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The Science Behind a Gratitude Journal

I pulled my car over and I began crying. At first it was a little cry, then my whole body was heaving.

My father was slipping away and there was nothing I could do about it. The whole situation was hard to process.

He was in great health a month ago and now the doctors didn’t know how to help him.

I had just flown up to see him and he was all bloated and weak. Whatever was inside of him was giving him the fight of his life and he was losing the battle. It made me question a lot of things.

There was a lot to live for, but it was hard to feel the joy.

My father was my biggest supporter. Even when I didn’t think I was a good writer he believed in me.

Now he was dying and I felt lost.

I wasn’t sure how to process this weird experience. I talked to a few friends and that helped, but I noticed my thoughts kept going to dark places. I had been practicing meditation a lot more and I was more aware of my thoughts. This awareness was good, but it wasn’t helping me.

I needed something to help me process and steer my thoughts in a more positive direction.

That’s when I remembered that I used to keep a gratitude journal and it helped me think and feel more positive. It had been awhile since I made an entry, so I decided to start back up.

My first entry looked like this:

  • I’m grateful that my father taught me so many valuable lessons because his wisdom helped me become the man that I am today.
  • I’m grateful that my father lived as long as he did in mostly great health.
  • I’m grateful that my father cared so much about me when I was in middle school and high school and was willing to take me with him to work to teach me the importance of hard work and problem solving.

I could feel this calm come over me very quickly. This was more powerful than I remembered. These journal entries eventually grew into the Bring Gratitude book. This book is what truly helped me infuse gratitude into my life. The details that I had to capture, process, and share helped me get through my father’s passing. I had a purpose: to help others understand the importance of writing and sharing their gratitude.

Happiness

I always explain to my coaching clients that detail matters because it’s the detail that helps infuse gratitude into your bones. Once you can make gratitude a regular habit, everything else comes a little easier.

One study found that participants who wrote down three good things each day for a week were happier and less depressed at each of the one-month, three-month and six-month follow-ups.(1)

Once I read this I understood why my gratitude journal helped me process my father’s death.

The next bit of research helped me take my gratitude journal to the next level.

Chad Burton and Laura King figured out that if people kept a journal about positive experiences, it helped increase happiness. The participants also had fewer symptoms of illness.(2)

I wanted to live a healthier life. My stomach has always been my Achilles' heel. I felt like if I could create a more positive outlook, my anxiety would reduce and I would feel healthier and have more energy.

So in addition to my gratitude journal entries, I also wrote down three things I did well during the day.

The entries would look like this:

  • I worked hard on my presentation so it would have a powerful impact in my meeting.
  • I did a really good job presenting the information and answering the questions that people asked.
  • I did a good job drinking water and staying hydrated and it’s helped me have more energy throughout the day.

It was gratitude for my daily hard work. This was another leap forward for me.

Success

The cool part is that I noticed that people gravitated toward me at work. In the past I didn’t understand why people didn’t invite me to lunch as much as I wanted or why they didn’t come to me when they needed some help. With my gratitude practice, I was building confidence and inviting people to lunch. This then encouraged them to reciprocate and invite me to lunch.

It was so obvious, but I expected other people to reach out to me first, but waiting for other people doesn’t usually work well. I wasn’t leading the charge. I was waiting for them to act.

As I began to put myself out there, I noticed that people wanted to work with me on projects. This has been so important to my career growth as a writer and a designer.

I used to look at what I was missing out on instead of everything that was going well in my life. This change of perspective helped me go after projects that I would have otherwise procrastinated on.

In Edward Deci’s book, Why We Do What We Do, he demonstrates that if you can bring more positivity into your workplace, you’ll increase your team’s productivity by 31 percent.(3)

I brought more positivity to my work and it came back to me in even stronger waves.

In the past I tried being more positive, but just telling myself to be more positive didn’t help. I ultimately just fell back into old habits.

That’s why the daily practice of keeping a gratitude journal was the foundation that I needed. It helped me rewire how I looked at my life.

In another study, Richard Wiseman wanted to understand why some of us are lucky and others can’t seem to catch a break. He asked volunteers to read through newspapers and count how many photos were in them. The people who considered themselves to be lucky would finish the task in mere seconds, while the unlucky ones took an average of two minutes. I bet you are curious as to why. On the second page of the newspaper was a big message that read: “Stop counting, there are 43 photos in this paper.” There was also another message halfway through the paper that read “Stop counting, tell the experimenter you have seen this and win $250.” The people who felt lucky were more likely to notice opportunities and take action versus the people who felt unlucky and couldn’t see past their task.(4)

I never thought of myself as a lucky person. Then after keeping a gratitude journal I noticed that I felt much luckier. It wasn’t the big things that made me feel lucky. It was the small things.

This was another important moment. I realized that the small things help build up to the big things. You’ve heard a baby needs to crawl before it can walk. She needs to get her motor skills down to feel comfortable to make the much bigger leap to try walking.

I felt lucky to be able to go grab a glass of water to quench my thirst. I felt lucky when I noticed a bee perusing a flower. I felt lucky when my wife made me a sandwich.

I felt lucky because I was finding small things to be grateful for each day.

Optimistic salespeople outsell their pessimistic counterparts by 56%. This comes from their ability to bounce back. People with an optimistic mindset viewed adversity as just being temporary. They thought it would get better. The people with a pessimistic mindset see these events as more permanent. They thought why try, it would just stay the same. Their beliefs dictated their actions.(5)

They get knocked down and are able to get back up.

