“Journaling can be an essential way of making sense of our lives,” says yoga teacher and writer Susanna Harwood Rubin, author of Yoga 365—a book of daily wisdom.
Harwood Rubin, who is a breast cancer survivor, describes her writing practice as integral to navigating the tumultuous time following her diagnosis in 2015, the chemotherapy and double mastectomy in 2018, and the long road to recovery. “There were a couple of times at the beginning of my diagnosis when I was so devastatingly depressed that I made bullet pointed lists of things for which I was grateful, which created a sort of raft of meaning in the turbulence of my life,” she says.
The mental, physical, and social health benefits of a gratitude practice are well-documented in the field of positive psychology. Robert Emmons, PhD, the world’s leading expert in gratitude research, defines gratitude as the ability to recognize what’s good in our lives; that which we might otherwise take for granted.
Anyone can benefit from leaning on a gratitude practice, particularly as the world prepares to celebrate the holiday season in self-isolation as the COVID-19 pandemic keeps friends, families, and loved ones apart. Gratitude can help foster feelings of well-being, offering comfort during times of unsteadiness and uncertainty and even solace within the solitude. A gratitude journal serves as a written reminder of all the good in our lives, especially when it seems easier to dwell on everything that’s bad. By documenting what it is you have to be grateful for, you can lift your spirits by referring back to your own words whenever you start to feel down.
A recent paper published in the Journal of Radiology Nursing describes gratitude journal-keeping during the pandemic as a “silver linings journal.” The author notes that giving thanks is “one of the oldest concepts in society, with practices at the core of most wisdom traditions and religions.” Thanksgiving of course, despite the problematic historical context of the holiday, is a tradition rooted in gratitude. Perhaps this year marks a quieter moment: an opportunity to carve out time and space for meaningful solitude to remind ourselves that so long as our basic needs are being met, we still have everything we need despite what may be lacking.
Mia Caine, a wellness blogger and yoga teacher, says she’s been relying on her daily gratitude practice in recent months. “Between the pandemic anxiety/fatigue and the recovery from surgery on my spine after a car accident, 2020 has been an emotional obstacle course,” she says. Despite not being able to practice physical yoga asana, Caine says that gratitude journaling has helped her work through some of the difficult emotions that have come up during her recovery. “I still do yoga daily through my gratitude practice which has helped me to be present and keep things in perspective,” she says. “I recognize that even though things are challenging now, there are still good things going for me.”
The Health Benefits of Gratitude
Gratitude journaling is a mindfulness practice that can help us navigate feelings of anxiety and uncertainty by focusing on haves versus have-nots—what is in our control versus what is not, which, like the goal of a yoga or meditation practice, can help cultivate self-acceptance.
Harwood Rubin says that putting words to her thoughts helped her to own her experience rather than be victimized by it. “Without writing, I do not know how I would have begun to comprehend what was happening to my body and my sense of self,” she says.
A 2019 study observed the effects that a 15-day gratitude practice had on overworked healthcare workers. Subjects were instructed to write down “three good things” each day, which resulted in significant improvements in happiness and work-life balance at a six-month follow-up, with decreased depression and burnout for up to one year. Research has also shown that a gratitude practice leads to better long-term health outcomes, since people who practice gratitude also tend to take better care of themselves. A gratitude practice before bed can even help improve sleep.
Being grateful not only makes us feel happier and less depressed, but it also reduces other toxic emotions like resentment, anger, envy, frustration, and regret. According to a 2014 study published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, a grateful mindset helped boost self-esteem among athletes. Gratitude has also been shown to reduce stress and increase mental fortitude and resilience and during times of great emotional struggle such as the September 11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina, indicating that even during the worst crises, focusing on what we have to be thankful for can help us to cope with the situation.
Socially, an attitude of gratitude is a feedback loop—it’s about thinking how we can express our feelings of gratitude outwardly to others as well as how we might be of service and give back. A 2015 study published in the European Journal of Psychology found that gratitude enhances our social bonds and relationships and reduces feelings of loneliness. A gratitude practice generates positive emotions, helping us be fully present in our experiences so that we may deal with adversity.
How to Start a Gratitude Journaling Practice
The key to practicing gratitude is to try to make it a regular habit. Caine says that her meditation practice works in tandem with her gratitude practice, which has helped her gain the perspective and insight needed in order to process certain situations. A few years in the making, Caine says her daily gratitude practice continues to evolve. For beginners, Caine recommends the 3-Minute Morning Journal, a daily intention-setting practice centered around gratitude and goal-setting. She says the daily quotes and journaling prompts helped hold her accountable when she was first starting out, and she continues to use some of those same prompts today in her own journal.
“Each morning I write three things I’m grateful for, three ways I can move forward on my goals, followed by one way I can show gratitude to someone in my life,” says Caine. “It might sound simple, but this exercise helps to change my perspective from that of critiquing what isn’t ‘good enough,’ to expressing gratitude and visualizing my daily success. From time to time, I like to look at my past entries to be reminded of my growth and to be reminded of all the good in my life,” she says.
So what do we have to be grateful for during COVID-19? From our health, to job security, to food and shelter, to family and support from friends (even if it’s on Zoom calls), if we can check one or all of these boxes then there is indeed a lot to be thankful for, even in the Covid era.
“I believe starting a gratitude practice can be helpful to anyone’s health and well-being,” Caine says. “It doesn’t need to be time-consuming or elaborate—just a few minutes of thinking or writing what you are grateful for challenges the expectation that gratitude can’t happen until certain external factors change to make us happy. It encourages us to find joy within, despite whatever is happening externally.”
The American Heart Association agrees that a gratitude practice is great for our health, and recommends using the “HEART” acronym for gratitude journaling:
- Health: What did I do today that was good for my body and mind
- Eat: What did I eat today that was nourishing for my body?
- Activity: What daily movement did I make time for today
- Relationship: How did I let others know that I appreciate them?
- Time: What do I have to be thankful for right now?
Starting a gratitude practice can be as simple as choosing a journal that inspires you to write in it and committing to a regular writing schedule, whether that’s every day or several days a week. You can choose to write short lists of, say, 10 items you’re grateful for, or describe in longer paragraphs or stream-of-consciousness style what it is you appreciate about your life that fills entire pages.
For me, I began a gratitude practice following a life-saving surgery in 2016, which involved describing in detail all the “gifts” in my life such as living to see another day, the support I received from friends and family, and the understanding that my yoga practice had prepared me for this challenging moment. These days, when I’m not writing in my journal, I’ve simply been naming out loud what it is I have to be grateful for, which has helped me get through those moments whenever Covid-related anxiety starts to creep in.
Remember, your gratitude journaling practice may change from one day to the next, but like any spiritual practice, it’s important that it feels authentic and true to you and is one that you can stick to.
“Writing about an experience is a way of drawing that experience out of ourselves like pulling a splinter out of a wound,” says Harwood Rubin. “It is a relief to get it out, to extract it.” She says that naming an experience gives us some sense of control over it—that by giving it a definition we are no longer defined by it. “For anyone who has gone through trauma, writing can be the beginning of a journey of healing and self-empowerment,” says Harwood Rubin.