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How to Gratitude Journal

There’s no set formula and it’s easier than you think.

Andy Ritchie
It’s times like this that we turn to our toolbox of mental health techniques to get a hold of our shit. Regular readers will know that we’re big advocates of cold-plunging, breathwork, meditation, yoga nidra, and even flotation to keep our mental health in check, but most of the MUD\WTR team are keen scribblers in one way or another. Gratitude has long played a part in mud culture, so it should be no surprise that many of us keep gratitude journals, too.

What is a Gratitude Journal?

It’s pretty simple: Gratitude journaling is the process of recording and reflecting on things that we are grateful for, through a regular habit of writing them down. 
There’s no set format and there’s no right or wrong way to keep a gratitude journal. It’s an experience and process that should be as personal to you as it needs to be.

Does Gratitude Journaling Really Work?

We’re hesitant to stop short of a resounding “Yes, 100% of the time it works every time,” but there is a surprisingly solid body of evidence to suggest that yes, practicing gratitude, or keeping a gratitude journal can have enormously positive effects on one’s well-being. Various scientific sources suggest that it can help to:
  • Reduce blood pressure, stress and depression
  • Improve overall physical health
  • Improve overall psychological health, reducing toxic emotions like envy, resentment and regret
  • Enhance our ability to emphasize with others, and reduce aggression
  • Improve sleep
  • Improve self-esteem and mental resilience

In fact, keeping a gratitude journal, and writing down your appreciation for others, can even help you build new relationships, and feel more socially connected to others. 
So without further delay, here are some handy pointers to help you get your gratitude journal started.

10 Tips for Gratitude Journaling

Think it over.

Before you ever start writing, think about what you’re grateful for. As Nancy Davis Kho, author of The Thank-You Project explains, the process of thinking about what you’re grateful for is already helping to reframe your brain’s natural way of thinking.

“One of the things I think that’s amazing about this practice [writing thank-you letters], is that the benefits don’t just come from writing a letter. You’re already working on them, you’re already rewiring your brain to be better and more efficient at looking for positive things by just thinking about it.
“If all you’re doing is sifting through ‘Gosh, what am I going to write?’ You’re already rewiring your brain to continue with that. That was really profound to me. I would spend all week thinking about them. Before I had ever put pen to paper, I was already cultivating the positive recall bias.”

Start easy: Write down three things you’re grateful for.

And they can be as small, or as simple as you like. For author, podcaster and meditation teacher Cory Allen, all the little things build up to a cascading effect. “I just got a puppy like two weeks ago. Just playing with a little animal and petting this little guy, or talking to my wife, or having a cup of coffee, or sitting in my studio … with all these things, I’m constantly relaxed into an awareness that is always going. I’m always appreciative of my life and what’s in it in each of those moments, big and small.”

Having trouble? Start with the things and people you love …

… and build outwards from there. It’s a lot easier to be grateful to your loving mother, or that friend who’s always by your side, than your dickhead dad or a friend  who constantly bails on plans. 

Still stuck? Try some prompts.

Where to start, where to start? For some of us particularly locked into our negative recall biases, figuring out even three simple things we’re grateful for can be a challenge. Fortunately, the internet is awash with prompts to get you started. Here’s a few we’ve stolen from elsewhere:
  • What are three ways to thank someone without saying “thank you”?
  • What is something that makes you unique that you’re grateful for?
  • Look out the window, what’s something you’re grateful for outside?
  • Think about the work that went into the clothes you wear or the house you live in.
  • If you had to give up all of your possessions but three, which three would you keep and why?
  • Write a thank you note to yourself.
  • Pick a random photo, and write about why you’re grateful for that memory.
  • Write about something you’re looking forward to.
  • Write about something in your life that you have now that you didn’t have a year ago.
  • Think about a time you were able to help someone else.
  • List three people who helped you through a tough situation.
  • Name someone who did something nice for you unprompted

If that doesn’t work, focus on the day you’re living right now.

Drinking a cup of coffee? Be grateful you’re not thirsty.

Had a nice walk? Be grateful you are able-bodied enough to do so.

Dad pissed you off? Be grateful you have a dad in the first place.

These can be challenging, but they’re entry points into a gracious state of mind.

And if that fails, do as Tim Ferris does.

The productivity guru categorizes his gratitude journal into four areas: 
  1. Relationships: An old relationship that really helped you
  2. An opportunity that you have today
  3. Something great that happened or you saw yesterday
  4. Something simple near you (the clouds outside, the pen you are holding, etc.)
A little direction always helps, eh?

Write a thank-you letter (but you don’t have to send it!)

Nancy Davis-Kho, author of The Thank-You Project found that the process of writing a weekly thank-you letter to someone made her feel more relaxed, more present, and yep, more grateful. 

“I realized as soon as I wrote those first two letters that I felt better after writing them,” Nancy tells Trends w/ Benefits. “I felt physically calmer, it would be a real sentry moment. I would write the letters on a Friday afternoon at the end of my workweek and before the start of my weekend. It became this really lovely way to hit the reset button every week. 

“I was kind of flabbergasted that it worked so well every week. I knew that once I wrote my letter, my shoulders would be lower, my jaw would be unclenched, I thought that was really cool.”

Be detailed, be specific.

Evidence suggests that being as specific as possible is more likely to work than general platitudes of gratitude. Are you showing gratitude for a friend? Really dig into how they make you feel, remind yourself of specific examples when they’ve been there for you or things they’ve done that make you grateful. Much like our imagination, gratitude paints a much prettier picture with details. 

Find a time and frequency that works for you.

There is debate among gratitude psychologists as to whether a daily, bi-weekly, or weekly gratitude journal has the most benefit. Studies on both sides have shown contradicting evidence. So don’t feel too put out if you can’t keep up a daily habit, or you only find yourself journaling once a week. This is your process—make it work for you. Don’t overdo it, and don’t beat yourself up if the habit doesn’t stick right away. 

If all else fails, meditate.

“The one thing that I do everyday that contributes to [cultivating gratitude] actively is meditation,” says Cory Allen. “ That really is a valuable tool, because it just blows off all of the steam that’s been built up in your brain. It connects you back with the present moment, then gratitude actually becomes a symptom of both of those things.”

Andy Ritchie is a writer and editor based in Barbados. 

Read more: The Science of Gratitude

Read more: MUD\WTR’s Cold-Plunge Culture

Read more: The Weird History of Flotation Therapy

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