Imagine going through the day to day life filled with all the usual responsibilities and challenges, you’d probably have plenty of resentment accumulated in your mind.What if I tell you there’s one simple way to make you happier every day? Not possible you say?It turns out there is indeed one simple practice that can make you happier even when your circumstances are still the same.This practice I’m talking about is starting a gratitude journal. This might sound silly to you but it’s really not.Keep reading to see all the compelling evidence that shows how practicing gratitude can really change your life for the better.
Why gratitude matters to you
“Whenever there’s a grateful moment, I note it. I know for sure that appreciating whatever shows up for you in life changes your personal vibration. You radiate and generate more goodness for yourself when you’re aware of all you have and not focusing on your have-nots.” — Oprah
A gallup world poll has shown that 85% percent of people reported being disengaged at their jobs.((Gallup: The World’s Broken Workplace)) Many of them hate their jobs and especially their bosses.To add to this, 1 in 6 Americans are on some form of psychiatric medication.((Scientific American: 1 in 6 Americans Takes a Psychiatric Drug)) Antidepressants are the most common type followed by anti-anxiety medications.There’s no denying it that people are unhappy.You may be wondering how you can feel grateful especially when your situation might be legitimately bad. It may not be easy, but don’t lose hope because it’s definitely possible.Here’s the good news:Gratitude is a skill anyone can develop. All it takes is a bit of daily practice.It’s the one thing that will help you become happier even if crappy circumstances you may be in haven’t changed yet.Monk and interfaith scholar, David Steindl-Rast, says the following about gratitude in his TED Talk:
“Is it really the happy people that are grateful? We all know quite a number of people who have everything that it would take to be happy, and they are not happy, because they want something else or they want more of the same. And we all know people who have lots of misfortune, misfortune that we ourselves would not want to have, and they are deeply happy. They radiate happiness. You are surprised. Why? Because they are grateful. If you think it’s happiness that makes you grateful, think again. It’s gratefulness that makes you happy.”
How gratitude makes you happier
Neuroscience has shown the act of being thankful releases dopamine and serotonin in your brain.((Wharton Health Care: The Neuroscience of Gratitude))Dopamine is what makes you feel good and causes you to want more, so simply starting that practice of gratitude will help you develop a habit of doing so.Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that activates the happiness center of your brain, which is similar to how antidepressants work. So you can basically consider gratitude as a natural antidepressant and some argue that it’s even better than the drugs.Your brain cannot focus on positive and negative things at the same time. This is a key reason why practicing gratitude can help you shift your focus from being sad about the things you don’t have in your life to being glad for the things you do have.
Starting a gratitude journal
You can use anything to start logging things you are grateful for.Whether it’s on a regular journal, a notebook, or just some scrap paper, anything can be used to simply take note of the things you are thankful for. The key is to just do it both intentionally and consistently.
Simple starting tips
- Keep your gratitude journal in a spot that you will see regularly each day. Your nightstand is a good spot where you will see it first thing when you wake up and last thing when you go down for bed. Personally, I like to keep mine in the bathroom counter so that I do it first thing when I’m getting ready to start my day.
- You don’t have to come up with the “right” answers. Start by keeping things simple and write anything that comes to mind. You can be thankful for things like a meal you just ate, a movie you just watched or a friend you spent time with.
- Develop consistency. Try to make it a habit to take some time regularly to slow down and just engage in reflecting about the things you are thankful for. Spending as little as five minutes a day has been shown to be effective. If you miss a day, it’s totally fine.
It’s important to write everything out because journaling has been shown to activate the right hemisphere of your brain, which is the part of the brain that processes emotions and feelings.As you begin to keep track of things you are grateful for, you will begin to feel happier because of the fact that the right hemisphere of your brain is connecting with those feel good emotions associated with gratefulness.One of the world’s leading experts on the science of gratitude, Robert Emmons pointed to research showing that expressing your thoughts by writing them down has more advantages than if you just think the thoughts. It makes you more aware of them and can deepen the emotional impact it has on you.
Jason Marsh of the Greater Good Magazine at UC Berkeley interviewed Emmons to ask for tips on how to get the most out of your gratitude journal((Greater Good Magazine: Tips for Keeping a Gratitude Journal)) and here are some of the tips below.
- Don’t just go through the motions. It’s important to be intentional on why you are doing this exercise. Instead of doing this because someone is telling you to, think about what you are hoping to gain out of this exercise. Take the time to acknowledge you are doing this because cultivating more happiness in your life is important to you. “Motivation to become happier plays a role in the efficacy of journaling,” says Emmons.
- Go for depth over breadth. After you’ve developed a gratitude journaling habit, it will serve you well to become more specific with the things you are thankful for. Being able to express one thing you are deeply thankful for is so much more meaningful than being thankful for a bunch of general superficial things.
