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Small Things Matter

I started keeping a gratitude journal when I had a bout with breast cancer 10 years ago. It was a health wake-up call for me on a lot of levels. Journaling allowed me to see the good things that were going on in my life and a way to shift my attention to the more positive things. It was hard to do daily, and still is, because it can be a highly emotional experience. But as I keep at it, I find greater emotional peace and contentment with my life.

How many of you have ever practiced regular gratitude journaling? Are you currently keeping one? If yes, maybe you will learn a few new tips, and for those who have never tried or have tried it and not been able to stick with it, hopefully today’s blog will help you make this a new, lasting, healthy habit.

Gratitude, like most desirable traits, needs to be actively practiced for it to become something we do without thinking. Most of us look at gratitude as an admirable character trait, but practicing daily acts of gratitude can have a big impact on our health and happiness too. These effects become more evident in the practice of keeping a gratitude journal. It only takes a few minutes a day, but the lasting mood boost it gives you can take you from feeling ok to feeling great on a regular basis.

What is a gratitude journal?

Quite simply it is a tool to keep track of the good things in your life. No matter how difficult or hard life can get, there is always something to be grateful for. When you are going through a tough time, it may be hard to find something to be grateful about; however, if you do it, you can pull yourself out of a funk. Writing the good things down in a journal on a regular basis also helps prepare and strengthen you to deal with the difficult challenges in your life when they do pop up.

It’s very simple to start: Simply write or type the things you are grateful for on a regular basis. Some people say daily, but I have found three times a week is plenty. It gives you more of an appreciation, and you don’t take things for granted. You can use a journal or a notebook. If you find it easier to do things digitally, you can use one of the many gratitude apps or even a Word document to write down the good things present in your life. So once you decide how you want to keep your journal and you have it, simply start noticing and noting the things you are grateful for. Examples might be: You got a promotion; you won your tennis match, your morning cup of coffee.

Benefits of a Gratitude Journal

So what have people noticed when they keep a gratitude journal?
It lowers their stress levels by shifting focus away from what is stressing them right now. It can help you feel calmer, especially when you do your gratitude journal at night. It can give you a new perspective on what’s important to you and what you really appreciate in your life. It also helps give you clarity on what you want to have more of in your life and what you can do without. It can help you find out and then focus on what really matters to you. You learn more about yourself and as a result, become more self-aware. It can make you feel accomplished, even if it’s a small accomplishment, and therefore increase your self-esteem. It can make you be more giving and generous to others. Kindness and compassion grow when you give them away. One day when you are down in the dumps, you can read through your gratitude journal to re-adjust your attitude and remember the many good things you have in your life.

So, it appears, gratitude journaling has a lot of potential upsides and no downsides. But how does it differ from keeping a daily planner, diary or notebook?
The main difference is the focus of the action you are taking. For example: A gratitude journal finds things to be grateful for. It focuses on what you are grateful for. A planner plans and organizes you schedule. It focuses on what you need to do. A diary records the events of your day, both good and bad, as you reflect on what happened in your day. A notebook is something you use to take notes for work or class or as a personal development tool, like setting goals. It is for taking notes about present or future events to help you remember important points. Each one has a place in our lives, but they are not interchangeable. Granted, a planner may give you things to look forward to and be grateful for, but chances are there will be some events or responsibilities that you are not so grateful for. A diary focuses on both positive and negative events from your day and not necessarily on what is good and helpful in your life. And of course, a notebook includes things that do not necessarily have any value to you. So gratitude journals really are unique…their only purpose is to help you notice and appreciate the positive things in your life.

Ideas for Your Gratitude Journal

Your gratitude journal is unique to you and your life. It is for your eyes only so you can write anything you feel without worrying what others will think. Here are a few prompts to help you start writing about all of the things you are grateful for:

  1. Write about a person in your life that you are grateful for. For example, your mentor, your mother, your best friend.
  2. What skills or abilities do you have that you are thankful for? For example, if you are a good cook, a good listener or a good tennis player.
  3. How is where you are in your life today different than a year ago, and what positive changes are you thankful for? For example, I’ve learned to slow down, smile and say a kind word to the people I encounter throughout my day.
  4. What hobbies or activities would you miss if you were unable to do them? For example, I am thankful that my legs still allow me to run after 40 years.
  5. What are you taking for granted that you can be thankful for? For example, your phone, your coffee machine, the clean, fresh sheets you slipped into last night on your bed.
  6. What materialistic items are you grateful for? For example, your home or the new Kate Spade handbag you found on sale.
  7. Who has done something this week to help you or make your life easier and how can you thank them? For example, my college intern who posted and sent out my blog this week.
  8. What foods or meals are you most thankful for? For example, the delicious dish you had last night at your favorite restaurant or the tasty, crunchy apple you had at lunch today.
  9. What elements of nature are you grateful for and why? What about living in Charleston are you grateful for? For example, the sunrise on your early morning walk or run. Or the walk you took after work the other day in downtown Charleston.
  10. What part of your morning routine are you thankful for? For example, your morning cup of coffee or waking up without an alarm.
  11. What aspects of your work environment are you thankful for? For example, flexible hours or supportive co-workers.

Plan to write in your gratitude journal at least three nights a week for 15 minutes before bed. Set an alarm reminder and schedule it in your calendar. Keep your gratitude journal by your bed or on your nightstand, so you will see it before going to bed. Writing in it at night helps to put you in a relaxed mood and therefore sleep better. I like to pick a pretty gratitude journal so every time I look at it, it reminds me to be appreciative. Write as many things as you want to, but 3-5 is a good number to aim for each day.

Remember it’s for your eyes only, so it doesn’t have to be “deep.” You can be thankful for your family, a new book or movie you recently enjoyed, or what you ate for breakfast this morning. Don’t just go through the motions, but be conscious about your “attitude of gratitude.” You don’t have to set a minimum number, just celebrate a few things you were grateful for that day. Sometimes if you are struggling to even start, come up with only one thing. Try to focus on people and experiences rather than things. Yes, it’s okay to be thankful for your phone or new pocketbook, but the joy you receive from important relationships and experiences probably impacts you more than a fondness for your things. Try to savor and think about each thing you write down instead of hurrying to write a quick list. Note surprises in your day and the emotional response they generate for you…things you didn’t plan. For example, an old friend you have been thinking about lately reaches out by text or a phone call.

Sometimes a picture conveys what you are feeling better than a sentence or two. Add a picture to your gratitude journal. Decorate it; get creative with it because this can help you stay motivated to use it. Last but not least, give your gratitude journal a chance. Do it for at least a month before you make any judgment about if it’s making you happier and if you are enjoying the process. If you have fun with it, I think you will find you look forward to writing in it. Whether your gratitude journal is something you write in or use on one of the many apps, how you do it is up to you.

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