I started a gratitude journal by accident. I’d just gone through a breakup, the kind that turns you into a chaotic mess. I was sad and bitter—not sleeping at all—and in that moment of turmoil I picked up a pen. The plan was to write a long letter to my ex, something wrenching and sad that would fill him with regret. But as soon as I started, other words came instead—a list of reasons that I was actually kind of the best. How sweet I was, how patient and kind, how brave I’d been for risking my heart. The writing felt good so I didn’t stop, and eventually it turned into a list of other things that I loved. My sunny apartment, my sweet little dog, my brilliant friends, my inspiring boss. When I was finished, I felt weirdly refreshed. I began to see the breakup—and my whole life, in fact—through a whole different lens. I did it again the next day, then again and again. Eventually this practice of gratitude became an important part of a daily self-care ritual that I still do now.
Of course, you don’t have to be in the throes of heartache to see how focusing on the positive might lead to a more sparkly outlook. In fact, experts say that taking the time to practice gratitude on the regular—even when things are going well—can improve more than just your mood. Recent studies show that engaging in an intentional daily practice like gratitude journaling can lead to better sleep, ease anxiety, boost immunity, and even soothe physical pain. And it can lead to greater long-term happiness and more general satisfaction in life overall.
Be here, now
Listen, we all have the potential to occasionally become little bundles of anxiety and fear, but it’s not entirely our faults—it’s just the way our brains evolved. “The most primitive part of our brain, the amygdala, is wired to scan for potential danger, threats, and worst-case scenarios in order to keep us safe,” explains Kathryn Kupillas, a psychotherapist who specializes in mindfulness. “Practicing gratitude counteracts the brain’s unconscious defensive scanning process—commonly referred to as the negativity bias—by consciously reorienting it to the present moment.” In other words, taking the time to be thankful for what’s going well can remind us that most of the stuff we worry about, isn’t actually real. It can remind us to slow down, stop stressing, and live in the here and now. “A gratitude practice is one of the quickest ways to counteract our instinctual negativity bias,” Kupillas explains.
A superpower practice
Much like practicing gratitude, “Journaling has mental, emotional, and physiological benefits,” explains Laura Rubin, founder of Allswell, a creative wellness brand that educates on the benefits of journaling. She says that journaling can reduce anxiety and boost our mood because it allows us to take stock, reflect, and connect with ourselves; it’s like a self-led therapy session and creative outlet all at the same time. Therefore, she says that combining the power of journaling with the “superpower” practice of gratitude can benefit your mental health tenfold.
And both Kupillas and Rubin point out that the benefits of gratitude journaling really compound over time. “A consistent gratitude journaling practice can actually help rewire your brain, changing your baseline settings over time,” Rubin says. Or, as Kupillas says, it helps “build more habitual attention toward what feels good.” In other words, by consistently reminding yourself of what’s going well and putting it down on paper, you’ll eventually start to notice all the beauty around you without even trying. “The brain sees what it expects to see,” Kupillas explains.
To that end, it’s important to note that it’s also not just about the act of writing it down—it’s also about the feelings this act evokes. Kupillas recommends being as descriptive as possible when listing what you’re grateful for, and then really letting yourself feel it in your body, mind, and heart. “The more specific you can be the better,” she says. “If you can hold the positive feeling for 10 to 20 seconds, it is more likely to be committed to long-term memory.”
The beginner’s mind
One of the best things about keeping a gratitude journal is that it can be completely unique to you—the only real rule is that you do it consistently. You can use a stack of Post-it notes, index cards, or a spiral notebook; personally I write in a gorgeous leather-bound notebook because it makes the practice feel more like a special ritual—something that I actually look forward to.
To get into a regular habit—remember, consistency is key—Kupillas recommends adding your gratitude journaling practice to another part of your daily routine. During your morning coffee, perhaps. Or right after you brush your teeth. “Most people benefit from what is called ‘habit stacking,’ which is a way to build new habits in relation to preexisting habits,” she explains. “For example, you might list 10 things you’re grateful for every day after breakfast or before bed.”
As for how often to do it, Rubin says “daily is ideal.” But she also adds that nobody needs “journaling guilt,” so if every day seems overwhelming, the 4 x 4 x 4 method is a great way to start. “Write for four minutes, do it four times a week, and stick with it for four consecutive weeks,” she advises. And, if you fall off the wagon, don’t beat yourself up. “This isn’t Whole30, you don’t have to start over. Just gently bring your awareness back to the practice and keep going.”
Making a gratitude practice count
Like anything you do every day, even gratitude journaling can start to feel repetitive over time; it can be tempting to write about the same things over and over again. To push yourself to dig deeper, Rubin recommends keeping a stack of journaling prompts on hand to refer to whenever you get stuck. She also recommends creating a permanent list of the “usual suspects”—the things that you’re forever grateful for, like your mom or your cat—and setting it aside. “There, you are officially grateful for this list in perpetuity. Now, move on and look for new, different things for which to be grateful,” she says. “That’s where the real magic hides.”
This article was originally published on Vogue.com