
For more ways to overhaul your mindset and lead a happier, healthier life, read on:
- Developing Success Mindset Mastery for Authors, Artists and Entrepreneurs
- How to Practice Mindfulness: A Beginner’s Guide
- Focused Breathing: Reduce Stress and Boost Concentration with a Simple Breathing Exercise
Kate Sullivan is an editor with experience in every aspect of the publishing industry, from editorial to marketing to cover and interior design.
In her career, Kate has edited millions of words and helped dozens of bestselling, award-winning authors grow their careers and do what they love!