While people have been giving thanks on Thanksgiving for a long time, the scientific study of gratitude is a more recent phenomenon. Gratitude has been touted as a tonic for whatever ails you, and indeed, some research has found that expressing gratitude can improve well-being. Of course, research is a tricky thing. A few other studies have shown more limited benefits. Still, it seems that counting your blessings can’t hurt, right?
With that mind-set, I began to keep a gratitude journal in October for the month leading up to Thanksgiving. I wanted to see what effect the practice would have on my life. I did find the practice helpful–but not for the reasons usually mentioned.
Gratitude can be practiced many ways, and I wanted to be smart about it. There’s some evidence that shorter lists of blessings are more helpful than longer lists, so I committed to writing down three things each day that I was thankful for. I also chose to focus on specific and different things each day. I am always thankful for my family, but writing that down day after day would likely feel rote.
So instead, my list had things like this:
1. Getting three free seats next to me on an overnight flight to London, so I could lie down flat and sleep.
2. After one of my speeches, overhearing some audience members in the ladies’ room saying how much they enjoyed it.
3. An unexpected text from a friend I hadn’t seen in a while asking me to run with her. I was free, so we met, and it was a great run!
When I began, I assumed that focusing on the good things in my life would remind me that my life has lots of good stuff in it. It’s human nature to focus on stressful moments. Forcing myself to look back over the day and find the good in it would keep those stressful moments in perspective.
There may be something to that. Self-proclaimed lucky people do tend to focus on and amplify good moments. But I found something different. I had a few tough days during my month of keeping a gratitude journal. Somewhere toward late afternoon on those tough days, though, I’d remember that I was committed to finding three wonderful things to write down that night. Rather than sift through the crappy things that happened earlier in the day for something vaguely positive, I’d try to engineer something cool in the remaining hours before I went to bed.
It turns out most people have tricks up their sleeves for feeling better. Whether it’s baking banana bread, or calling a friend, or doing puzzles with the kids, there are things that you can do that you know will boost well-being. Even if it’s a day that makes you feel like you need a drink, you can always choose to open the really good wine and savor its awesomeness. When life gets busy, people tend to underutilize these tools. Keeping a gratitude journal provides a nudge to use them, and these bits of joy, in turn, make life more joyful.
In other words, while keeping a gratitude journal seems like a retrospective exercise (“These wonderful things happened today”), one of the biggest benefits comes from being prospective (“Here are wonderful things I will make happen–and then be grateful for”). As I view the exercise from that perspective, I find I’m more motivated to keep going. After all, I’m always looking for ways to put more fun in my life.