Gratitude Journal: how to make yourself happier

By Tami Pereira / May 27, 2020

We wouldn’t be humans if we didn’t have bad thoughts. Love and hatred both rule the world, but even the last one seems to be the more prevalent. When the balance tips so much on one side, the other option seems impossible to achieve. Nevertheless, starting a gratitude journal is a good beginning to restore love.

COVID-19 has already taken the most part of our attention, fears and safety measures. Thus, some people that never felt anxious before now know firsthand how terrifying it can be to have a panic attack. Media has a lot to do with this happening. Scary headlines and feeling like a prisoner locked-down at home are enough for our brain to start freaking out. And logically following from this, people who already were going through complex situations such as depression, phobias, anxiety, dependencies before the pandemic hit can see their symptoms intensified.

María Duque, coach and psychologist, says that “ the isolation and loss of routines, of short and medium-term goals, can mean a deterioration of well-being and emotional balance, leading us to adopt unhealthy habits, and establish harmful strategies for our psychological state, and in turn for our own system immune, since an adequate psychological adjustment acts as a protective factor of health”.

Because of this, experts recommend finding a healing habit for helping you every time you feel overwhelmed. If you pay attention close to your body, you will know what it needs. It is not as easy as it sounds but rather a day to day process; but at the end of the day, it works. Two techniques you can put in practice related to this are emotional journaling and starting a gratitude journal. Although, in this article, we will focus more deeply into the second one, we will also need to briefly define what an emotional diary is.

Emotional journaling

How many times did you feel bad about yourself because you were sad? How many times did you get frustrated and wanting to feel happy all the time instead of listening to your emotions? I know I did hundreds of times…

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“Basic emotions, such as sadness or fear are totally normal and necessary emotions that indicate that we have lost something, or that we interpret something as potentially dangerous, respectively. There are other, secondary emotions that are built from a basic emotion and an interpretation that we have made about it and from our experience with it, as in the case of anxiety, which has a basis of fear, or tranquility, with a base of joy, and they are built of thoughts and what we say to each other in relation to it”, Duque explains.

An emotional diary is a personal diary in which the emotions we feel throughout our daily life in different situations can be recorded. We must describe them as accurately as possible, adding details about the moment in which we are experiencing them: what happens and what we feel, as well as writing down which thoughts appear, what internal dialogue we are having at the moment with ourselves and, finally, what we do about it. This exercise helps us become aware of what emotions we experience most frequently, what we do when we feel this way and identify which situations lead us to feel in a certain way. 

Duque declares that the main aim “is not to solve or put an end to these emotions, but rather to facilitate that self-observation and identification and understanding our emotions”. Thanks to the preparation of an emotional diary we can increase our level of self-knowledge, with great benefits to our psychological well-being and self-esteem. “For this, it is important that we could be flexible and creative, knowing what we do it for, without it becoming an obligation”, the young psychologist says..

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Questions to ask yourself for reflecting whilst writing down: What did I think? How did it feel? What thoughts appeared? What did I say about it? What did I do about it?

Now that we know about the emotional diary, let’s dig deeper into the gratitude journal’s world.

Gratitude journal: What is it?

I would say this one is a bit easier to try and even more powerful. Simply put, practicing gratitude means being thankful. It is entirely related to mindfulness and enjoying the little things. Writing down on a notebook five things that you are grateful for would be a good enough starting point to appreciate what you have instead of desiring what you don’t; to be aware of how lucky we are, to discover and live the present instead of being nostalgic about the past or thinking about the future all the time. Thinking about the past too much leads to depression; while excess thinking about future breeds, anxiety, and we certainly don’t want to experience either of those things. 

In María Duque’s words, “as we are immersed in our negative thoughts that we repeat day after day, we reinforce and give strength to those mechanisms that keep us in negativity. Putting gratitude into practice puts our focus on things that make us feel calm and satisfied with ourselves. It focuses us on the positive, the pleasant and the really constructive in our life”.

