Keeping a gratitude, or joy, journal is an excellent way to practice natural stress relief. Not surprising, the majority of empirical studies indicate that there is an association between gratitude and a sense of overall well being. The act of writing provides a lot of purposes, from letting you release all those bottled-up emotions and feelings, to finding what is causing your stress or emotionally holding you back from reaching your goals.
A clinical definition from the Journal of Psychiatry states that gratitude is the appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to oneself; it is a general state of thankfulness and/or appreciation.
I had a diary when I was younger. One with a lock on it (that was obviously a gimmick because you just needed to pull on it to open). I wrote poetry and about relationships I had (or wished for). But I abandoned the practice of writing once I started university.
The idea of keeping a joy journal had been recommended to me on a stress-management course that I attended. The instructor shared how she had used it to positively change the relationship with her daughter. Each week, they would re-read entries from that week and then share the highlights with each other. It changed the tone of their conversations for the better and deepened their appreciation of each other.
I took up the challenge and started writing 3 things a day that had brought me joy. What amazed me was not the effect I saw in myself but the change that my colleagues noticed. In particular, my supervisor noticed quite a few changes: I seemed happier in general and I was able to handle so-called emergencies in the office with resiliency. I had taken the course during a time of stress at work and she noticed that I had restored my natural sense of calm and equanimity – so much so that she asked me what I was doing differently. She didn’t know I had started journaling so they were genuine observations.
While I didn’t perceive those changes in me, I took the advise of my instructor and used the journal to set a new conversation and tone with others in my life. It has had lasting effects – where we actively choose to focus our conversations and time spent together on creating positive memories.
Why would I want to take time to write in a journal?
Journaling is very personal, and everyone has their reasons. Some people might write notes in their journal to figure out what is causing their anxiety or depressive episodes, or how they felt after eating different foods. When you have a day with a lot of negative words or sad face symbols, you know to look more into what was going on during that day. These are more diagnostic in nature because you would intentionally go back to look for patterns.
Personally, I keep a separate notebook where I keep a list of foods that made me feel sick, the symptoms I felt, and a list of questions to ask my medical or allied health professional. I take it with me to appointments and also jot down notes from our conversation and the next appointment. It helps to keep me organized and feel prepared and confident when I go in. For one specialist, he literally reads the page I show him in 2 seconds, rather than listening to my explanations. It’s helped me to get more concise answers and his bedside manner has much improved because he feels this is an efficient way to communicate.
When you have stress, journaling helps by identifying what is sitting in your sub-conscious mind.The act of writing out your thoughts helps to get some of the daily stress out of your head so you don’t have to make an effort to remember it. By writing about what you have been doing each day, then looking back on it, you can reflect who or what was causing your stress.
Journalling can also provide a way to release some of the emotions and feelings you have in your heart without having to share your inner thoughts with other people in your life. If something is bothering you but you don’t feel comfortable talking about it with friends, family or Health Coach, you can make a note of it in your journal instead.
Others write for self improvement and personal development, or simply to make record of each day. There are so many options, that it can seem overwhelming. These are some of the tips that I found helpful when I first started journalling.
Tips for keeping a journal
- Try to write every day. To encourage yourself to write in your journal regularly, set aside a few minutes every day. A good time to do this is right before bed. Keep your journal by your bedside to remind you to journal each night.
- Make it easy. Keep a pen and paper handy at all times so that when you want to jot down your thoughts, you can. Choose a journal that is small enough to keep in your purse, briefcase, or a special compartment in your vehicle so that it is always available. I have two – a small one in my purse and the one I bought especially for this purpose sits on my bedside table.
- Write whatever feels right. Your journal doesn’t need to follow a specific structure. It’s your own private place to write whatever you want. Let the words flow freely without worrying about spelling mistakes or what other people might think. If that seems like too much, try starting a “one-line” journal for each day, or even using symbols and images to reflect how you feel.
- Challenge yourself. Look for something new everyday to be grateful for. Recall events in your day that were positive. Things and people that you’re grateful for, little acts of goodwill shown by family, coworkers, and even strangers. Look for the beauty you see in nature. There are so many things to be grateful for in our lives when we pause to reflect on them.
- Use your journal as you see fit. You don’t have to share your journal with anyone. If you do want to share some of your thoughts with trusted friends and loved ones but don’t want to talk about them out loud, you could show them parts of your journal.
- Read what you wrote. One of the benefits of journaling is increasing our sense of happiness, as well as emotional intelligence through self-awareness. Taking time periodically to read through your entries may help you to see patterns in your life. It can also be a way to uplift your heart when you’re unhappy.
Gratitude is not just about pen and paper.
But there’s no need to stop there! There are many ways to add the practice of gratitude into your life. Small things you can do through out the day to stay focused on appreciating all the amazing things you have in your life. Here are a few simple ways to add more feelings of gratitude in your life. There is no reason not to start today.
- Spread gratitude often. Consider sharing some of your joys with others. It can be infectious, if not a powerful way to shape discussion with others. You might also consider sharing on social media.
- Compliment a stranger. How many times have you admired someone’s haircut or blouse, but not complimented them on it? There’s nothing embarrassing about telling someone how much you like their style. Be genuine and speak from the heart with no expectation of receiving any response or repaid compliment in return.
- Let someone ahead of you in line. Today, as I write this, a woman had a full basket and I stood behind her with one item? I felt so grateful when, after she had loaded up the belt and still had more items in her cart, she offered let me go in front of her. The next time you get the opportunity, let that person go in front of you.
- Avoid negative media. The news is filled with negativity – from violence to natural disasters. It plays out in front of you every day and easily fill you with worry. Find positive TV, movies and other media to watch instead.
- Cherish your friends. When was the last time you told one of your friends how much you appreciate them being in your life? Not because of anything they’ve done, but just for loving and supporting you throughout your life’s journey.
- Listen attentively. So often, when we listen to someone talk, we are already rehearsing what we want to say next. Take notice of how often you do that and instead practice listening intently to the person, even if they are telling you about something that doesn’t interest you. If you have a response, take the time to prepare your words after they’ve finished speaking. That moment of silence amongst friends is never uncomfortable. In fact, it’s a demonstration of active listening.
- Go for a walk outside. Most of us don’t get out into nature as much as we should. We miss out on so many wonders – fresh air, vitamin D from the sun’s rays! Watch a hummingbird at your neighbor’s feeder. Enjoy the beauty of the natural world. Go to the park and listen to the kids squeal with delight. In fact, hop on a swing yourself! Take time to go outside more.
- Practice not complaining. When you start to notice how often you complain, you’ll be amazed! One day each week, practice not complaining. Pause before you speak and reframe everything to put a positive, grateful spin on it. And mean it!
Make sure when you start journaling, you use it on a regular basis. Preferably, you will make notes in the journal every day, but a few times a week can also be beneficial. What spills out may also include your life goals, business tasks, and to-do lists. Maybe even a plan of action for your meals and movement.
Gratitude and Well Being: The Benefits of Appreciation, Journal of Psychiatry