I have been a journal keeper since I was 14 years old. I say journal rather than “diary.” To me, a journal is not a daily activity. It’s also not a book of secrets to hide away from family and friends. In fact, although some of my entries are lists and quite informal, I usually think of an entry as being more like an essay and I would have no problem with others reading most of the entries. (Future biographers take note.)
Recently, I encountered the idea of keeping a “gratitude journal.”
Gratitude is a word we use quite a bit, perhaps without much thought about its meaning. We use it rather loosely to mean thankfulness, gratefulness, or appreciation. Some definitions say that it is a feeling, emotion or attitude in acknowledgment of a benefit that one has received or will receive.
Gratitude is a part of several world religions and has been considered extensively by moral philosophers such as Adam Smith.
The study of gratitude within psychology is a much more recent one, beginning around the year 2000. It may be part of what is called the “positive psychology” movement that was a kind of reaction to the traditional focus on understanding distress rather than understanding positive emotions.
Gratitude is not the same as indebtedness. Both of those emotions occur after we receive following help,but indebtedness implies that we are under an obligation to make some repayment of compensation for the help. “I feel indebted to you for what you did for me” means I owe you something in return. Gratitude for help given might motivate me to improve my relationship with someone.
An online search on gratitude journals in Amazon turned up a good number of guides, examples and even blank books designed to encourage your writing.
This post actually started after I heard Dr. Andrew Weil speaking on the radio and he just mentioned gratitude journals. I started searching.
Andrew Weil is a well known doctor, speaker and author. He is best known as a pioneer in the field of integrative medicine. ,That is a healing-oriented approach to health care which encompasses body, mind, and spirit. I found his 2011 book, Spontaneous Happiness interesting to read.
He suggests strategies from Eastern and Western psychology to counteract low mood and enhance contentment, and emotional balance. The books includes a number of concepts that are often disparagingly classified as “New Age” such as psychotherapy, mindfulness training, Buddhist psychology, nutritional science, and mind-body therapies. But, more and more I hear more mainstream doctors talk about “wellness” which is really a different way of looking at health.
There are any number of techniques for managing stress and anxiety or for changing mental habits that keep us stuck in negative patterns. Some of these enter the realm of spirituality.
A gratitude journal is one of those techniques.
Dr. Weil received both his medical degree and his undergraduate AB degree in biology (botany) from Harvard University and actually spent years studying natural medicines including hallucinogenics. I think he has seen wellness from both ends of the medical spectrum, and found the answers more in what we might call non-traditional medicine, while not ignoring traditional approaches that work. (There is more about him at about.me/DrWeil )
I see a gratitude journal as a diary (if done on a daily basis – which is the recommendation) or occasional journal entries of things for which one is grateful. It is a way to simply focus attention on the positive things in your life. It sounds too easy, right?
An empirical study in 2003 (Seligman, Steen, Park, Peterson, “Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410-421) showed that people who used gratitude journals felt better about their lives, and reported fewer symptoms of illness.
And so, gratitude journals may be one treatment used to alleviate depression. Studies that have shown long lasting effects from the act of writing gratitude journals were ones that asked participants to write down three things they were grateful for every day. The greatest benefits were usually found to occur around six months after treatment began and this “exercise” was so successful that many participants continued to keep the journal long after the study was over.
The spiritual or religious aspect is also there, if you feel that connection. Gratitude is viewed as a prized human propensity in the Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu traditions. Gratitude to someone who has helped you can extend to gratitude to God.