A fun and real guest post by the fabulous Rosemary Bointon of Long Life Fun Life
What do you want? What do we all want?
We want the good things in life. We want to enjoy ourselves. We want happier lives. Maybe we want to make a difference to the world in our own small ways.
Those are big asks. So how are you going to get them? It’s the secret of life isn’t it? What are some quick easy wins to make our lives happier, to find joy in the everyday?
Maybe it’s time to try one small thing that could make a difference. I’ve been looking at gratitude journaling. Have you tried it?
Here’s the queue for the skeptics…
What a load of baloney! That’s what I thought the first time I heard about gratitude journaling. It all seemed too close to a scammy type of charlatanism. You know, the kind of thing where they’ll teach you how to win the lottery in one $50 lesson.
If not a scam, then it was about your parents threatening Father Christmas wouldn’t come next year if you didn’t write to Great Aunt Florence to thank her for the book token she sent you.
How does writing to Great Aunt Florence make life more like your dreams?
But it keeps on popping up. People saying how it’s helped them. What is it that they see in gratitude journaling?
The Oprah Factor in gratitude journaling
Oprah has a lot to answer for. She turns up over and over again talking about her gratitude habit. She’s done it for years and years. Here’s what Oprah says:
“I practice being grateful and a lot of people say, ‘Oh Oprah, that’s easy for you ‘cause you got everything!’ But I got everything because I practiced being grateful.”
She’s not the only celebrity who swears by it. Arianna Huffington, Tony Robbins, Tim Ferris, Emma Watson – they all do it too.
But it isn’t all just celebrity magazines and pop psychology. It has now reached the dizzy heights of respectable studies in prestigious academic tomes on longevity and the effects of psychology.
When solid science starts counterbalancing the baloney factor, maybe it’s time to take a look at this previously unthinkable process of gratitude journaling.
It’s time to try it.
But, if we want to use gratitude to be successful and happy like Oprah and the others, how are we going to set about it?
What is the gratitude that you put in a gratitude journal?
What is gratitude? That’s a bit of a poser.
I’ve read that gratitude involves something positive that exists for you or has happened to you. And the second element is that the positive results from something external to you.
Other scientists have shown that the gratitude can be a counting of blessings for things such as a good night’s sleep or passing an exam.
So I started looking for what I was grateful for.
Does Gratitude just mean Headscratching?
This gratitude lark isn’t easy to begin with. That phony feeling creeps in so easily when you start thinking about gratitude. It feels insincere. Grrr – hat’s enough gratitude avoidance.
Concentrate – name ONE THING!!
Ok – here’s something: I was really happy when my old friend travelled across Europe to come and see me. I meant so much to me that she made that effort.
Whoo- hoo! My first entry in my gratitude journal under the heading “I am grateful for…”.
Whilst I was cogitating what to put in my secret gratitude journal, I looked out the window.
It was such a beautiful day. The sky was brilliant blue and the sun was shining. The breeze is a little cool, but really, it’s good to be alive with skies like that to look at. OK, I’m grateful for that too. That’s 2 entries.
Experimenting with the secret sauce of gratitude
So here we are with a list of a few things. Is that all there is? Surely it must be more than that? There has to be some kind of pay off that makes it worthwhile to spend time on it.
Is the secret that the feelings are positive?
Gratitude is a positive emotion, sure. But it’s quite easy to list stuff without actually feeling all that much emotion. For example, I had a cup of coffee this morning. It was all right. Pretty normal really – it was like scratching an unnoticed itch more than a positive emotion.
So what would make me really feel gratitude for that perfectly normal cup of coffee? Perhaps I need to think about it a bit harder.
The coffee had to be there so that I could make it and drink it. Right – I bought that packet of coffee when it was on offer at the supermarket the other day. Actually at that price, it was pretty good coffee – a bargain in fact. A good decision that perked me up today too. (Aha – I’m grateful that I made a good decision the other day.)
I remembered looking at the packet first because it was called ‘Viola’ and was rather a pretty shade of lilac/violet. I’m glad I bought it, because come to think of it, that coffee smelled great when it was being forced through the expresso machine. A dash of cinnamon on top helped too. (3 more things to be happy about: the colour, the smell and the cinnamon on top.)
Just a little bit of delving into the thoughts and feelings surrounding my cup of coffee and suddenly, I had a million bits of gratitude to write about.
Now if you want an amazing example of doing gratitude, there’s a guy who has taken gratitude for his daily coffee to extremes. He went and personally thanked people all along the coffee supply chain from his local coffee shop to Colombia where he thanked the coffee farmers and the guy who swept the factory floor.
He’s written a book about it: Thanks a Thousand. Read it and you’ll learn a lot about gratitude!
So what’s with the journaling bit of gratitude journaling?
How’s it going? Are you getting an inkling of what gratitude is about? I sort of felt that I was getting it a bit more.
Maybe. But it’s not just gratitude, it’s gratitude journaling.
There’s got to be some writing involved, in a journal (or a diary – whatever). Of course, journals and diaries have been around down the millennia. Samuel Pepys did a famous one. (The naughty bits are written in code.) Anne Frank’s diary is probably the most widely distributed book in the world after the Bible.
Even before them, the famous Meditations, the writings of Marcus Aurelius, (2nd Century Roman Emperor and famous Stoic philosopher/writer), were essentially his own journal. He wrote for himself, for his own self-improvement and guidance. In the first century BC, Cicero said gratitude was the parent of all other virtues. Those philosophers still have a lot to say to us.
And Marcus Aurelius’ reasons are great reasons for actually writing things down. Here are 5 reasons why you might want to do it too.
- It trains your brain to look for the positive. Looking for the positive to be thankful for will mean that you’ll find the positive in your daily life.