- Get personal. Taking time to focus on people you are grateful has more of an impact than focusing on things that you are grateful for.
- Try subtraction, not just addition. If you are having trouble coming up with things you are thankful for, one simple trick to spur up some gratitude is to start thinking about how your life would be if you didn’t have some of the things that you have now.
- Savor surprises. Keep track of pleasant or unexpected surprises as these are great things to reflect on when you have a chance. You may find reflecting on these moments can bring up stronger feelings of gratitude.
Emmons goes on to say that he recommends for people to view each item in their gratitude journals as a gift and that the whole process shouldn’t be an errand to do just to get it over with. Instead it should be something something you actively engage in to connect with the things you are genuinely thankful for.
“In other words, we tell them not to hurry through this exercise as if it were just another item on your to-do list. This way, gratitude journaling is really different from merely listing a bunch of pleasant things in one’s life.”
More advanced techniques
While having a gratitude journal proves to be helpful, it becomes most impactful when you don’t just keep it to yourself.Unlike having a personal journal where it’s meant to be locked up in a secret space, a gratitude journal has the power not to just positively change you, but also the people around you.Here are some advanced techniques you can use in your gratitude journaling in order to maximize it’s effectiveness:
1. Use your gratitude journal to provide topics for conversations
It’s easy to get into conversations that involve gossiping, negativity and pessimism because it’s actually our brain’s way of trying to make ourselves feel better. Unfortunately, these kinds of conversations tend to be unproductive and deflating.Steering your conversations about things you are grateful for can uplift your own spirits as well as the people you are talking to.What to do?The next time you talk to someone, inject things you are grateful for into the conversation. Some ideas include pointing out how nice the weather is, how delicious your meal is, or how much you enjoyed spending time with your friend.
2. Tell those you love why you are grateful for them
You might be thankful for something your friends or your partner does for you, but gratitude will feel much more powerful when you are thankful for their character.For example, you may be thankful that your partner takes out the trash, but you’re even more thankful because s/he only does it because s/he’s thoughtful enough to know that you hate doing it.It turns out being grateful for people in your life starts a generosity cycle. It makes you willing to do more for them and this likely leads to them responding with gratitude by doing more for you.What to do?Write specific things about someone’s character that you are grateful for and keep your journal handy. When you spend time with that person, take a moment to share what you wrote about him or her.
3. Use your gratitude journal to write thank you notes
The Journal of Happiness published a study where 219 men and women participants involved wrote three letters of gratitude over a three week period.((Journal of Happiness: Letters of gratitude: Further evidence for author benefits.)) Results showed that writing letters of gratitude increased their happiness and life satisfaction with a decrease depressive symptoms.Taking the time to write thank you notes is an extremely simple and easy way to both write out what you’re grateful for and give positive affirmations to someone else in the process.I bought a bulk box of plain thank you cards and I keep it in the house to handwrite thank you notes whenever I have a chance and mail them out. It’s always led to positive experiences.What to do?Purchase a set of thank you cards or create your own. Once a week, look through your gratitude journal to find something you wrote about someone you’re grateful for and use what you logged to write out a thank you card and mail it out to him or her.
4. Let gratitude help shift negative circumstances into positive ones
I met a woman named Penny in Thailand who ran an orphanage with children who were affected by the AIDS virus. She singlehandedly showed me the power of practicing gratefulness through her own life and it changed my life.She was caring for all these sick children that were not her own, but there was also one huge obstacle:She had cancer.But she didn’t let that stop her.Rather than viewing the illness as something that is ruining her life, she shared this with me.
“It’s kind of like a death sentence when the doctor says to you ‘you’re HIV positive’ or ‘you have cancer’ and it gives me an ability to identify with these children that are HIV positive, so I’m grateful for cancer because of it, if nothing else.”
She is a living example of proof that we can find something to be thankful even in the most difficult situations. I keep this in mind especially when I am going through some of my own tough challenges.What to do?Think of a time in your life that was a really tough or sad experience. Take a moment to reflect in your journal to see if you can find something you are grateful for as a result of this experience.Did the negative experience help you grow in any way? Or perhaps it helped you gain the ability to understand or comfort someone else who is going through the same experience?
Gratitude is the attitude
It is said that people feel happier during the Thanksgiving holidays because of all the serotonin producing tryptophan that exists in turkey, but that’s actually a myth. Turkey doesn’t contain significant amount of tryptophan for it to have such huge effect on your mood.So why is it that people feel so much happier during this time?The answer lies in the name of the holiday itself — Thanksgiving.It’s because of something none other than gratefulness.So before you go on and convince yourself that you don’t have much to be thankful for, try starting a gratitude journal.You may find that yourself developing a skill that can be learned to actually make yourself more happier and fulfilled.You will no longer find yourself limited and defined by your current situation, but instead you will be able to find joy regardless of your circumstances.So why not give it a try today?
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