I Kept a Gratitude Journal for a Week — Here’s What It Taught Me

published Feb 25, 2021
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Credit: Joe Lingeman

While I don’t consider myself a pessimistic person, I’d be lying if I said staying positive wasn’t a struggle at times. That’s totally normal in even the best of times — aka before the pandemic and its terrifying impacts on people and their families, not to mention the economic hardships and limited socializing. Now, it’s common to feel like I’m stuck in a scary, Groundhog Day-style loop.

So when the concept of keeping a gratitude journal was first brought to my attention, I was simultaneously intrigued and skeptical. Would I be able to keep a daily list or log of things I’m thankful for? Would I begin to think of life’s glasses as half-full instead of half-empty? And more importantly, would shining a light on the things that seem positive in my life actually make me feel better about the situation overall?

It turns out that a little gratitude can go a long way when you feel stuck in an emotional slump. “Practicing gratitude is so valuable for our mental state,” says New York City-based life coach Sarah Bogdanski.  “Gratitude journaling helps because it’s a mindful activity that roots you in the present, and takes you away from ruminating on the past or worrying about the future.”

So, I challenged myself to write in a gratitude journal every day, for one whole week, to see how it worked. Here’s what I learned along the way:

Credit: Emma Fiala

Day 1: Monday 

While there’s no limit to how much you write about in your gratitude journal, life and success coach Laura Herde recommends logging at least three things you’re thankful for every day. “Don’t be afraid to name things that seem obvious, or that you would usually take for granted,” she says. 

I’ll be honest: The first day I was tasked with keeping a gratitude journal, I had a difficult time coming up with three things I felt thankful for. Herde suggests journaling either right after you wake up, before you start the day, or before you go to bed, and I went with the former. However, my brain fog made it hard to focus on personal matters, and the slew of Monday morning emails that kept streaming in made the task feel especially daunting. 

So, I closed my laptop, took a deep breath, and thought about Bogdanski’s advice: “If you’re struggling to come up with anything to feel grateful about, simply focus on any positive things that may have occurred that day, or the previous day.” For me, that meant my health (and the health of my loved ones and pet rabbits), my home, and the Free Britney movement. “At times, people feel discouraged if bigger, more obvious things aren’t happening,” Bogdanski explains. “However, if you drank a delicious cup of coffee this morning, you can write that down.” 

Day 2: Tuesday

Tuesday was poised to be an even busier workday than Monday, so carving out time in the morning to write in my gratitude journal was already proving difficult. To ensure that you can find time to journal on even the busiest day, Vandana Mohture of Mind Art recommends blocking out the time in your calendar. “No matter what time works best for you put it into your schedule as ‘gratitude time’ and set up notifications as a reminder,” she says. “Try and write at the same time every day so you get into the habit of doing it.”

For me, that meant scheduling my gratitude journaling time in the evening, when I could reflect on the day and hopefully, make it easier to identify positive occurrences. And wouldn’t you know, it worked. I retraced the events of the day and had so many things to be grateful for: My mom, who calls me at the same time every day to check in; the superintendent of my building, who always make sure my packages make it safely to my door; and my dear friend Nicolette, who has a thoughtful habit of sending me snail mail at least once a week to brighten my day.

Whether you journal while you enjoy your morning coffee or right before you go to bed, life coach Lisa Oglesbee says what’s most important is to make writing in your gratitude journal a regular practice. “Choose a time that works for you each day, even if it’s on your lunch break,” she advises. “It is the consistent practice of focusing on gratitude every day that will rewire your brain and help you build a more positive mindset.” 

Day 3: Wednesday 

By Wednesday, I started to notice I was feeling less cranky throughout the day, and having a much easier time pinpointing the positives in my day-to-day life.  In fact, I was so focused on finding the good things around me, I created a gratitude list with the Notes app on my phone so I wouldn’t forget anything. 

Since we have round-the-clock-access to our phones, Mohture suggests downloading a journaling app, such as Grateful: A Gratitude Journal or Presently: A Gratitude Journal, that’s easy to use. “You can also keep a folder of pictures that reminds you of all the things and people that make you feel grateful, if you are more of a visual learner,” she says.

Whether you use a blank notebook, a daily planner, or a phone app, Cicely Horsham-Brathwaite, a career and executive coach in New York City, says what’s important is that you have a repository for what is good in your life. “Keeping your gratitude lists in a central location is helpful because you can always return to it and review what has been going well,” she explains. 

The Rest of The Week

As the days progressed, I noticed that as I was more consciously seeking out the things that were positive in my life, I began to feel less sad and anxious as a result, which Neha O’ Rourke of Somewhere In Between Coaching says is par for the course when keeping a gratitude journal. “There are many studies that show how gratitude not only shifts your feelings in the moment but also positively impacts your mental and physical health over time,” she explains.

By day five, I knew my daily gratitude journaling practice was working when a package I had been anxiously waiting for was stolen from my lobby. Instead of chalking up my disappointment to “my bad luck” and ruminating about it like I normally would, I immediately felt grateful that it was not something nearly as important as the groceries, personal essentials, and rabbit food that did successfully make it to my front door earlier that day.

What I Learned 

It might seem like a no-brainer, but honestly, the biggest lesson I learned while writing in a gratitude journal was that when you’re actively looking for things to be grateful for, you are more in tune with what’s positive in your life overall. I’m not saying every day was sunshine and rainbows after journaling, but I can say with certainty that my default mental state shifted from anxious and overwhelmed, to anxious yet appreciative, after just a few days.

I also began expressing gratitude to friends and loved ones more frequently, too, which Horsham-Brathwaite says can be just as beneficial as keeping a journal. “Writing letters or emails of gratitude to people in your life that you are thankful for has also been found to impact mood and well-being,” she explains. “This can also be a helpful strategy for those who have difficulty identifying something they are grateful for during their day.