Before dawn, Jennifer McFann rises from bed, brews a cup of coffee and settles down on her red sofa with her dog, a notepad and a pen. Savoring her coffee and the quiet company, she makes a list: Being able to pay the mortgage without worrying. Conversing with a friend. Building a garden path. On a cold morning, she might light a fire in the fireplace, giving her another item to write in her gratitude journal. Taking time to acknowledge the things for which she’s grateful is a powerfully affirming ritual that sets the tone for her day, says McFann, a corporate communications strategist in Fayetteville. “I began doing it during a dark period of my life,” McFann says, “and I’m confident it increased my patience and my ability to approach difficult situations and people with love and compassion.”
Gratitude journals such as McFann’s are a critical element of what psychologists call the “happiness toolbox” because they motivate people to focus on the positive elements of their lives instead of the negative. Cultivating a perspective of gratitude has lasting effects, says Robert Emmons, a California psychologist who’s written several books on thankfulness, including the recent Gratitude Works: A 21-Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity. Emmons’ research with students at the University of California-Davis asked to keep a daily journal of giving thanks revealed that practicing—not merely feeling—gratitude lowers blood pressure and improves the body’s immune system while also promoting feelings of well-being and happiness. Other studies show that through journaling and acknowledging reasons for gratitude, a person is less inclined to be depressed, anxious, lonely or envious.
Society looks upon giving thanks as a virtue—we devote a day each year to doing just that—but it’s more than a feeling or a rote response when someone helps you find the organic milk at the grocery store or gets you the director’s cut of the Lord of the Rings trilogy that you wanted but wouldn’t buy for yourself. Gratitude is a state of mind, a conscious thought process that affects your emotions. “It’s not possible to have a grateful thought and a negative thought at the same time,” says Paula Morse, a counselor at Arkansas Families First in North Little Rock. “Intentionally focusing on gratefulness offers a reprieve from the stress and worry we regularly encounter.”
Keeping a journal of things for which we give thanks provides us with that intentional focus. A journal doesn’t need to be fancy—McFann uses a basic spiral-bound notebook—but it should be handwritten. The physical act of writing itself provides focus. You don’t have to write daily, though it can be helpful when you’re first creating a habit; once it’s established, write a couple of times each week.
In Gratitude Works, Emmons writes the keys to getting the most from your journal are details, surprises and appreciation for aspects of your life you normally take for granted.
Depth Over Breadth
Specifics win out over generalities when journaling, or as Emmons writes: “The truth is in the details.” If you say you’re grateful for your parents’ support, describe particular acts. That might be something like teaching you how to make grilled-cheese sandwiches or driving 150 miles to see you play a bit role in community theater. “The journal is more than just a list of stuff,” writes Emmons.
Because the unexpected inspires strong feelings, write about things that surprised you, like coming home after an exhausting day at work to find your kids have cleaned the kitchen. You might call this the “expect nothing, appreciate everything” approach to life, a counter to a sense of entitlement that limits gratefulness.
“The George Bailey Effect”
Most of us have seen It’s a Wonderful Life, the classic Christmas movie in which an angel shows George Bailey all the good he has done for the world, thereby wresting him from despair. You don’t have to go so far as Bailey did to feel gratitude, but you can imagine the way life might have been had you chosen a different career or not attended the dinner where you met the love of your life. Journaling about things that you may take for granted increases appreciation—and gratitude—for them.
In the beginning, your list might be short simply because you’re not used to reflective thinking. Not to worry. Try to list two or three things at first; then increase the number as journaling becomes easier. With every entry, include the “why” of your gratitude, not just the “what.” Instead of saying “I’m grateful for this cup of coffee,” write about the memories it stirs, such as how a co-worker thoughtfully brought you a latte when you were nose deep in a project and couldn’t take a break.
Even if there’s nothing on your list but “nothing bad happened today,” keep it up. Gratitude begets gratitude, McFann says: “It’s a practice that deepens with time.”