Do you consider yourself an optimistic person? Do you go to bed worrying about everything you didn’t accomplish and everything you still have to do tomorrow? Positivity and peace of mind are key factors in happiness and wellbeing, but they’re not as predetermined as we sometimes think. Studies suggest that forcing ourselves to focus on the little things that bring us joy makes us less stressed and all-around happier, whether it’s the long walk with your mom, the amazing new Thai restaurant that opened around the corner, or the long-awaited word of praise from your boss.
So how do you make this a daily practice? One popular and surprisingly simple technique is gratitude journaling. You might have seen it as part of the ever-growing obsession with bullet journaling, but this is about much more than productivity and color-coded schedules. Gratitude journaling involves making a short list (5 to 10 things, just once or twice a week) of everything in your week that you feel grateful for. That’s it. It might seem too easy to make any real difference, but countless people swear that this one exercise has caused a noticeably positive impact on their lives, making them more optimistic, happy and, well, grateful. I decided to give it a try to see how it worked for me.
I am a lifelong journaler—the majority of my life from age ten is recorded in books slowly deteriorating under my bed—so it should be noted that I wasn’t coming at this raw. Instead of encountering journaling as something completely new, I treated this exercise as a way to redirect my journaling from what often takes the form of extended rants to pleasant reminders of everything that’s great about my life.
I started small and replaced one of my journalings per week with a gratitude list. Most people suggest that gratitude journaling more than twice a week is unnecessary and might make you too stressed about finding new things to write about. Stick to once or twice a week and the words flow easier, and you can reflect on your past few days without anxiety.
My first reaction was that it felt completely unnatural. I’ve always had a poetic notion towards stream-of-consciousness writing, and the idea that you can reach a meditative place where there is no barrier between mind and pen, the words reflecting your thoughts without any judgement or decisions from your higher consciousness. The highly structured method of gratitude journals seemed artificial and dishonest, stifling my artistic impulse. Why should I force myself to feel grateful or happy if I don’t?
Asking this question to myself, however, reminded me that directing your thoughts to feel happier is exactly how traditional yoga practices aim to achieve contentment. Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso wrote that “human happiness and human satisfaction must ultimately come from within oneself.” Smiling can even be its own kind of yoga, training our minds and bodies to feel joyful. Gratitude journaling is just a small version of that. Focusing only on the positive in what we write trains our minds to do the same. Changing the way we think can seem a daunting and insurmountable task, but through writing, we’re given a small access point to start from.
Gratitude journaling has become a way for me to begin the slow process of rewiring my brain. I continue writing these lists at least once a week because it feels like a small exercise in learning to bring myself joy, relying on nothing but my own mind (and my hand, I guess). Too often I think we look for external approval to allow ourselves to be happy. Gratitude journaling is a simple reminder that you always have the right and the ability to feel content and peaceful.