We’re you asked a lot as a child “What’s wrong?” I sure was. So my natural tendency became to look for what was missing, wrong, or incomplete. My question is now “What’s right?”
You see, if we shift our focus, we shift our physiology. If we shift our physiology, we shift our emotions. Our emotions determine the quality of life we live.
One simple practice that has shifted my life by shifting my focus is keeping a gratitude journal. Robert Emmons, a professor at the University of California, Davis, shared these research-based tips for reaping the greatest psychological rewards from a gratitude journal.
- Don’t just go through the motions. Research by psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky and others suggests that journaling is more effective if we first make a conscious intent to become happier and more grateful. “Motivation to become happier plays a role in the efficacy of journaling,” says Emmons.
- Go for depth over breadth. Elaborating in detail about a particular thing for which you’re grateful carries more benefits than a superficial list of many things.
- Get personal. Focusing on people to whom you are grateful has more of an impact than focusing on things for which you are grateful.
- Consider subtraction, not just addition. One effective way of stimulating gratitude is to reflect on what your life would be like without certain blessings, rather than just tallying up all those good things.
- Savor surprises. Consider recording events that were unexpected or surprising, as these tend to elicit stronger levels of gratitude.
- Don’t overdo it. Writing occasionally (once or twice per week) is more beneficial than daily journaling. In fact, one study by Lyubomirsky and her colleagues found that people who wrote in their gratitude journals once a week for six weeks reported boosts in happiness afterward; people who wrote three times per week didn’t. “We adapt to positive events quickly, especially if we constantly focus on them,” says Emmons. “It seems counterintuitive, but it is how the mind works.” My addition would be to make a gratitude journal schedule, just as we schedule other appointments, this needs to be in our calendar!
Emmons also suggests, when journaling make the conscious effort to associate what you are grateful for with the word “gift.” Here are the exact instructions he gives participants in his studies:
Be aware of your feelings and how you “relish” and “savor” this gift in your imagination. Take the time to be especially aware of the depth of your gratitude.
“In other words,” he says, “we tell them not to hurry through this exercise as if it were just another item on your to-do list. This way, gratitude journaling is really different from merely listing a bunch of pleasant things in one’s life.”
So why might this particular practice do such good for our minds and bodies? Emmons points to research showing that translating thoughts into concrete language—whether oral or written—has advantages over just thinking the thoughts: It makes us more aware of them, deepening their emotional impact.
“Writing helps to organize thoughts, facilitate integration, and helps in accepting your own experiences and putting them in context,” he says. “In essence, it allows you to see the meaning of events going on around you and create meaning in your own life.”
Great Gratitude for you here and now!