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The #littlethings campaign is a good example for this. It was created by the HSE’s National Office for Suicide Prevention and 25 partner organisations. “It highlights that we all experience difficult times in our lives, and that when we do, there are some simple, evidence-based little things that can make a big difference to how we feel. These #littlethings can help us to cope but there are also supports and services we can use if we need to”, says their website.

Gratitude journal: the benefits

When we write, we heal. Experts always recommend using a pen and paper more than typing on a keyboard because there’s a full connection between the hand’s movement and our brain. We literally get more creative and are more productive. In addition to this, writing a gratitude journal has even more benefits:

– The improvement of physical and mental health. It is related to neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin (antidepressant neurotransmitters), which regulate stress, anxiety, and fear, as well as allowing us a greater degree of presence and awareness.

– It strengthens our feelings of connection, purpose and satisfaction with our personal relationships. This allows us to perceive and be aware of the support we receive from others, and guides us towards creating value, caring, listening, respecting, and strengthening our ties with one another.

– It is related to a greater experience of pleasant sensations and emotions such as joy, optimism, enthusiasm, determination and greater energy.

-It leads to greater self-awareness or self-knowledge, as we gain a new perspective on what is most important to us and what we truly appreciate. It helps us identify our priorities, increasing our clarity about what we want in our lives and what we don’t.

Purpose. By creating a gratitude journal, you increase your chances of moving forward and achieving your most important personal and professional goals.

Decrease in our reactivity and impulsivity. Our emotional responses are regulated, increasing our decision-making capacity and improving our cognitive processes, achieving impulse control and allowing us greater flexibility in our behaviours.

Increase our capacity for self-observation, improves our capacity for concentration and attention.

Increase self-esteem by focusing on positive and beneficial aspects for us.

Gratitude journal: the experience

It is important to maintain a positive attitude towards creating a gratitude journal. Being aware of its benefits can help us establish our purpose and maintain our commitment to write on it. It can also help set goals, connect with your internal sources of motivation or face it as a personal challenge.

Asking my friend and regular journaler Virginia Rebollo, she told me: “Having a gratitude journal is favouring my self-knowledge through the perception of my priorities and the assessment of small details. In this way, I feel that I am consciously focusing on love, both my own and that of others. It is like a way of reminding myself that it makes sense to be happy, that happiness is not a duty, but the result of what life offers me at every moment. Also, this habit offers me long-term discipline and organization of my short-term thoughts”. 

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And I couldn’t agree more. In my case, writing to myself, for myself, without any judgments gives me the harmony I so badly needed. But be careful: if you try to force yourself, you can get frustrated. And this was the case of Teté, another friend that wanted to improve her life but pushed herself too much: “My reality was different. I started a gratitude journal and was already not knowing what to express as positive. Every day, I repeated the most elementary at once and I was left without knowing more. I soon noticed that all my efforts made me feel much less valid since it was all a fight in my head”.

Twenty-one days is supposedly the magic number for turning something into a habit. To be honest, I haven’t really achieved it, but I can’t say I’ve tried it either. And that is not that bad at all. We always need to remember why we use it – nothing more. This is the reason why journaling is personal and absolutely different to each human. To use myself as an example, I probably write on it twice per week, in those days when I’m feeling overwhelmed or too anxious. Experts recommend writing between 5 and 10 little things you are grateful for, even better if you put them in a context and tell details. For example (this is taken from my gratitude journal during lockdown): “I’m grateful to live in this humble town, a few kilometres from the sea, as much as I complain about it. Being surrounded by palm trees is a true gift. And of red roses. And to have a terrace from which to listen to the birds in the middle of spring”. Before writing it, I was thinking about how much I missed travelling and the sea, but just opening the journal made me start thinking on the bright side. 

If you read until here, it means you want to change your life. What are you waiting for then? Get that notebook from your drawer which you never used and give it a try as a gratitude journal, your happiness will notice it!

About the author

Tami Pereira

Spanish journalist addicted to adventure. A camera, notebook, pen and an awakened mind. See the extraordinary in the common and the wealth in a vacuum. Go, cover, raise awareness.

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