As I’m wont to do — clearly, I need a gratitude practice — I pressed the experts for potential downsides to this habit. Both agreed that the notion of gratitude, as well as the act of pausing to consider what you’re thankful for, can only help brighten one’s outlook. But despite its helpfulness, a gratitude journal isn’t a one-stop-shop to mental clarity.
Gratitude journals are poised to be the 2022 equivalent of the 64-ounce water jug: one small addition to your daily life that can aid in the effort to stay well. The concept of taking a moment to give thanks is nothing new, of course. But psychologists have noted that the practice has gone mainstream, largely thanks to social media. The 11.2 million views of TikTok hashtag #gratitudejournal with captions like “hydrate, meditate, manifest, gratitude journal” and Instagram influencers with the Five-Minute Journal studiously placed on a corner of their nightstands seem to back up the claim that a few simple routine tweaks can change your outlook. According to mental health experts Allure spoke to, that idea isn’t as outlandish as it seems.
“Gratitude journaling can lead to a more positive outlook about life in general, and a more positive outlook about oneself,” says Joanne Frederick L.P.C., a licensed professional mental health counselor in Washington, DC. “When we experience a situation that depresses us or [gets us] down, a gratitude journal will help you find something good in your life no matter how bad the situation is. It gives a sense of hopefulness.” Kathryn Smerling L.C.S.W., a psychotherapist in NYC, puts it even more simply: “The more you appreciate what you have, the better your mental health is going to be. You’re not going to be concentrating on what you don’t have, but rather what you do have.”
This concrete method of taking stock breeds hope, a feeling that’s become near-essential over a tumultuous past two years. “The pandemic, social injustices, constant loss and grief, and even violence — the world can feel really heavy day to day,” Dr. Frederick points out. “In order to survive and find hope, a gratitude journal is really helpful from a clinical perspective.”
It’s unsurprising we need something to cope: with her patients, Dr. Smerling discusses the concept of “blurring,” or the way that disparate areas of your life can all crush together when you’re feeling overwhelmed. “The days can feel very similar to each other because of COVID,” she says. “A gratitude journal helps you take a look at things you may feel sad about, [but can be] grateful for from a different perspective.” These benefits aren’t just effective during the waking hours: studies have shown that gratitude journaling can even improve your sleep, which often suffers due to stress. And even though the daily self-care routine is a more modern concept, practicing thankfulness may have evolutionary origins.
Gratitude runs much deeper than a self-care practice — it’s in our nature. According to findings published by UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, humans aren’t the only species that experience gratitude. Research into the concept of “reciprocal altruism” has posited that chimpanzees, fish, and bats will help another individual at a cost to themselves because they understand that a good deed tees them up for help when they need it. The modern practice of gratitude is derived from this innate “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” mentality, and has evolved into the human habit of simply noticing when someone or something has given us a ‘scratch.’ As Dr. Smerling puts it, that acknowledgment helps create a “reframing” of your life, orienting your outlook towards the positive.
Similar to meditation or exercise, the act of journaling is intended to be a pause in your day, and a time to look inward and focus on yourself. For that reason, Dr. Frederick advises her patients to write with no self-judgment — that means no editing and no spell corrections. And despite the rise in branded journals and aesthetically-pleasing content, the experts are quick to point out that you don’t actually need an expensive journal — or pen and paper at all — to make gratitude a part of your daily life. If writing isn’t your preferred method of introspection, try a gratitude voice memo, gratitude video, or a saved photo gratitude folder. No matter the modality, there’s no “right” way to practice gratitude, but Dr. Frederick suggests focusing on specifics as opposed to broader, more common generalities. For example, instead of saying “I’m grateful for my family,” try asking targeted questions like ‘What am I grateful for within myself? What am I grateful for in this moment?'”
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