We know that being grateful is important. It boosts our energy and well-being. It helps us to cope with stress. Simply, it brightens our mood and helps us feel good. But sometimes we forget to give thanks. Sometimes, we give thanks only on certain days (such as holidays) and not on others (the days we’re exhausted, overwhelmed, burnt out). Sometimes, we count a few blessings to ourselves but quickly move on to something else.
In his book Gratitude Works! A 21-Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity author and psychology professor Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D, includes practices for cultivating, or growing, our gratitude. Because as he writes, “Through practice, giving thanks grows from the ground of one’s being. Grateful feelings, once buried, can surface if we take the time to notice and reflect… Gratitude is like fertilizer to the mind, spreading connections and improving its function in nearly every realm of experience.”
One of the practices is Gratitude Works! is journaling. Through his own work and others’ research, Emmons has found that including certain elements in your journaling practice helps you gain the most benefit. Below, you’ll learn more about these elements, along with other journaling tips.
There’s a big difference between saying that you’re grateful for your best friend and saying that you’re grateful that your best friend calls you every week, listens intently when you’re talking and brings you soup when you’re sick.
Getting specific is more meaningful and helps you feel more grateful. That’s why when you’re journaling about your blessings, include details. Instead of being thankful for your spouse or your job or your home or that holiday, write about specific acts, situations and qualities.
According to Emmons, “All other factors being equal, events that are surprising and unexpected produce stronger emotional reactions than events that we expected or anticipated.” And this plays a big role in gratitude.
For instance, he gives the example of coming home after a long weekend away and expecting to eat frozen pizza. To his surprise, his wife made a special dinner. “My gratitude was off the charts,” he writes. “The surprise of it all made me feel blessed beyond description.”
Similarly, it can help to think about what your life might look like if a certain event hadn’t transpired. This is akin to the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” In fact, a series of studies conducted by Tim Wilson, Dan Gilbert and their colleagues are actually known as the “George Bailey effect.” In the research article, the authors conclude:
Unlike the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, it is not necessary for an angel to show us what the world would look like if we had never been born. Instead, spending a few minutes mentally subtracting a good thing from our lives might make us feel better. To reinvigorate a relationship, for example, it might be better for people to think about how they might never have met their partner than to recount the story of how they did.
As you’re journaling, focus on unexpected or novel events. Emmons suggests asking ourselves these questions: “What unexpected blessings did you benefit from today? What were you dreading that did not happen?”
Studies also have found that when people are told that life events are limited, they’re more likely to appreciate them—and to make the most of them (like this study). Remind yourself that the good things in your life aren’t infinite. They have a time frame.
For instance, you might respond to these questions in your journal (which Emmons poses): “How would you approach a valued relationship if you knew that the person would soon be moving? Would you treat the time you had left with this person differently? How would you increase your gratitude for having that person in your life?”
When journaling your gratitude, Emmons shares these additional tips in his book:
- Carve out 5 to 10 minutes at least every other day to journal.
- “Use the language of gifts.” Think about the good things you received today as gifts.
- Think about the people in your life that you’re grateful for and why.
- Write about the things you tend to take for granted.
- Write about people who’ve helped your loved ones (something we tend to overlook).
- Write about the negative outcomes that you avoided or escaped or made into something positive.
Nowadays, there’s so much information about gratitude that we might get tired of it and dismiss it. Plus, so many of us are pressed for time as it is. Journaling about your blessings might sound like another task for your already bursting-at-the-seams to-do list.
But gratitude is powerful. In fact, counting our blessings — and writing about them — not only changes our day for the better. It can even change our life. Because we don’t just realize the beautiful things that we already have; we also might start making the most of all that beauty and shaping our days to include those people, places, pursuits, acts and resources that make us oh-so grateful — and cultivating a more fulfilling, meaningful life.
Hand with poppy photo available from Shutterstock