I’ve kept a journal since the age of 10, and over the years, my longhand scribblings have grown to include a regular section of thanks. Every day, I try to jot down five things I’m thankful for. This small act helps me stay grounded and reminds me that, overall, my life is really good.
But for the first few days of COVID-19, hearing dire predictions on the news and massively, unexpectedly scaling back my career to be a homeschool mom to my three kids… well, my journal entries weren’t exactly a bouquet of blessings. Instead, I filled more pages than I’d like to admit with rantings and ravings on How can this be happening? and What am I gonna do? and the ever-popular It’s not fair!
A few days in, though, I realized that it’s these times of chaos and upheaval when I need to be documenting my thanks the most.
So I opened my journal and jotted down a few things I still have to be thankful for: grocery stores are still open, the weather is gorgeous where I live, my family and I are healthy. And, praise be, the wifi signal is as strong as ever.
I closed my journal and took a breath. I could sense the anxiety about the situation around the globe — and in my own little life — receding just a bit. I began to believe some powerful truths: This crisis isn’t forever and, no matter what, I can be at peace.
Research shows expressing gratitude is associated with some pretty profound health benefits. Researchers at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence (YCEI) deemed the combined health effects of gratitude an “upward spiral” of well-being.
Here are some ways it does good.
In a 2018 study, psychotherapy patients supplemented their counseling sessions with one of three writing options: “expressive writing” about stressful experiences, gratitude writing, or no writing at all. After 12 weeks, those who practiced gratitude writing reported significantly better mental health than the other two groups.
And according to the YCEI, being grateful has even stronger links to mental health and life satisfaction than other positive traits like optimism, hope, or compassion.
A study with 401 people found those who practiced gratitude had more positive thoughts before bed and were able to fall asleep quicker than those who did not have a gratitude practice.
According to the YCEI, giving thanks is associated with lower blood pressure, improved immune function, and a reduction of the stress hormone cortisol.
Much of this good juju may stem from the fact that, at its core, gratitude is a form of mindfulness. “Depression and anxiety arise when we are either ruminating about the past or fearful for our future,” says counselor Paige Rechtman, LMHC of mental health provider Alma. “Gratitude, and counting our blessings, can help to relieve those feelings because it grounds us in the present.”
Regularly writing down your thanks may even gradually change the way your brain functions.
“Practicing gratitude can actually shift the way the neurotransmitters in your brain connect over time,” says Rechtman. “When we introduce a new way to think, such as making it a habit to practice gratitude, we are creating a new pathway in our brains that, over time, will become a more natural way for us to think. The more you practice gratitude, the better you get at it, and the easier it becomes.”
You may be thinking, settle down there, it’s just a journal. And you’re not wrong.
While a gratitude journal can complement treatment for chronic mental health conditions like anxiety or depression, it’s by no means an antidote.
And the positive changes it can bring may take a long time to materialize.
“You may not feel a deep sense of relief right away,” says Rechtman. “For some people, practicing gratitude can take practice. And, some days you may feel the gratitude more strongly than other days, and that’s okay.”
Rechtman says to cut yourself some slack, too, if coming up with positives is tough — especially if you suffer from depression.
“Oftentimes, if a person is feeling depressed it can be difficult to think of anything to be grateful for,” says Rechtman. “During those times, I recommend starting very small, and focusing on your senses. Maybe you appreciate the softness of your pillow. Or the taste of chocolate. Or the sound of rain.”
And though gratitude journaling can clear your head, it may not solve whatever big-picture issues you’re going through.
“Don’t expect to get solutions to your problems,” cautions Rechtman. “Instead, think about gratitude as a sprinkling of positivity for your thoughts.”
There’s no one prescription for getting in on the goodness of giving thanks but, in my experience, the key to seeing real change is consistency.
If daily entries are unrealistic, carve out some time once a week to list a certain number of things you’re thankful for, even if that number is small. (Use this guide for how to structure your week during quarantine to work in regular gratitude journaling blocks.)
This regular check-in might just offer an anchor of mindfulness and peace you need during this challenging time — and beyond.
Call me old-school, but I recommend using an actual journal (spiral bound is my go-to). There’s a sense of permanence to writing something down on paper. And whether your handwriting is chicken scratch or elegant cursive, it’s an extension of who you are. There’s a intimacy to it you can’t get from typing.
Of course, there are also gratitude apps you can get on your phone and if that’s most convenient for you, by all means.
Heck, during these trying times, it may lift your spirits to write on Post-it notes and stick them on your wall as a colorful visual.
Go ahead, give gratitude a shot. You really have nothing to lose.
Sarah Garone is a nutritionist, freelance writer, and food blogger. Find her sharing down-to-earth nutrition info at A Love Letter to Food or follow her on Twitter.