Gratitude Journals - Are They Worth Trying?

Pete Ross

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If there’s one thing that amuses me, it’s how all the self help writers seem to do the same things and follow the same trends. Whenever I see a practice that started in Silicon Valley pop up here, within a week or two all the usual suspects are writing about it. Morning routines? Check. Meditation? Check. Waking up at an ungodly hour to conquer the world? Check. And lately we’ve made our way to the gratitude journal. Of course, writing about these things directly seems to be a bit naff nowadays — because most of the times I’ve seen it pop up it’s in one of their morning routines, where amongst the green tea and waking up at 5am is of course, their practice of gratitude journaling.

That on its own is enough to make you roll your eyes and not want to do it. I mean, just about any practice that makes its way from Silicon Valley to the self help writers of Medium is already loaded with pretence and affectation, and often has very little effect on people’s lives. After all, doing anything for the sole reason that some billionaire in SV does it and you think it’s going to help you be successful is asinine.

But what if there actually is something to this absurdly cheesy sounding practice called “gratitude journaling?” I actually already tried it a few years ago (before it was cool, because I’m hipster like that) after listening to a podcast. I thought the concept was interesting and worth trying, and now that I’ve been interested in psychology for a couple of years, I can see exactly how it can be useful.

“You see what you aim at”. That’s a statement that you can see the inherent truth of immediately. Whatever you focus your mind towards, your perception bends itself to. When I was journaling, it was a quick 3 things that I was grateful for every day. You get through the big things like family, money etc really quick, so after a week you actually have to start looking for those really tiny things that make life great. The feeling of getting under a warm duvet in the middle of winter. That really nice cool change that comes through in the stifling heat of summer. That person who really listened to what you were saying, without waiting for their turn to talk.

Because you’re aiming to find the small joys in life to be grateful for, that’s what you begin to see. It’s a pretty damn great way to go through life, because you’re always looking for the smallest good. And right now, we have a lot of people in the world that are the exact opposite. They complain about everything — Jesus, just check out some of the writing on this platform and Twitter. You’d think we lived in the worst time in the history of the universe. Everyone is being oppressed, anyone that’s successful is evil, climate change is going to kill us all yesterday and everyone that doesn’t agree with me is a Nazi or a racist or a transphobe or a misogynist.

There are a lot of people that could use some gratitude journaling as a cognitive reset, because while things aren’t perfect, they’re better than they’ve ever been. If you spend your life looking at what you don’t have, however, you’re going to be miserable the entire time. If you’re reading this on a mobile phone then however oppressed you might describe yourself, you’re holding more computing power in your hand than the entire Apollo program that landed our species on the moon. That wasn’t available to anyone just 30 years ago, no matter how much money or “privilege” they had.

If you give gratitude journaling a try, you might realise that. You might (hopefully) find yourself grateful for a whole slew of things that you’ve taken for granted your entire life, like functioning electricity, clean water, appliances, transport. Because they are things to be grateful for. They are things that people in other parts of the world still don’t have, and that our species as a whole has had for the tiniest fraction of our existence. You’ve also had the privilege of being in the right place at the right time, a little gratitude might be in order there, no?

I think gratitude journaling is probably best used in conjunction with a couple of other things to get the most benefits. First of all, stop watching the news. Half an hour of watching the news will convince you the world is going to hell in a hand basket, because the only things they focus on are deaths, the state of the economy, wars and terror attacks, what politicians are saying and so on. It’s half an hour of curated depression, and best avoided. Likewise it’s probably best that you stay away from Twitter for a while — that whole platform is just a never ending feed of negativity, insults and whining. Writing down 3 things you’re grateful for whilst continuing to spend hours each day consuming news and Twitter would be quite useless, much like eating a healthy breakfast only to down a family meal at McDonalds for lunch and a pint of ice cream for dinner.

The great thing I found about the practice is that I only needed to do it for about a month before the effects became permanent. This idea that you need to do it every morning for years on end to gain the benefits is just silly. Once you make that cognitive realignment, your brain doesn’t need the constant reminder to be looking for good things in life to be grateful for. Unless you hang out with a crowd of whiners that is, in which case, maybe you need to tear yourself away from them and find some friends with a more realistic and positive outlook on the world.

So if you feel that your thoughts are constantly skewing negative and you throw yourself a pity party on the regular, the practice is very well worth your while to try. It’s not going to cure every problem in your life but hey, given equal circumstances, wouldn’t you rather have a positive outlook on your life than a negative one? A negative outlook doesn’t do you any good, and it repels people from wanting to be around you. So give it a shot for a few months and see how it goes.

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I write about career, performance, psychology, self development and business humour. I'm an author, former national competitor in judo and strongman and a former military instructor.

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