How Gratitude Journaling Can Give You a Better Life

Lessons learned from my 21-year practice

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July 23rd was my 21st anniversary of keeping a nightly gratitude journal. I’m celebrating by sharing what that practice has done for me and how you can get started.

37 Gratitude Journals from 21 Years of Nightly Gratitude Practice


The rewards of a gratitude practice

Practicing gratitude puts the spotlight on what’s positive, rather than on what’s negative. This allows us to spend more time and energy on the joy of life. Gratitude shifts the focus from what you don’t have to what you do have.

Making a regular habit out of gratitude takes just moments. Yet it can have a *huge* impact on the quality of your life! When you focus on good things rather than pain (for example), it doesn’t take the pain away, but it reduces the impact of the pain.

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The story of my gratitude practice.

I started keeping a gratitude journal 21 years ago – July 23, 2000 was my first entry. I read about doing this practice in Sarah Ban Breathnach’s book Simple Abundance. It’s one of the most important things I’ve done to improve my life. It’s been transformative.

At first, I had a hard time finding five things daily to be grateful for. Eventually, I got sensitized to the notion of gratitude. I’d start spotting things while they were happening and I’d think, “That’s going in my gratitude journal!”

This practice really came in handy when things were crappy (e.g., when I was traumatized, hysterical or deeply depressed). Even if I couldn’t find something in my everyday life to be grateful for, I paid attention to things I’d taken for granted: I can read, have access to clean water, a home, access to food. No matter how bad things get, there’s always something to be grateful for.

This practice led me to my philosophy of life:

Sometimes good things happen.

Sometimes bad things happen.

Sometimes a whole bunch of good things happen in a row. Sometimes a whole bunch of bad things happen in a row.

Rest assured, good things will happen and bad things will happen. It’s not personal. It’s not what happens to you but how you handle it that determines the quality of your life. Bad things happen to everyone. Some people are just a lot better at managing their lives when things don’t go as planned. (p.s. they probably focus on the good!).

Here are a couple of stories to illustrate how this practice helped me handle things that normally would have taken me down.

In 2001 I started dating someone and we fell in love quickly. We soon talked about spending our lives together. After several months he dumped me. I’d had my heart broken before, but not like this!

I’d been gratitude journaling nightly long enough to know that it shifted things for me. So I started making lists of reasons why I was grateful that he’d come into my life. It shifted my focus away from the pain. I learned to focus on the good parts of the relationship. Then he came back, and soon asked me to marry him. I said yes. Five months later he dumped me again! And again, I went back to gratitude journaling which greatly eased my pain.

Here’s another story about a six-week solo road trip I took in a camper van. The first 2 ½ weeks I had the van it saw four mechanics and the owner put over $2000 in repairs in it. Those first 2 ½ weeks of my dream vacation were spent troubleshooting and problem-solving, not having the dream vacation of a lifetime!

The beauty of it was, I stayed focused on the good things all the while! I was safe. I had a cell phone, phone service and GPS. Many strangers were kind and helpful.

The first time the van broke down was on the side of a desert highway. I thought, “This is my greatest fear, realized.” That morning a friend had shown me how to share my location using Google maps. Thus, I was able to share my location with roadside assistance. Boy was I grateful she showed me that!!

Eventually, I got to visit six National Parks rather than the nine I’d planned on visiting. But how many people ever get to visit six National Parks in one trip?? And how many people get to experience that level of freedom – time and money to take a six-week trip around the country??

If you’d like to begin your own gratitude practice, I have some suggestions.

  • Writing. Writing is qualitatively different than typing. It feels different in your body and you get to see evidence of your gratitude (like the pile of gratitude journals pictured above)
  • Daily or Nightly. As they say, “consistency in small things is no small thing.” Writing for a couple of minutes daily takes little effort but has an enormous payoff.
  • A minimum number of entries. This forces you to look for things to be grateful for to reach that minimum. Stretching to meet the minimum is incredibly helpful in ensuring you make an effort.

Practicing gratitude consistently changes your perspective.

For me, the greatest benefit of keeping a gratitude journal comes from the habit – I constantly seek out things to be grateful for because it’s now a habit. It also helps when things were going badly because it shifts my focus away from pain so I don’t wallow in it.

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