- Writing it down turns it into a habit. It becomes more real. It becomes your daily life and not just an idea on a page.
- Reviewing what you’ve written occasionally makes the process more concrete. If you regularly record the positives for which you’re grateful (doesn’t have to be every day!), you’ll see patterns in your thinking. And then you can think about whether those are the things you want to be thinking about. Are they the things that really make you happy and successful? Do more of them: a virtuous spiral!
- As you develop your ideas, you can move your thinking towards the life you want to live. You might move on to setting goals (or like me, link it to a daily to do list) to make sure that your daily reality includes the actions that make your life the positive one that you long for.
- You can track your progress – and be even more grateful for the life that every day moves more towards the way you want it to be!
Making your gratitude journal work for you
If you promise not to laugh, you can take a look at a sample from my gratitude journal.
I am grateful for:
• The visit from my friend who I haven’t seen for 2 years. She came all across Europe to see me.
• The glorious weather with a blue sky.
NO LAUGHING AT MY GRATITUDE JOURNAL!
Ok – I’m not artistic. Some people swear you should write by hand. I don’t.
But I do have a gratitude journal and I do have entries in it. Maybe not every day, but quite a few times a week.
Now, I have friends who are absolute whizzes at making their journals look wonderful. Take a look at Cathy’s wonderful examples. She does it with colour and drawings and doodles. She shows you clever ways to make your journal work even better for you.
You can do as much or as little as you want. But the general consensus is to write down between 3 and 5 things for which you’re grateful each time.
Use the power of venting your frustrations and grief too
Alas, alack, life is never one big positive happified swill of gloopy, feeling good. We all get miserable from time to time, feel like a failure, struggle with life. Things go wrong. (E.g. I’ve been seriously ill these last weeks.)
(Confession time: I did enjoy a glorious moment of schadenfreude when I found an article about the negative aspects of gratitude.)
Seriously, we can also use our gratitude journaling can help us to vent out the negatives. We can vent our frustrations and howl out our miseries. And then return to look for the good things we’ve found in doing so, to get back to the joy in life.
Ok – don’t reach for the sick bag yet! The schmaltz is over. (And I’m only a little bit embarrassed.) Here’s the point of floundering through the clawing mud of gratitude.
The paradigm shift from the embarrassment of ‘gratitude’.
Even if you’ve been practising, maybe you feel the same way I do (or did), that all I wanted to do was to squirm with embarrassment. This new agey, hang-out-for-positives-only way of thinking, is just so sentimental and pretentious that it doesn’t actually DO anything. It’s feels like a ritual exercise.
(Don’t you think meditation is a bit the same? Embarrassing to begin, gets vaguely pleasant and relaxing, occasionally gives you a buzz.)
But just as with meditation, the change that gratitude journaling and thinking brings can grow to a profound perceptual change. It dawns gradually. Until you see a use for this gratitude thing. You live the happy life you asked for.
In practising gratitude, I found it lifted me out of the mire of self-pity. It altered my perspective. It isn’t about thinking embarrassing, schmaltzy, chocolate box thoughts to bolster my ego any more. It’s another way of looking at the world. It’s about appreciating your life and working out how even more wonderful you can make it.
Still too schmaltzy? Here’s the hard hitting science behind gratitude journaling
Want a scientific run down of what it does for you? There’s solid science that gratitude journaling is the real deal.
Here’s a quick (definitely incomplete) list of some of the scientifically proven benefits of gratitude journaling. You can take a look at the links to read the science.
1 Immediate mood enhancing: when we express gratitude, our brain releases dopamine and serotonin, the two crucial neurotransmitters responsible for our emotions, and they make us feel ‘good’. They enhance our mood immediately, making us feel happy from the inside.
2 Changes your brain – to make you more positive in future. Expressing gratitude means you produce serotonin. The habit of thinking of the positive makes changes to your brain so that it’s more likely for you to think of positive things in future. Positive people live longer. It’s a virtuous spiral.
3 Good for mental health: practising gratitude curbs the use of words expressing negative emotions and shifts our inner attention away from such negative emotions as resentment and envy, minimizing the possibility of ruminating over them (a hallmark of depression).
4 Improves physical health – by activating the parasympathetic nervous system to reduce disruptive levels of stress. It keeps down your cortisol levels and your blood pressure. Heart patients are now encouraged to express gratitude to keep their blood pressure down and to recover more quickly from heart attacks.
5 Better sleep – write your gratitude journal each night and you’ll fall asleep quicker, sleep longer and more deeply. All great for your immune system.
6 Promotes feelings of social connectedness – people who express gratitude have more social connections and attract more social support: another known way of living longer. And if you’re married, it’s good for your marriage. (Just say 5 nice things to your partner for every negative thing you say to them.)
Life, the universe, gratitude journaling and everything
So, let’s for it: let’s get gratitude journaling.
Imagine this simple tool is your magic wand that leads you to the secrets of a happy, fulfilled life. You’d use it, wouldn’t you?
A few words on a page (in cyberspace or on a real page), maybe twice a week, or once a day. Looking for the positives in life, the joy that lurks at the end of your fingertips.
Imagine you used the tool, you persevered. You’ve got over the embarrassment of it all. (You just didn’t tell anyone what you’re doing until you were ready.) You’ve had some ups and downs.
But now you feel it. You’ve squeezed the secret sauce of gratitude into your life. You feel happy. You see yourself making others happy. And yes, life is better.
Pick up your journal, write in it regularly. It might take a while. But you’ll find it will work for you. Start today.
Rosemary Bointon has a lot to be grateful for. She lives on a boat which is usually docked somewhere interesting in Europe. Rosemary inspires people to live a life that gets better and better the older they get. Catch her spark at LongLifeFunLife.com.