With the recent challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, now more than ever is a good time to start a gratitude journal. There are many benefits to a gratitude journal, particularly in how it helps us to look for small positives and develop an optimistic outlook (more on that below). I've decided to update this post to include gratitude journal prompts and encourage you to try a 30 day gratitude challenge as a way of developing a habit. You can see examples on our instagram page of the 30 day challenge here: #30daygratitudechallenge. What I've noticed from doing the 30 day challenge is firstly that it is hard. It is easy to drop off, as mentioned below day 4 is a danger day. But if you persist, even if you reflect on the previous day, you start to notice that during the day little events will stand out to you as moments to write in your journal. That is the most important aspect, as that signals that there are changes occurring in your brain, as you start to actively look for more positive elements in your day, rather than the 'danger and the negative'. I've included journal prompts at the bottom of the blog.
I've been recommending a gratitude journal to my clients for some time now and I wanted to give you the reason why it's an important part of counselling and good mental well-being, but also a pitfall that happens around the day 3 to 4 mark. But firstly, why should you start a gratitude journal in the first place?
We are primed to look for danger and the negative
Humans have a really neat way of looking at the world, which is called a 'confirmation-bias', which basically means we look for things that confirm what we already believe. So, if I believe that my favourite team has the best players, I'll unconsciously choose articles that are more favourable to my belief, and discard or ignore articles that are contradictory to my belief. In regards to anxiety or depression, if I believe that things always go wrong for me, I'm more likely to tune in to the examples where this is true (or half-true) and ignore evidence when this is not true. Sometimes these beliefs - that things always go wrong, or that I'm not good enough - have been there for a long time, they are 'core beliefs'. So an anxious person is more likely to tune into situations that may lead to anxiety.
How does a gratitude journal help?
Because of this priming for confirmation-bias, we unconsciously disregard information that is contradictory. Using a gratitude journal, we are now actively trying to focus on information that goes against our confirmation bias, that things actually went ok, or that we coped well in a stressful situation. The conscious act, by writing it down and reflecting on the event, is what helps us to learn new patterns of thinking, and developing a more resilient and optimistic outlook on life. But it's not about blind optimism - bad things still happen, we can't always win, we don't always succeed. It's about looking deeper into that perspective and asking yourself, what have I been able to learn and grow from this experience?
Why day 4 is hard
I say day 4 because the first few days of starting a gratitude journal is reasonably easy. Most likely you'll write down "I'm grateful for my kids", "I'm grateful for my house" or something similar. Then you get stuck - the big ticket items have already been checked off and now it feels like you are just repeating yourself. Here's the tip - stick with it. This is where the learning takes place, because now you have to look for the micro - the small changes, the small successes within a failure. This difficulty is how we start to retrain our brain to become more optimistic and to develop more resilience to stress. So here's a couple of examples to show how we can expand on simple gratitudes:
I'm grateful for the opportunity to self reflect on how I cope with people at work who distract me. Even though I was frustrated, I've been given the opportunity to manage my reactions and I realised I could be more assertive and asked to talk at another time.
I'm grateful for my dog Milo because he helps me to overcome my shyness and talk to people at the park about their dog. As a result, I have met a few new people who I see regularly and I feel happy when I talk to them.
What we also see in these examples is a change from a simple statement "I'm grateful for my kids" to expanding on the difficulty and the challenge - "I'm grateful for my dog because he helps me face my anxiety about meeting new people". Even though this example is probably quite difficult for someone with anxiety, by focusing on the benefits, we can develop more resilience and optimism that things can change. Ultimately, what we are looking to do is develop a healthy mental wellbeing so that we don't have to use avoidant coping strategies or changing our emotional state through substances because we are able to reflect on the things that went well or be more optimistic that you can cope with a stressful activity.
Here are some more journal prompts that you can use and substitute as you please. You only need to pick 3 or 4 per journal entry.
I can let go of....
I can focus on....
What made me smile today?
What challenge did I get through today?
What did I enjoy most today?
What was a small success today?
Person I admire and why?
What was a nice surprise today?
What made me laugh today?
What did I do for someone else today?
What was something that brightened my day?
Something I discovered today was....
A book I'm grateful for reading.....
What did I look forward to today?
What was the highlight of my day?
What exercise did I do today and how did I feel?
I also like to finish the journal entry with a quote, and you can find examples here: http://edlester.com/17-short-positive-quotes-will-brighten-day/
*First published 27/8/19 and updated 21/4/20