Gratitude is one of my favorite topics to explore within positive psychology. One of the benefits of a gratitude journal is that it is easy to practice, can be beneficial to people of all ages, and is a great antidote to depression and anxiety.
Journaling has been recommended my many mental health professionals as a way to release negative emotions, organize racing thoughts, and make sense of their mind. Another form of writing that may be just as beneficial is gratitude journaling.
Negative thoughts and feelings can cloud out the positive, especially for people who are suffering from mental health problems, such as depression. But purposeful gratitude journaling has been shown to increase mental health in psychotherapy patients.
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What Is Gratitude Journaling?
Gratitude refers to the quality of being thankful.
Gratitude journaling is a reflective writing technique used to manifest positive feelings of hope, gratitude, and optimism. There are a number of prompts and exercises that can be followed to direct thoughts toward gratitude, but free writing, or steam of consciousness writing, can also be a form of gratitude journaling.
Gratitude journals are used by individuals who want to focus their attention on the positive things in their lives.
What Are The Benefits of A Gratitude Journal?
Reduces Your Anxiety & Depression
It’s very difficult to feel depressed when feeling gratitude, the emotions are on opposite ends of the spectrum.
Two longitudinal studies came to the conclusion that “gratitude led to higher levels of perceived social support, and lower levels of stress and depression“.
This study wanted to test the causal relationship between gratitude and concluded that gratitude was a one way street for reduced stress and depression; in other words, reduced stress and depression did not increase levels of gratitude.
Another study found similar results where gratitude was shown to have a negative influence on depression, and a positive effect on enhancing a state of peace of mind. The study then showed how gratitude helped to reduce ruminative thinking, a common problem for people suffering from depression.
This analysis of 8 separate studies concluded that “gratitude is related to fewer depressive symptoms, with positive reframing and positive emotion serving as mechanisms that account for this relationship”
Much of the impact of gratitude is related with positive reframing, or optimism. This research paper was a meta-analysis of 8 studies. Their conclusion stated “these eight studies demonstrate that gratitude is related to fewer depressive symptoms, with positive reframing and positive emotion serving as mechanisms that account for this relationship“.
Helps You Sleep Better
Many people keep the benefits of a gratitude journal right before bed. This is due to the sleep benefits of having feelings of gratitude.
Scientists have studied the effects of pre-sleep gratitude exercises and quality of sleep. The results showed that “gratitude predicted greater subjective sleep quality and sleep duration, and less sleep latency and daytime dysfunction”
Enhances Your Empathy & Decreases Materialism
One commonly overlooked benefits of a gratitude journal is its ability to increase empathy towards others.
In a study involving real money and the choice of donation, “adolescents who kept a gratitude journal donated 60% more of their earnings to charity compared to those in the control condition”.
The same study had significant data to suggest that fostering gratitude was a promising strategy for decreasing materialism.
Benefits Your Interpersonal Relationships
Gratitude is often seen as a social emotion which is why it might be nurtured through practice within a social group.
This study consistently found that the receipt of a favor increased prosocial behavior, and this effect was a result of gratitude.
These results suggest that people who are uncomfortable with gratitude and with receiving gifts may be undermining their interpersonal relationships.
The first study in this paper provides evidence that gratitude promotes social affiliation, leading one to choose to spend time with a others who are giving. The second study offers evidence of gratitude’s ability to strengthen relationships even when it may come at a cost to oneself.
The results of these studies using gratitude journaling methods to induce other-praising emotions suggest that gratitude motivates improved relationships.
Improves Your Physical Health
As gratitude has a positive effect on mental health, it also has a similar influence on physical health.
As seen in this study, gratitude was shown as a significant factor for reduced risk of heart failure in patients who already had Stage B heart disease. The patients with higher gratitude scores were also the patients with lower levels of inflammation, a critical factor for progressive heart failure.
“It seems that a more grateful heart is indeed a more healthy heart, and that gratitude journaling is an easy way to support cardiac health.” – Paul J. Mills, PhD
Beyond physical illnesses, gratitude also promotes a healthier lifestyle. A study testing high school and college students found a correlation between higher gratitude and healthier eating habits.
Decreases Your Level Of Aggression
Similar to its effect on depression, gratitude can not be simultaneously felt with anger as they are conflicting emotions.
A meta-analysis of these five studies explains how gratitude is linked to lower levels of aggression due to higher levels of empathy.
Also found in another study was that increases in gratitude predicted decreases in antisocial behavior.
This group of researchers developed a weekly group-based sharing gratitude exercise for Chinese prisoners. The researchers also had the prisoners partake in a daily blessing-counting. Both interventions improved Subjective Well-Being and decreased aggression!
Increases Your Happiness & Self-Esteem
One of the most well-known benefits of a gratitude journal is it’s effect on happiness and self-esteem.
A group of participants in this study who were asked to write about a “gratefully remembered past hope” were significantly more likely to have higher levels of hope and happiness.
While this study found evidence for an intriguing upward spiral between joy and gratitude. People with natural predispositions to one were more likely to have increased levels of the other.
A study of sport athletes concluded that “athletes with higher levels of gratitude increased their self-esteem over time“.
Gratitude and Mental Health
Many of the benefits of a gratitude journal is having a positive effect on mental health. As the field of positive psychology has grown, so has the evidence for gratitude interventions and exercises such as gratitude journaling.
In regards to clinical psychology, gratitude and gratitude journaling is relevant because it has a strong explanatory power for understanding well-being. It also holds the potential improve well-being through a simple exercise.
Gratitude and Mental Illness
When looking at psychopathology, gratitude has a protective factor because of its association with improved relationships with others and increase empathy. Antisocial and aggressive behavior is also combated with gratitude due to its connection to a less critical, less punishing, and more compassionate relationship with the self.
However, gratitude does not necessarily decrease these negative symptoms, but those with predispositions may have a more difficult time processing genuine gratitude.
We see here how narcissism, cynicism, and materialism inhibit state gratitude, and narcissism and cynicism may be the foundational ‘thieves of thankfulness.
How To Start A Gratitude Journal
The best way for expressing gratitude will look different for everyone. You could thank God or the universe. You could keep your gratitude private or share it with others. Some may find that a daily dose of gratitude in the morning can be transformative, while others prefer to do this at night.
The first step to start gratitude journaling is to choose a time to dedicate towards your practice, and commit to the exercise. A consistent routine of gratitude journaling yields the most effective results. Your gratitude routine could be daily, but even a weekly practice has been shown to produce positive effects.
Once you have decided on a regular time for your gratitude journaling, you should start to experiment with some of the following evidence-based exercises. If you find something you enjoy, stick with it!
A number of such activities have now been identified as effective ways for people to increase their happiness.
- Count Your Blessings – think of as many things in your life that you are thankful to have
- 3 Good Things – write three positive things that happened to you each day/week
- What Went Well – reflect on 3 things that went well this week
- Write Letters Of Gratitude – write a thank you letter to someone you know. You can send it or keep it to yourself.
- Gratitude List – keep an ongoing list of things in your life that you are grateful for, keep this handy when you feel down or hopeless
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