focusing on resilience and wellbeing when doctors found a brain tumor. Christina had been practicing gratitude for many years before this diagnosis and began the practice of “kissing her brain” every day. In her TED talk, Kiss Your Brain – The Science of Gratitude, Christina talks about her journey to remission. Once given the diagnosis, she was inundated with the “fight!” and “beat cancer!” rhetoric that many find extremely helpful and empowering. However, Christina did not identify with this feeling of being “at war with her brain” after having appreciated and “kissed” her brain for many years.
Throughout her journey with cancer, the irony of her Ph.D. major was not lost on her: she decided to spend every single day, thanking, appreciating, and “kissing” her brain, understanding the overall benefit the practice of gratitude has on our brains.
The practice of gratitude is a well-studied way to trigger happy feelings. When you think about your sweet pup licking your nose, your cuddly cat, a cozy fire, or any other part of your life, big or small, that made you happy, your brain was working! Gratitude triggers a release of serotonin and dopamine, two hormones responsible for feeling good. When we feel good, our bodies want more! This is what helps motivate us to carry on this practice.
Recently, I reunited with a childhood friend and it was so wonderful to get to know one another again as adults. We were able to see how our lives had changed and stayed the same. Over lunch, we chatted about the serendipitous nature of our meeting in NC after growing up in VA. We talked about our self-care and mental health and stumbled onto the topic of gratitude journaling. We both agreed that, although we wanted to incorporate gratitude journaling into our routines, we had not been successful in forming the habit.
In the past, I have gone out of my way to purchase a cute notebook and sassy pen in an effort to make journaling appealing. I would start with such excitement and complete an entry on the first two nights…then life would get in the way.
Now, I want to share the mistakes I made when I started gratitude journaling in case I am not alone in wanting to put this into practice but struggling to follow through.
Here are some misconceptions about gratitude journaling and some ways you can overcome them to implement a successful journaling practice:
I quickly realized that my goal was pretty unattainable: It’s not realistic for me to write a full page about what I am thankful for, why, and how this person, place, or object affects my life every single day. Journaling doesn’t have to be anything other than writing down one or two sentences, or even bullet points, about anything you’re thankful for or felt happy about throughout your day. It is far more effective for me to write down a couple of sentences that simply state what I am thankful for in that moment and what I feel when I think about those good things.
Often people like to record their feelings of gratitude in preparation for one of two things: the day ahead or a good night’s sleep. However, if those times don’t work for you, the best time is whenever you have a free moment to yourself. Even before you start, begin by noticing what your daily routine looks like and where you might add this practice in. Try to choose a time when you will have a moment to yourself. This might not always be possible, which brings me to my second mistake.
Oy vey! What an unrealistic goal. I struggle with anxiety so adding another “shoulda” to the chorus of “shoulda, coulda, woulda’s” in my head was not the healthiest thing. Every time I waited till the last minute I was already too busy, too tired, didn’t feel well, etc., which made me feel like a failure in the practice of writing. This created the opposite effect of what a gratitude journal is supposed to accomplish: I was bothered and upset when I should have been grateful that I was tired and could fall asleep immediately! Believe me, there are plenty of nights when sleep doesn’t come easily. Hello, anxiety!
It’s alright to set a goal to write nightly, daily, or during every lunch break as long as you allow for some flexibility. Shame is kryptonite to goal-setting. The best way to set a goal is to make sure it allows for some flexibility: one study showed that adding flexibility in the form of a plan B or C helps us form habits more easily. Make your plan (“I’ll write every morning while I’m eating breakfast”) then a plan B (“if I don’t have time or I forget, I’ll write in my notes app on the bus to work”), and a plan C (“if all else fails, I’ll write a little less right after I get in bed”)
This was actually stress-inducing. I thought that I had to be thankful for everything, all at once. If I wasn’t, then good grief, was I a terribly ungrateful person? Of course not: like any new skill we learn, gratitude journaling is something we can continually practice and we will inevitably get better at it over time.
You don’t have to keep a running tab in your mind like an acceptance speech at the Oscars. If you ever get stuck, it might be easier to think about one thing that happened that day that made you smile.
It could be something as simple as “my dog licked my face today and it made me smile”, “my cat fell asleep on me purring loudly and it was so comforting”, or “I lit a warm fire on a cold snowy day and felt so cozy.” Sometimes we get stuck on things that feel enormous and we aren’t quite sure how to write them down. Often when we recount our day, the beauty that we can find in those seemingly minute details can help reinforce happy feelings.
I definitely thought that I had to try and see silver linings everywhere and if I couldn’t find any, I just wasn’t looking hard enough. Wrong! Sometimes a situation just isn’t good no matter how you try and spin it. Instead, I started to open myself up to the idea of radical acceptance. This is a form of distress tolerance, in other words learning how to sit with uncomfortable feelings.
We don’t have to like or agree with the situation that makes us uncomfortable, but we come to understand that there is nothing to be gained by ruminating on the feelings. We can understand a situation is happening and acknowledge the associated feelings before letting them go. This frees up our emotional energy and we can focus on those smaller things outlined in #3. Maybe the overall day wasn’t great, but did you exchange a funny GIF with a friend making light of the fact that the day had you in a funk? If the GIF made you both laugh, maybe you’re super thankful for that particular friend for helping you get through a tough day.
I may just be the world’s worst millennial because I have always preferred a pad and pencil. Yes, I said pencil. But when it comes to our busy lives, technology can come in handy. This was an opportunity for me to stretch a little out of my comfort zone. I put the notebook in the drawer and kept an open mind.
After our lunch, my friend, who is much more tech-savvy than I, did her research and found a free app that allows you to set a reminder with the prompt “What are you thankful for today?” When prompted, I quickly open the app and type in the first thing I think of, followed by the emotion I feel. For instance, last night, my entry was “I am thankful for M. I am glad to have reconnected with her again after all these years and can’t wait to spend more time with her!”
This isn’t one-size, fits all: your gratitude practice will be unique to your needs. Try a few things and see what works best. If you try any of these, let us know what works for you!