Look at the most successful people around you. Why have they succeeded? They aren’t smarter or more talented. It’s because they get back up, make adjustments to their plan and try a slightly different technique. Then once they see positive results then they run with this technique to grow their career.

Dr. David DeSteno, an author and professor of psychology at North-Eastern University says, “When you are tempted to do something that might distract you from a long term goal that you value. Don’t use your willpower. Take 10 seconds to count your blessing. It will be so much easier to resist your temptation.”

When you focus on gratitude you are using waypower instead of willpower. When you use waypower you are making sure you keep taking action on the things that you believe in. Willpower depletes your energy, while waypower builds it up. The simple difference is about taking actions that support your beliefs instead of forcing yourself to do something that you don’t like doing.

You probably have a good habit of brushing your teeth. Most modern countries have dentists in every community and parents that teach us to brush our teeth two times a day to keep our teeth and gums healthy.

If I go to work without brushing my teeth my mouth feels gross. It’s only happened once in the past five years and that’s because my son got sick in the morning and it threw off my whole routine. My wife came home to be with him while I rushed off to work. The whole day I felt gross.

You believe brushing your teeth helps you and it does, so you continue to do it. You get the instant feeling of a fresh mouth so it supports your beliefs. When you understand why you should brush your teeth and that you want to do it then it makes it easier to build the habit.

I struggled with creating a consistent meditation practice for many years. I would have some good weeks, but then I would forget or procrastinate on it.

Now I meditate every single day because it relaxes me, reduces my stress, and helps me think clearly throughout the day. I look forward to meditating and I appreciate the time it takes to do it.

The only change I made was thanking my thoughts as they came in. When a thought came in like a worry about work then I would thank it. The thought would get the attention it needed and I could go back to focusing on my breathing.

From Negative to Positive

To put this into perspective, I used to be a very negative person. It got so bad that I would complain about presents that my wife would give me. One Christmas she gave me a really nice portable speaker to play music from my phone.

“They didn’t have the speaker that I wanted?” I asked her.

Her jaw dropped.

“I did a lot of research and this speaker was rated very well. I think you’ll like it.”

I flushed red. How could I be so ungrateful?

It was easy to fall into this bad habit. I didn’t practice gratitude on a daily basis so it didn’t come easy to me.

Over the past three years I’ve grown so much. I still complain at times, but it doesn’t last very long.

I can now get stuck in an airport for 10 hours with 2 small boys and have a good time. This wouldn’t have been possible without my gratitude practice.

Reflection

The reason a gratitude journal works is because it helps you reflect on the good things in your life. When you take the time to appreciate the good things you strengthen the synapses in your brain. The stronger they get, the easier it gets to lean on gratitude when you are feeling down or need to give yourself a boost.

A study of regional cerebral blood flow found that hippocampal areas that were active during route learning in a virtual environment (a hippocampus-dependent, spatial learning task) were active again during subsequent slow-wave sleep (Peigneux et al. 2004). Moreover, the degree of activation during slow-wave sleep correlated with performance on the task the next day. (6)

That’s why I suggest that you write in your gratitude journal at the end of the day. If you remember the good things at the end of the day it is more likely to consolidate into your neural pathways. If these pathways are well worn then you’ll find it easier to feel grateful when you need it the most instead of falling back into bad habits.

Small Steps

I know this article has a lot of information to digest. The most important thing you can do is to start small. If you only take one action from this article, then just record what you are grateful for every single day. I suggest doing it at the end of the day, but you don’t have to. If you are a morning person and want to write three things you are grateful for each morning to help set up your day then that’s good too.

What is important is that you take just a few minutes to write down your gratitude each day. You can say it into your phone, or record a quick video and post it on social media.

Try to include your “What” and your “Why”. The why is important because it helps deepen the experience.

Your entry might look something like this:

  • I’m grateful for my family because they help me feel loved.
  • I’m grateful for the bird I heard out my back door because it helped me slow down and relax.
  • I’m grateful for my cup of coffee because it gave me the boost I needed to get my day started.

Now it’s your turn. Try starting a gratitude journal today and let me know how it goes.

You can also join the next Bring Gratitude 30 Day Challenge and do it with a group of supportive people. You’ll get email updates and an invite to our private Facebook community.

The best way to build a habit is to practice it every single day at the same time. Once you get into a rhythm you’ll start to notice yourself being a little more resilient at work and a little happier at home. I know you’ll be sold on keeping a daily gratitude journal for a very long time.

Research:

1. Seligman, M.E.P., T.A. Steen, N. Park, and C. Peterson. “Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions.” American Psychologist 60, no. 5 (July/August 2005): 410-421.

2. Burton, Chad, and King, Laura. (2004). “The Health Benefits of Writing About Intensely Positive Experiences.” Journal of Research in Personality 38, no. 2 (March/April 2004): 150-163.

3. For more on what best motivates us, see: Deci, E. L. (1996). Why We Do What We Do. New York: Penguin.4.Wiseman, R. “The Luck Factor.” The Skeptical Inquirer 27, no. 3 (May/June 2003): 1-5.

5. Peterson, C., & Barrett, L. C. (1987). Explanatory style and academic performance among university freshman. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51, 435-442. Seligman, M.E.P., & Schulman, P. (1986). Explanatory style as a predictor of productivity and quitting among life insurance sales agents. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 832-838.

6. Peigneux P, Laureys S, Fuchs S, Collette F, Perrin F, Reggers J, Phillips C, Degueldre C, Del Fiore G, Aerts J, et al. 2004. Are spatial memories strengthened in the human hippocampus during slow wave sleep? Neuron 44: 535–545.

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