The Thing About Gratitude Journaling...

Can writing down what you’re thankful for really change your life?

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Can writing down what you’re thankful for really change your life? 

Arianna Huffington swears by it. Gwyneth Paltrow keeps one, and so does Oprah Winfrey.

We’re talking about the famed gratitude journal.

Studies have shown that setting aside some time each day to write down what you’re thankful for offers a host of benefits. Dr Robert Emmons, author of THANKS! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier, spent a decade researching the correlation between gratitude and well- being. He found that gratitude can help boost your happiness by 25 percent. Other benefits include an increase in self- esteem, better sleep and reduced stress levels. 

How does it work?

Gratitude exercises help adjust our filters, says Maria Plengsangtip, a partner and consultant psychologist at iGROW CorpHEALTH, a workplace health consultancy. “Oftentimes, people focus on the negative experiences in their daily lives without considering the small, but significant, positive things that happen. ‘Counting blessings’ can be an effective strategy to help people reinterpret problematic life experiences.” 

Dr Charissa Ng from Psycare Consultants agrees. “Gratitude journaling works because it allows for the individual to not only bring to the conscious mind the experience of being grateful, but also allows the person to practise and reinforce the grateful experiences.” 

It also builds social bonds. Brain imaging studies have shown that individuals who practise gratitude activate areas of the brain that are associated with empathy, adds Dr Ng. 

Over time, neural pathways will be formed and strengthened. Dr Ng says this means when you’re frequently grateful, it encourages you to be more aware of the kindness people have shown you, and encourages you to pay it forward. It also prompts the individual to look out for more positive experiences. 

Start easy 

While its benefits are well- documented, don’t expect to see immediate changes after a day or two of penning your gratitude. Also, it doesn’t matter if you can’t think of more than a couple of things you’re thankful for when you’re just starting out. 

Maria likens it to going to the gym. “If we want to build our physical muscles, we need to start small. Instead of carrying 20kg weights in our very first attempt, we might try carrying a 5kg weight first.” And just like going to the gym, you’re not likely to see the results until some time later, after a period of consistent, regular exercise. 

She suggests starting with just one or two good things you’re thankful for, before slowly increasing that to three or more. You could also do it together with friends or family, including it as part of regular dinner conversations. “Instead of ‘How’s your day?’, family members can help each other focus on appreciation, resulting in more positive emotions for everyone.” 

However, gratitude journaling has its limitations. For one, it’s not a means of processing negative emotions, says Dr Ng. “Gratitude journaling cannot replace therapy and, if necessary, should be used in conjunction with [other] tools and techniques learnt in therapy,” she says. 

How to do it right

To get the most out of gratitude journaling, Maria says it’s important that you genuinely dive into the things you’re grateful for, and not just pen a list of generic blessings like “I am grateful to be alive.” Dr Ng suggests focusing on specific experiences and things around you that you feel grateful for, and detailing the positive impact they have made. 

For best results, she also advises against using any negatives like “I am thankful that nothing bad happened.” This doesn’t mean ignoring the bad stuff that can happen to you, though. “We shouldn’t expect the gratitude exercise to make us see the world as a perfect place,” says Maria. “Instead, it should help us see the little positive things in our lives.” 

“It encourages you to be more aware of the kindness people have shown you, and encourages you to pay it forward.”

My Reading Room

Hidayah's gratitude journal 

We got CLEO’s Associate Digital Editor to try it out and give her review – without any sugar-coating. 

Day 1: 

I am grateful... for the kind words my friends gave me after reading my online article on my battle with acne.

Day 2: 

I am grateful... for having celebrated the birthday of one of the most important people in my life, my sister.

Day 3: 

I am grateful... for being able to see my favourite K-Pop group. 

Day 4: 

I am grateful... for spending time with my family the entire weekend. 

Day 5: 

I am grateful... for being able to meet my deadlines today. 

Day 6: 

I am grateful... for being super productive at work today. 

Day 7: 

I am grateful... to my friend for helping me find food for a stray cat. 

Hidayah’s take:
“My outlook on life remained the same after a week of gratitude journaling. Would I do this again? Nah. Then again, it might take longer than a week to see the benefits, so you might want to give it a go anyway.”