Want to be happier than you already are? Many people look to self-help books as a way to become happy. Sometimes they give good advice and sometimes they dont. However, one of the most robust, enduring findings from psychological studies of increasing people’s happiness has been that happiness can be found from journaling, especially when you keep a regular journal of what you’re grateful for.
Gratitude is defined as the reliable emotional response that one has to receiving benefits1. Gratitude is also known to correlate with subjective levels of happiness1,2,3,4,5, as well as pro-social behavior, self-efficacy, and self-worth6,7. Moreover, this connection with happiness is found in both student and nonstudent populations, and persists even when controlling for extraversion, neuroticism, and agreeableness8,9. Gratitude also fights stress, materialism, and negative self-comparisons7.
But what if you’re not already grateful? Well, there is a solution. Regular practice of gratitude has theological origins – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all consider it a virtue and prescribe approaches for practicing10.
And it appears that religion is right on this one – gratitude can be trained, and one way to do so is the gratitude journal. And by training in gratitude, one can become lastingly happier.
Writing as a Cure
Studies have found that while talking about one’s problems doesn’t help one to feel better about them, even if it seems like the talk helped at the time11, writing about the problem does help. In one study, participants who had been recently laid off from work were asked to spend a few minutes each day writing a diary about their feelings regarding the lay off. Doing so produced boosts in happiness, self-esteem, health, and psychological and physical well-being12. Other similar studies found similar results13.
But one doesn’t need trauma in order to get these beneficial results. Another study had people assigned to write for 20 minutes a day for four days about one of four topics at random – either a traumatic life event, their best possible future self, both, or a nonemotional control. A follow up five months later found that writing about either trauma or a positive future lead to reduced illness and increased subjective well-being compared to controls, though writing about trauma induced a short-term negative mood14. Another follow up study found that reduced illness and increased subjective well-being resulted even from writing about intensely positive events15.
Affectionate writing is another type of regular journaling, where you write in your journal about affection for friends, family, or romantic partners. This too has been found to have beneficial effects, such as lower cholesterol16. Another study involved writing a letter of affection to someone and personally delivering it to them, which was found to decrease depressive symptoms for a few months17, but then had no further longer-term effects.
The Gratitude Journal
But suppose you’re not recovering from a recent serious problem, but instead just want to boost your happiness in your everyday life. What should you do? Instead, you can get the same benefit of journaling by focusing on gratitude.
In another study, three groups of college students were asked to keep short, daily diaries – one group would write about what they were grateful for in that day, the second group would write about what annoyed them, and the third group was asked just to keep track of events from a neutral perspective.
Those who kept careful track of what they were grateful for were more happy, more optimistic, and healthier than the other two groups at the end of the study18 after two weeks of journaling and a three-week follow up period. This study was then replicated among another college population19 and replicated a third time among college populations17. Researchers also tested the theory beyond college students – in middle school classrooms20, among adults with neuromuscular disease18, and among Korean healthcare professionals21. Each time, they found that gratitude journaling produced reliable increases in happiness.
So what should we do if we want to start a gratitude journal? Well, get a journal and start writing! I’ve been keeping mine on my blog, but you could keep your wherever you like. However, here are some tips to make the implementation better:
It won’t work for everyone. These effects only appear in the aggregate. So far, little research has been done to find moderating effects of gratitude journaling, but it is known to work better for women than for men, though it still works for men just fine4,5,7. It’s possible that journaling won’t work for certain people. Beware of other-optimizing.
It won’t work if it annoys you. If you find the journaling tedious or annoying, you’ll lose the happiness boost19, so it’s important you find some way to keep it fresh. In one experiment, college students were assigned to do a gratitude journal either daily or once a week. While both groups showed a boost, the once-a-week group actually found a higher boost in happiness19, presumably because they didn’t get bored with the journal.
Thinking about the subtraction of positive events produces an even bigger boost. While one gains a boost in happiness from reflecting on being grateful for, say, wildflowers, one can get an even higher boost in happiness if instructed to also try and imagine a world where wildflowers don’t exist7.
Think about what caused these good events. Thinking not just about what you’re grateful for but why things turned out the way they did to inspire gratitude also had better effects17.
It’s not all that often that science hands us a definitive self-help practice that has been this well vetted. Maybe it works for you; maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it’s worth your time; maybe you are happy enough that you can forgo the effort. But it’s hopefully at least worth thinking about.
