“Missing the Boat” On Gratitude
Raise your hand if you’ve started a gratitude journal only to trail off after a few days or weeks. Yeah, me too, but I know that I should keep it up. After all, it’s linked to better mental health, stronger relationships, and improved sleep. Some research has shown that gratitude positively affects blood pressure, blood glucose control, pain management, asthma symptoms, and eating behaviors. But, of course, people who have a gratitude practice are also more likely to take better care of themselves, so it becomes a chicken and egg situation.
For people who find themselves feeling envious of others when scrolling through social media feeds, taking time to think about your good fortune can be helpful. Speaking of social media, I liked the advice given by Erin Olivo in an article for Psychology Today. She said, “If you post with the ulterior motive of showing the world how great your life is, you’re probably missing the boat on gratitude (and its benefits).”
The Benefits of Gratitude
Science shows that practicing gratitude is also an excellent adjunct to traditional therapy. The Greater Good Science Center recently completed a research study on 300 adults (mostly university students who had requested mental health counseling). Before the initiation of counseling, the participants reported low mental health levels, as you might expect. The individuals were assigned to three groups – all received counseling services, but one group wrote a letter of gratitude to someone in their life each week for three weeks, the second group wrote about their deepest thoughts and feelings about negative experiences, and the third group did no writing (only received standard counseling services). Individuals in the group who wrote gratitude letters reported much better mental health four weeks and twelve weeks after completing the writing exercises.
The researchers hypothesize that writing the letters shifted their attention away from toxic emotions, such as anger or sadness. In this study, it didn’t appear to matter whether the participants sent the letter or not.
A Gratitude Journal Isn’t Necessary
For the record, experts say that daily journaling is probably excessive and that a few times a week makes more sense for most of us. And it turns out that keeping a “journal” isn’t necessary at all.
Instead, just write down things as they come up rather than forcing yourself to rack your brain for three things before turning in each night. Some people write their reasons for thanks on little scraps of paper that they stick in a jar, while others turn theirs into artwork. In the end, it doesn’t matter what medium you choose to use. Maybe you’d prefer to verbalize your appreciation rather than write it down at all. I’ve even heard of people who decide to take a photo of one thing that they’re grateful for each day. Allison Jones wrote an article in Fast Company about her experiences with keeping a traditional gratitude journal and her eventual realization that she prefers to complete acts that demonstrate her gratitude, such as inviting someone out for coffee or thanking people at work.
But here’s the key – whatever you decide to do, or how often you choose to do it, it won’t work if you don’t stick with it, even through difficult times.
Boggiss AL, Consedine NS, Brenton-Peters JM, Hofman PL, Serlachius AS. A systematic review of gratitude interventions: Effects on physical health and health behaviors. J Psychosom Res. 2020 Aug;135:110165. doi: 10.1016/j.jpsychores.2020.110165. Epub 2020 Jun 3. PMID: 32590219.
Brown, J, Wong, J. How gratitude changes you and your brain. Greater Good Magazine. Updated June 6, 2017.
Carpenter, D. The science behind gratitude and how it can change your life. Happify Daily.
Carstensen, M. Stress hack: how maintaining a gratitude journal for 1 month made me happier. Everyday Health. Updated October 16, 2018.
Cunha LF, Pellanda LC, Reppold CT. Positive Psychology and Gratitude Interventions: A Randomized Clinical Trial. Front Psychol. 2019 Mar 21;10:584. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00584. PMID: 30949102; PMCID: PMC6437090.
Jones, A. I hated keeping a gratitude journal – here’s what worked instead. Fast Company. Updated November 27, 2014.
Morin, A. 7 scientifically proven benefits of gratitude that will motivate you to give thanks year-round. Forbes. Updated November 23, 2014.
Wasmer Andrews, L. 5 Simple Alternatives to Keeping a Gratitude Diary. Psychology Today. Updated January 17, 2017.