7 day gratitude challenge to keep your gratitude journalling fresh and meaningful
Are you wanting to try gratitude journaling, but are not sure how to do it?
Or have you tried and then given up gratitude journaling because you got bored? You’re not the only one - people rapidly adapt to positive changes and fall back to their baseline levels of happiness.
Researchers suggest that the problem is not that you regularly write in your gratitude journal – the routine or habit can be helpful to ensure you do it.
The issue is more common if you’re doing the habit the same way every time. You’re more likely to see positive effects on your wellbeing (and relieve your boredom) if you have variety, so the key is finding new or creative ways to express your gratitude.
Here are 7 different gratitude exercises you can try, each tested through research. They come from a book by psychology professor and gratitude expert Robert Emmons called Gratitude Works! A 21-Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity, which provides a great overview of the research on gratitude.
Exercise 1. Three Good Things (a.k.a. “The Three Blessings” or “What Went Well”)
Take 10 minutes to write down three good things that happened today and why each went well (a causal explanation for each good thing).
The good things don’t have to be over-the-top exceptional. They could be as simple as receiving a smile or a compliment, having a meeting go well, wearing an outfit that made you feel fabulous, or hearing from a friend. Reflect on what enabled or caused the positive experience or event.
You can use a paper journal or your phone/computer to write about the events, but expert advice suggests it’s important to have a physical record of what you wrote.
For best results, do this every night before bed for a week. Although it may seem awkward at first, it will get easier – you may even find it addictive!
Exercise 2. To Whom, For What?
Write down up to 5 things for which you are thankful and who provided each gift or benefit to you.
They might be people who helped you directly, or people who helped others you love.
Exercise 3. The Gifted Self
This exercise involves two steps:
1. Focus on appreciating benefits or ‘gifts’ you have received.
These don’t necessarily have to be tangible, physical gifts, they could even be simple everyday pleasures like being outside and feeling the sunshine on your skin, or having the gift of sight.
Notice how you feel as you reflect on the depth of your gratitude and savour and relish these gifts in your mind. You may even want to slowly repeat the word ‘gift’ or ‘I have been gifted’ several times.
2. Brainstorm how you might be able to 'pay it forward'.
This second part taps into the desire to reciprocate that we often feel after receiving a gift.
Ask yourself, “In what ways might I give back to others as an appropriate response for the gratitude I feel”?
This is an opportunity for you to have some fun and be creative.
Exercise 4. Looking to the Future
When people believe that something positive will soon come to an end, they’re likely to feel greater appreciation for it and make the most of the remaining time.
For this exercise, choose an activity, event, experience or relationship that may end soon. Emmons suggests selecting an experience where you have 1-3 months remaining. It could be any chapter of your life coming to a close – for example, completing a project, finishing a job, moving house, transitioning from single life to marriage, the end of your life as a couple before you welcome a child into the family, a friend moving overseas.
Write about why you’re grateful for the subject you chose to focus on, given the limited time you have left to experience it.
Exercise 5. The Absence of Blessing
We usually associate gratitude with appreciation for positive things. However, contemplating the ‘subtraction’ or absence of positive events can increase gratitude even more.
Think about an aspect of your life you’re grateful for. For example, a positive event or experience like getting a job or meeting your partner.
Now imagine how your life would have been different if that ‘gift’ (aspect, event or experience) had never happened or been part of your life.
Write about “what would have happened if I’d never…?” Include why the positive event might never have happened, and therefore why it is surprising.
This will help you become more aware of the benefits that you have, but perhaps took for granted.
Exercise 6. The Gratitude Letter (and Gratitude Visit)
Close your eyes and recall the face of someone still alive who years ago did or said something that changed your life for the better. For example, it could be a friend, a relative, a teacher, a colleague, even a stranger.
Now, write a letter to that person. Describe specifically how they affected your life, why you’re grateful to them, what you’re doing now, and how often you remember or reflect on what they did for you.
Spend 10 to 15 mins on this exercise and write 250-300 words. You can write by hand or on the computer (research suggests it doesn’t make a significant difference, what matters most is expressive writing and meaningful content).
You don’t have to actually mail the letter so feel free to be as honest and expressive as you want. Whether or not you choose to send it, take time to imagine how receiving this letter will make the recipient feel.
The gratitude letter is, however, most effective if you read it to the recipient in person. You can also share it over the phone or online. A ‘gratitude visit’ (writing and delivering a letter of gratitude in person) has been demonstrated to be one of the most effective ways to make you happier compared to other positive psychology interventions, with large positive impact one month afterwards.
If you can’t schedule a formal gratitude visit, you could try making the effort every day to express your appreciation to someone who provides you with a service e.g. the barista at your local coffee shop, bus driver, childcare teacher, etc.
Exercise 7. Bad to Good
Think of an experience you had that was unpleasant and unwanted.
Reflect on the painful or difficult experience and focus on the positive aspects or consequences.
The goal is not to relive the experience but to get a new perspective on it, for example:
- How did it help you grow or become stronger?
- How far have you come since then?
- How did it help put things into perspective for you?
- How did it enable you to appreciate the good things in your life?
Writing about a personal trauma or a positive experience for just 2 minutes, two days in a row has been shown to have positive health benefits. (The researchers hypothesise that due to the short timing, you’re likely to be cut off the middle of a thought and since your brain doesn’t have closure, it spends time between the two sessions processing your experience.)
21 day gratitude challenge
If you want to take it a step further, Emmons has suggested completing the above exercises one-a-day over the course of a week, then repeating the sequence three times to turn it into a 21 day challenge.
(He chose 21 days because daily gratitude journal studies demonstrated that 3 weeks was sufficient to create significant personal changes.)
Which of these exercises have you tried? Which are you most excited to try?
Please share your experiences in the comments, I’d love to hear what worked for you.
P.S. In case you missed it, you can head over to this post to learn how to get the maximum benefits from gratitude.