After all, I’m grateful that positive psychology exists.
(Author’s Note: This was also cross-posted on LessWrong.)
(Note: Links are to PDF files.) 1: McCullough, Michael E., Jo-Ann Tsang, and Robert. A. Emmons. 2004. “Gratitude in Intermediate Affective Terrain: Links of Grateful Moods to Individual Differences and Daily Emotional Experience”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 86: 295–309.
2: Wood, Alex M., Jeffrey J. Froh, and Adam W. A. Geraghty. 2010. “Gratitude and Well-Being: A Review and Theoretical Integration”. Clinical Psychology Review 30 (7): 890-905.
3: Park, Nansook, Christopher Peterson, and Martin E. P. Seligman. 2004. Strengths of Character and Well-Being. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 23 (5): 603-619.
4: Watkins, Phillip C., Katherine Woodward, Tamara Stone, and Russel K. Kolts. 2003. “Gratitude and Happiness: Development of a Measure of Gratitude, and Relationships with Subjective Well-Being”. Social Behavior and Personality 31 (5): 431-452.
5: Kashdan, Todd B., Gitendra Uswatteb, and Terri Julian. 2006. “Gratitude and Hedonic and Eudaimonic Well-Being in Vietnam War Veterans”. Behaviour Research and Therapy 44: 177–199.
6: Grant, Adam M. and Francesca Gino. 2010. “A Little Thanks Goes a Long Way: Explaining Why Gratitude Expressions Motivate Prosocial Behavior”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 98 (6): 946–955.
7: Emmons, Robert A. and Anjali Mishra. 2011. “Why Gratitude Enhances Well-Being: What We Know, What We Need to Know” in Kennon M. Sheldon, Todd B. Kashdan, Michael F. Stenger (Eds.). Designing Positive Psychology: Taking Stock and Moving Forward, 248-262. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
8: McCullough, Michael E., Jo-Ann Tsang, and Robert. A. Emmons. 2002. “The Grateful Disposition: A Conceptual and Empirical Topography”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 82 (1): 112–127.
9: Wood, Alex M., Stephen Joseph, and John Maltby. 2009. “Gratitude Predicts Psychological Well-Being Above the Big Five Facets”. Personality and Individual Differences 46 (4): 443–447.
10: Emmons, Robert A. and Cheryl A. Crumpler. 2000. “Gratitude as a Human Strength: Appraising the Evidence”. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 19 (1): 56-69
11: Lyubomirsky, Sonja and Chris Tkach. 2003. “The Consequences of Dysphoric Rumination” in Costas Papageorgiou and Adrian Wells (Eds.). Depressive Rumination: Nature, Theory and Treatment, 21-41. Chichester, England: John Wiley & Sons.
12: Spera, Stephanie P., Eric D. Buhrfeind, and James W. Pennebaker. 1994. “Expressive Writing and Coping with Job Loss”. Academy of Management Journal 3, 722–733.
13: Lepore, Stephen J. and Joshua Morrison Smyth (Eds.) 2002. The Writing Cure: How Expressive Writing Promotes Health and Emotional Well-Being. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
14: King, Laura A. 2001. “The Health Benefits of Writing About Life Goals”. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 27: 798–807.
15: Burton, Chad M and Laura A. King. 2004. “The Health Benefits of Writing about Intensely Positive Experiences”. Journal of Research in Personality 38: 150–163.
16: Floyd, Kory, Alan C. Mikkelson, Colin Hesse, and Perry M. Pauley. 2007. “Affectionate Writing Reduces Total Cholesterol: Two Ranomized, Controlled Trials”. Human Communication Research 33: 119–142.
17: Seligman, Martin E. P., Tracy A. Steen, Nansook Park, and Christopher Peterson. “Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions”. American Psychologist 60: 410-421.
18: Emmons, Robert A. and Michael E. McCullough. 2003. “Counting Blessings versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84: 377–389.
19: Lyubomirsky, Sonja, Kennon M. Sheldon, and David Schkade. 2005. “Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change”. Review of General Psychology 9 (2): 111-131.
20: Froh, Jeffrey J., William J. Sefick, and Robert A. Emmons. 2008. “Counting Blessings in Early Adolescents: An Experimental Study of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being”. Journal of School Psychology 46 (2): 213-233.
21: Ki, Tsui Pui. 2009. “Gratitude and Stress of Health-Care Professionals in Hong Kong”. Unpublished thesis.