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How to Start Gratitude Journaling for a Better You This Year

The one habit to pick up for increased well-being is just a pen and a notebook away

spinner image woman sitting a desk smiling while writing in a journal
JGI/Jamie Grill / Getty Images

Acknowledging what you're grateful for is about more than just appreciating life; it's about maintaining your mental and physical health and being a better human to yourself and others. But being grateful isn’t always easy (especially when you’re having a rough go of it).

One easy way to keep our inner naysayer at bay: gratitude journaling.

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It’s a simple daily habit of noting what you are thankful for in life — the rainbow you saw on the way to work, the friend who always seems to know when to check in, the parts of you that are healthy.

The best part: It can lead to positive outcomes in your life and the lives of others, says Joel Wong, a professor in the counseling and educational psychology department at Indiana University, adding that research shows finding ways to be grateful has mental and physical benefits.

Beyond the personal benefits, says Wong, “people who engage in gratitude journaling were, to put it bluntly, less likely to be jerks,” citing a workplace study done by the University of Central Florida published in 2021. “People who are grateful tend to be more altruistic, more friendly, connect better with other people.”

Ready to get started? Here’s how you can kick off the year right with a gratitude journaling practice. 

First, find a medium that works for you

One of the great things about gratitude journaling is that it is budget friendly and there are different ways to do it depending on what works best for you.

If you prefer to handwrite your thankfulness, you can start with a pen and notebook. There are also a plethora of guided gratitude journals you can buy online or in a book store that have pre-written prompts to get you started. A couple we found with high ratings are the The Five Minute Gratitude Journal or The One-Minute Gratitude Journal, both available on Amazon. Or just buy yourself a blank journal with a picture on the outside that inspires you (flowers, horses, cars).

For those who prefer to keep things digital, gratitude journaling can be as simple as using the note-taking app that comes preinstalled on your device to jot down a few sentences every day. There are also specific gratitude apps you can download for free such as “Gratitude Daily Bullet Journal,” available for both iOs and Android, “Presently,” available for Android, or the “Delightful: Gratitude Journal” available for both operating systems.

Get into the right mindset — and know that might be the hardest part

Once you have pen and paper in hand or fingers ready to fly over the keys with gratitude, you might find it hard to actually come up with anything to be grateful for. That's absolutely normal, says Phil Watkins, emeritus professor of psychology at Eastern Washington University, adding that if you aren't used to being grateful, or are going through a particularly difficult time, there may be some growing pains.

The good news is that if you find it difficult, that’s actually a sign that you really need to engage in the practice. 

“Gratitude works best for those who need gratitude most,” Watkins says. “So if you start counting your blessings and it doesn't feel very good to do so, that might be evidence that it's really going to be important for you to do that.”

He compares it to starting an exercise regimen. “If I’m really out of shape, once I start working out, it’s not going to feel very good to work out. But that’s probably indicative that that’s exactly what I need for my health.”

But just like beginning a workout routine, it's a good idea to start small and work your way up.

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Start small …

When you’re drawing blanks on what to be thankful for and why, it may be good to start with the small pleasures, Watkins says.

For research purposes and as part of his class, Watkins asks students to log their gratitude. The specific task he assigns is to recall three good things every day that have happened in the past 48 hours and write about why they’re grateful for them.

“My students often report to me that the first couple of days of gratitude journaling, it's hard for them to pick out three good things, even though research shows that lots of good stuff happens to us every day,” he says. “But then it gets easier as the week goes, because they start looking for the good things that are happening to them.”

But feel free to think bigger-picture

Wong says variety is key to really getting the full scope of what you’re grateful for. Many people focus on the present and the past day or so, says Wong, but looking to the distant past can be a great source of gratitude, especially for grown-ups.

“Being an older adult gives you the vantage point of looking back in your life” to major milestones and turning points that led to positive outcomes, he says. “And that's something that you often can't tell until many years later, which is why older adulthood is a beautiful time to engage in this type of reflection.”

Wong has 130 gratitude prompts online that can stimulate ideas for journaling. Grown-ups may consider looking through the “Macro-Gratitude” section to guide their bird’s-eye view, long-term gratitude reflections.

Carve out a specific time to journal

Wong says habits are formed by associating an activity with a set time and place. One way to do that: Pair it with an existing habit.

If you have coffee every morning at a certain time, for example, “Then you can say, ‘When I drink my coffee at seven o’clock, I’m going to do my gratitude journaling,’” Wong says.  

Watkins says mornings are an especially good time to practice gratitude journaling and start your day off on the right foot, particularly for retirees. 

“In retirement, we really do have that luxury of carving out in the mornings some relaxed, contemplative time,” Watkins says.

For those of us barely making it out the door in the mornings, a gratitude journal practice can be beneficial at any time — it comes down to whatever works for you, he says: “I’m guessing the morning is the best time, although there’s some evidence that doing our gratitude journals in the evenings actually helps us get to sleep.”

Social accountability can help

Gratitude journaling can be more impactful when you do it or share it with others, Wong says.

He suggests getting together once a week with a spouse, family member or friend to share your writing over the past week, adding that disclosing what you wrote doubles the pleasure of gratitude.

Setting up a shareable document, like a Google sheet, Wong suggests, can also be an easy way to track your gratitude and see what your loved ones are grateful for.

“A little bit of peer pressure, it helps keep the momentum going,” he says.

If you want to go beyond a gratitude list in your journal, Watkins suggests a “gratitude visit,” in which you write a letter to someone for their contributions to your life – and then read it out loud to them.  

“I think that's really important for our overall perspective in life because we, as humans, are social animals,” Watkins says. “And so I think gratitude really reorients us that way to both our limitations and our need for others, and how important they are in our life.”

Get creative with other ways to express gratitude

Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, says that while gratitude journaling can be powerful, it may not be for everyone. But there are other ways to practice gratitude:  “The way that you express gratitude really can differ, and it can have different benefits to different people. So I don't want people to think like, ‘If I don't like gratitude journaling, I'm doomed,’ … because there’s other ways to express gratitude.”

She says that if writing isn’t for you, consider creating gratitude collages, drawings or a photography collection of things for which you are grateful.

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