How to maximise your benefits from gratitude (and why gratitude journals don't always work)
Last year I was fortunate to receive a gratitude journal for my birthday, prompting me to record ‘3 things I’m grateful for today’ for 365 days.
Although I consider myself relatively grateful (‘gratitude’ and ‘appreciation of beauty and excellence’ appear in my top 5 character strengths), initially I found it challenging to identify three things I was grateful for every day. Being aware that I was committing my reflections to permanent record, I wanted to avoid repeating the same things over and over again. (My partner joked that my fallback journal entry was whatever I had for dinner!)
However, after only a few days of documenting 3 things before I went to bed, I noticed that I naturally became more active in looking out for things to be grateful for throughout my day. I also began to wonder if there were ways of gratitude journalling that would help me experience even greater impact from this exercise (I figured if I was going to do it, I might as well ‘do it right’!).
Digging into the science, I discovered that how you think about positive events makes a difference. Some (occasionally surprising or counter-intuitive) ways of practising gratitude have been demonstrated to be more powerful than others. Neuroscience suggests that gratitude is more complex than happiness, and experienced differently in the brain as it involves higher order thinking systems.
So gratitude works – but not always in the way you’d expect it to!
Below is a quick recap of the benefits of practising gratitude, followed by 8 techniques, grounded in research, that you can use to maximise those benefits.
What are the benefits of gratitude?
Valued from centuries ago by early philosophers, contemporary social science has now given us evidence of why it is so powerful.
Cultivating a gratitude practice can have significant and lasting effects. Benefits include:
- Psychological: Improved positive emotions (like happiness) and wellbeing (like stress resilience), and reduced negative feelings such as envy, anger or greed. Research has shown that people who regularly practise gratitude can increase their happiness by up to 25%
- Physical: Improved health, such as lower blood pressure, improved immune function, better and longer sleep
- Social: Stronger relationships and increased feelings of connectedness and altruism. Gratitude requires you to recognise that the sources of the things you appreciate lie at least partially outside yourself
8 evidence-based best practices to maximise your benefits from gratitude
1. Make it concrete
Translating thoughts into language, either oral or written, has multiple benefits over just thinking the thoughts: it helps you make the thoughts more real or concrete, elaborate on them, organise them, make sense of them, create meaning, and internalise them. Over time, you’ll train your mind to become more aware and appreciative of the good things in your life.
Expressing your feelings as words or labelling your emotions can also dampen activity in the part of your brain associated with negativity (the amygdala).
One of the most common forms of articulating and documenting your thoughts is gratitude journalling. You can use a paper journal, a dedicated gratitude app, post a photo with a thoughtful caption on Instagram, or write a blog post.
If you prefer to verbalise this you could try using the speech-recognition feature in your phone to record your gratitude in a notepad or app. Or if you have a willing partner, you could build a gratitude practice into your dinner conversation or discuss your gratitude reflections as part of your bedtime ritual.
2. Be intentional
Your gratitude practice will be more effective if you have motivation or ‘will’. In other words, approach it with an attitude that you want to do this.
In research by psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky and others, expressing gratitude and optimism did not generally increase participants’ wellbeing unless they were aware of the exercises’ purpose and motivated to improve their happiness.
Psychologist Charles Shelton and gratitude researcher Robert Emmons recommend that you make a conscious effort to think of each item you’re grateful for as a gift, associating it with the word ‘gift’. Emmons also suggests taking time to be aware of the depth of your gratitude, and not hurrying through gratitude exercises as if they’re just another item on your to-do list.
3. Develop a regular habit (it doesn’t have to be every day!)
There’s no one ‘right’ way to do this. The important thing is to make it a regular (rather than ad hoc) practice.
Emmons recommends daily journalling (his research studies suggest that a daily gratitude practice for 3 weeks increases gratitude more than a once-a-week practice for 10 weeks).
However, if a daily routine doesn’t appeal to you, the good news is that another study found – surprisingly – that once a week was more effective than more frequent journalling, perhaps because it became boring for participants to do the same exercise every day (more on this in tip #4). Also, the researchers wondered if once a week is the most effective frequency because many cultural routines are conducted weekly.
So find a rhythm that works for you - pick an interval or frequency that enables your gratitude journalling to remain fresh and meaningful for you.
Don’t worry about whether you do it in the morning or evening: Emmons says there’s no evidence that journalling at the start of the day is more effective than journalling before bedtime.
4. Keep it fresh to avoid gratitude fatigue
One study found that people who wrote in their gratitude journals once a week for six weeks reported increased happiness, but people who wrote three times per week didn’t. The researchers hypothesised that the exercise may have become routine, frustrating, or boring.
It’s therefore important to find variety or novelty or be creative in the way you journal. If you’re looking to spice up your gratitude habit, see this post for 7 different exercises you can try.
Another way to keep your journalling fresh and meaningful is to recognise surprises. Surprise is one of the primary drivers of emotional intensity, so Emmons suggests writing about unexpected or novel events, circumstances or experiences.
5. Be specific
Being specific helps you avoid gratitude fatigue (the more high level or superficial your gratitude journalling, the less you’ll be able to differentiate between the things you’re grateful for). It also enables you to more fully appreciate the specific thing you’re grateful for.
Experimental evidence indicates it’s better to write 5 sentences about one thing, than write 1 sentence about each of 5 things. So go for depth (details) over breadth.
6. Grow your gratitude in four dimensions
You can think about gratitude across four different dimensions:
- Intensity – how intensely grateful you feel about a particular positive event
- Frequency – how often you feel grateful in a specified time period
- Span – the number of life circumstances for which you feel grateful at a given time
- Density – the number of people to whom you feel grateful, for any single positive outcome or life circumstance
As you grow your gratitude practice, notice where your natural tendencies lie, and experiment with how you can strengthen the other dimensions.
7. Use reminders
According to Emmons, two primary obstacles to gratefulness are forgetfulness and a lack of mindful awareness. Visual reminders can be helpful cues to trigger thoughts of gratitude.
It could be as simple as Post-it notes on your bathroom mirror, regular reminders or wallpaper on your phone, a favourite mug or magnet on your fridge door.
8. Say thanks for their benefit, not yours
Gratitude can strengthen your relationships with others.
We all like to be thanked and feel like our contributions are valued. Research has shown that when you express gratitude to someone who’s helped you, they’re more than 2x likely to help you a second time.
To have the biggest emotional impact on someone who’s helped you, express your gratitude in a way that praises the other person, rather than solely focussing on yourself and how you benefitted.
Which of these 8 gratitude best practices have you tried before? Which are you willing to try now?
Leave a comment - I'd love to hear your perspectives!
P.S. Ready to start a gratitude journal but don't know what to write about? Hop over to this post for 7 exercises you can try, so you can find out what works best for you!