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The Science Behind Gratitude Journals

 

Every day our internet feeds are stuffed full of dime a dozen articles on how to be happier in life. We get it. It's tiring having a bunch of strangers send out generic advice on how to find those perfect pockets of joy. We have all heard that yoga works wonders for stilling a sassy mind, that eating healthy helps heal the heart and there are breathing techniques that can quieten the roar of anxiety. But there’s another practice that seems to be making waves – it's called the gratitude journal.

 

What is a Gratitude Journal?

 

Gratitude journals are exactly what they sound like - a little notebook in which to scribble all the things you are grateful for. While the idea of penning all the things you are thankful for may sound like an extended round of thanksgiving supper, there is actually some psychological science behind how the process works.

A gratitude journal means taking a few minutes daily or weekly (or whenever feels right) to sit down and make a note of all the things you are grateful for.  No moment or thing is too small or too silly to be included.

 

How Do Gratitude Journals Benefit Us?

 

There are times when we all get frustrated with the folk around us - when we all think the things we do are pointless, and the day to day grind can often feel a little overwhelming. All this can add up to a negative mindset. Combine this all with the fact that today’s political landscapes, our constant access to information, and social media can mean that our stress hormone levels are higher than normal. While a gratitude journal won’t change the world we live in, it can help us to keep perspective even on the roughest of days.

There has been a ton of research into how journaling is beneficial to mental health. There is something about getting your thoughts out there that helps us to work through our ‘stuff’. Gratitude journals nurture this but with gentle encouragement to pay attention to the positive forces in our life rather than getting stuck on the negative. Here’s a few ways in which gratitude may help you…

 

They Help Us Move Away From Toxic Thoughts

While practicing gratitude won't rescue you forever from every negative thought, it can help prevent you from ruminating too long in that space. It's natural to focus on the things that upset us but taking a few moments to actively think about human acts of kindness, a positive experience, or anything that is contributing towards our life satisfaction - can shift our attention away from bad circumstances and balance us out.

 

They May Improve Our Relationships

Writing gratitude letters (even if you don't send them) can actually help us to foster better relationships with people in our lives. By writing a gratitude letter we are bringing to the forefront of our minds all the ways in which someone brings a positive effect into our life. We can see in black and white how our loved ones care for us and this can improve our sense of self-esteem. It also helps us to hold relationships in perspective so that by expressing gratitude we can focus on the positive traits of people and feel less alone. In this piece from Harvard on how giving thanks can make you happier, the following study on practicing gratitude and psychology research delivered hugely positive results. An excerpt here illustrates how a simple gratitude exercise can lead to higher levels of wellbeing...

Another leading researcher in this field, Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, tested the impact of various positive psychology interventions on 411 people, each compared with a control assignment of writing about early memories. When their week's assignment was to write and personally deliver a letter of gratitude to someone who had never been properly thanked for his or her kindness, participants immediately exhibited a huge increase in happiness scores. This impact was greater than that from any other intervention, with benefits lasting for a month.

 

They Can Make us Feel More Secure

Gratitude helps us to recognize that good things are often in our proximity and this can help us to feel more secure. If we are constantly sitting in the bad then we may feel unable to trust people and to see a positive outcome as we may not feel safe or secure in this world. By choosing to develop gratitude practices, we strengthen that ability to see the good in the world, which in turn helps us to feel more connected and secure and not as though something bad is waiting around every corner. A gratitude studies paper also looked at how gratitude could have a positive effect on depression and suicidal ideation. It backs up the notion that gratitude journaling or gratitude practice can help provide a protective element when we are feeling at our most vulnerable.

 

Gratitude Can Change You

The science of gratitude backs up that actually practicing gratitude can have a long term and lasting effect on mental health benefits. The neuroscience of gratitude says that when we give thanks and count our blessings, our neurotransmitters get going with dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin too. These are our happy hormones and by consistently building up those levels we can effectively teach the brain to seek out positive emotions and to hold on to those positive feelings for long periods of time.

This article from Berkley notes the lasting impact that gratitude writing and appreciation can have on brain activity. The results led researchers to believe that there was greater neural sensitivity in the medial prefrontal cortex for those who experienced gratitude under an fMRI scanner. Even when these scans were taken up to three months after the gratitude intervention had been staged, the brain still had the same neural pathways reaction, meaning that the benefits that come for those who practice gratitude aren't just a short term fix.

 

What Does Science Actually Say?

 

Studies have shown that those who use gratitude journals report feeling less burnt out from their jobs, they are able to enjoy better sleep at night just by spending fifteen minutes with their journals, and they are reported to heal quicker from health problems.

According to UCLA’s Mindfulness Awareness Research Center, having an attitude of gratitude changes the molecular structure of the brain, keeps grey matter functioning, and keeps us healthy and happy which in turn has a positive impact on the central nervous system. The experts say that all of this can have a hugely beneficial impact on our physical health. Stress, depression, anxiety, toxic emotions - all of these can cause our blood pressure to rise, our basic needs like sleeping and eating to become misaligned, and our well-being to take a dive. There's another article from Berkley that looks at the evidence that those who express gratitude are in better health. It notes that while there's still lots to discover when it comes to gratitude research, that we do know that mental well-being, positive emotion, and how we relate to other individuals in our lives can all have a trickle-down effect when it comes to physical health. On that topic, the article notes that…

Gratitude’s stress-buffering ability and known power to increase happiness and positive emotions may have downstream positive influences on health. And gratitude’s role in fostering and strengthening social connections may be just as important. A growing body of research strongly suggests that our relationships with others can have tangible health benefits. 

 

Are Gratitude Journals Just Spiritual Bypassing?

 

While gratitude practice seemingly comes with huge benefits both physically and mentally, we need to remember the importance of not putting the positive gloss on everything in our lives. Noting gratitude is important but so is recognizing red flags in our lives and making room for those negative feelings that help us to ascertain when something isn’t quite working out so we can do something about it. We are all told of the things we should be grateful for; health, a home, our families and friends. Sure, these things are certainly worthy of our gratitude but there’s also an emphasis on what we ‘should be’ grateful for. Life is full of should be’s and we can often feel guilty if we are practising gratitude without really feeling it.

 

How Do We Tackle Gratitude in a Healthy Way?

Psychologists say that the trick is to drip-feed gratitude into your life. It’s worth noting that one study from researchers showed that those who penned in their journals once a week for six weeks reported higher boosts in happiness than those who wrote in a gratitude journal three times a week. Psychologists attribute this to the fact that we are adaptable creatures and that it is easy for us to numb out to the good things in life even if we are making a concerted effort to recognize them.

The more specific you are able to get with the things you are putting down on paper the better. And it isn’t a numbers game either. If you only write one thing but it’s something you truly feel connected to it's likely to have more of an impact than twenty things that don’t really sink in. It matters less about what you write, what matters more is how you feel when you write that thing down.

There is no right or wrong way to do the gratitude journal, but the science is there -it could just help shift our perspective and lead to lighter, lovelier lives.

Do you keep a gratitude journal or practice thankfulness in other ways? What tools do you have in your happiness and wellbeing box to share with us? We’d love to hear from you.

 

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