My Case Study
I (Rob) began keeping a gratitude journal several weeks ago. Like others who tried this practice, I noticed something immediately: more awareness of positive events. Even though I don’t journal every day, I find myself thinking, “What happened today that I’m grateful for?” Overall, I appreciate positive events more fully and found the effort of journaling well worth it.
What is gratitude?
Gratitude is simply the feeling of being appreciative or thankful for something good in your life. Many people think that gratitude is a feeling that happens to us–an emotion that is out of our control. But actually, gratitude can be fostered and enhanced using a few simple techniques. When actively cultivated, gratitude promotes a sense of wellbeing and satisfaction with how things are right now.
The power of positivity
The power of gratitude has been increasingly studied by researchers in the field of positive psychology. Among the many findings are a positive association between increasing gratitude and life satisfaction, happiness, physical health, healthy relationships, recovery from serious illness, and self-control.
For example, in one study people were asked to write a letter about their gratitude for someone in their lives and deliver that letter. This activity had an immediate and dramatic effect on their levels of happiness and life satisfaction. The effects of these interventions tend to last well beyond just the immediate good feeling.
Research shows that more gratitude decreases symptoms of stress, depression and anxiety. Simply practicing gratitude provides many potential constructive effects and tends to decrease troublesome feelings.
Gratitude counteracts the "negativity bias"
We have a natural inclination to remember negative events. Our early survival instincts kicked in when we encountered a negative event. For example, if you managed to survive a first encounter with a bear cave you don’t want to forget that event: “avoid caves with bears” is a powerful–if negatively reinforced–lesson.
How does this work in the modern world? You might receive ten positive sentiments about your work and one negative one. Guess which one you will most likely remember? The negative one. This is what psychologists refer to as a negativity bias. We tend to remember negative events and dismiss positive ones. Gratitude counteracts the negativity bias by helping us focus on the good things in our lives.
For maximum effect, focus on the hour before you go to bed. By thinking about the things you are grateful for in the hour before bed has at least two positive effects. First, the things we review in the hours before sleep stay in our memories more strongly. Second, there is some research that reviewing things we are grateful for helps us sleep longer and more restfully.
Practicing gratitude for several days tends to prime us to look for the good. If we know we are going to have to record or tell someone about the good things in our lives, we tend to take in and recognize good things that we might otherwise miss. Ready to practice?
The gratitude journal: "Three good things"
There are many ways to cultivate gratitude in your life but among the better researched and most powerful ways is a gratitude journal. Some folks also refer to this as the “three good things” practice.
Here’s how it works:
- Make time: Set an intention to practice journaling for 2 weeks. The research shows that just a few weeks has effects that last 6 months or even longer.
- Grab a pen and paper: Get a note pad or journal to keep your observations in.
- Write down “three good things”: Each night write down three things that you are grateful for. Include what you noticed, how it made you feel, and even why you think the event happened. Just a sentence or two will work but write more if you are so inclined.
- Anything counts: The events you chose can be large or small. Don’t worry about grammar or spelling–the goal is just to record what you noticed.
- If you miss a day–no big deal–just pick up where you left off.
- Feeling negative? That’s okay. If you end up focusing on things that were negative, that’s not a problem, just re-focus on things you were grateful for.
- Reflect: After two weeks take stock and see if there are any positive effects of this practice on your life.
We opened this lesson with my gratitude journaling experience. While I’ve not continued the formal practice of keeping a daily gratitude journal, I have noticed that I am still doing this mentally. The practice has allowed me to savor certain positive events more fully and importantly–has increased the impact of these events. The effort required to engage in this exercise was well worth it. I encourage you to give it a try for yourself.
- Greater Good (UC Berkeley): Greater Good magazine, published by University of California Berkeley, turns scientific research into stories, tips, and tools for a happier life and more compassionate society.
- Your Skillful Means (Wellspring Institute for Neurosciences and Contemplative Wisdom): Think Google-search for happiness, Your Skillful Means is a database full of wellness insights. Just input a term of choice (we suggest "gratitude practice") and learn all about it.