Did you keep a really embarrassing teenage diary? God knows, I did.
My old diaries are some of the items I cleared out as I downsized my stuff from childhood, and boy, they were a painful read.
You know that Marie Kondo decluttering technique, where she advises you to take hold of a possession and see if it ‘sparks joy’? Well, I now have another reaction to look out for: whether it sparks a ‘lower abdominal clench of utter, utter cringe’.
Luckily, my diary-keeping days are long behind me now.
But I’ve recently been experimenting with a different type of daily log as I look into the science of boosting happiness.
One happiness tip I just kept reading about was an activity called gratitude journaling. It gets mentioned so often, in fact, that you’ve probably already heard of it before, if not tried it.
The idea is simple: at its heart, it’s a way of systematically getting yourself into the habit of counting your blessings. This is usually done through jotting down a few things you’re grateful for before you go to bed.
But does it work? Is it worth the effort? And can you re-read the journal without wanting to throw up?
Let’s find out. First: the science bit.
There seems to be a lot of compelling evidence that practising gratitude really does boost your happiness levels.
Robert A Emmons is the world’s leading researcher on gratitude.
A study he co-authored in 2003 found that participants who kept gratitude journals once a week exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical problems, felt better about their lives, were more likely to have made progress towards goals and were more optimistic about the upcoming week compared to those who recorded either hassles or neutral life events.
Other studies have found a variety of other benefits, from focus in young adults to better sleep quality.
On the other hand, there is also scientific (and anecdotal) evidence that the technique just does nothing for a whole heap of people. For them, the whole thing is a massive waste of time.
One theory goes that if you set yourself a target for experiencing gratitude, then fail to reach that goal, it could end up doing more harm than good and make you feel worse.
This would seem to be backed up by a study which found that people who kept a gratitude journal three times a week were less happy than those who wrote in it just once a week. In general, researchers seem to disagree about whether it is more effective to write in a gratitude journal once a day or once a week.
And the Berkeley Science Review lists five ways keeping a gratitude journal can backfire. This includes causing you to gloss over negative aspects of your life that you should be facing up to, such as a destructive relationship.
I’ve been giving the technique a try for the past month. Every evening, before bed, I’ve taken out a notebook and written down three things I’m grateful for from the day.
These have been wide and varied:
- The life-changing: “My new niece was born today”;
- The everyday: “My wife ran me a nice bath”, “I got lunch free on points”;
- The wholesome: “Seeing a rainbow”, “Planting bulbs in the garden”;
- The less wholesome: “Chips!”
- The ditzy: “Left my car unlocked accidentally but nothing bad happened”;
- And the left-field: “Sixty years of popular music!” “Ticker tape!”
I have to say I feel better for it. I’m finding it a nice way to round off the day and it’s also changing the way I think about things.
I tend to be a negative thinker, but I’m now more likely to look back on the day and think it was a good one.
So will keeping a gratitude journal work for you?
My (untested!) theory is that this all depends on what kind of outlook you have.
Practising gratitude could well make you more content if you are the kind of person who needs a reminder about the good things in your life. If you tend to take life for granted, and you focus too often on criticism, negativity or hardship, this may be for you.
But if you’re already the kind of person who looks on the bright side, someone who sees beauty in the small things and joy in the everyday, this may not be worth your while.
If you think keeping a gratitude journal could work for you, try one of the following two techniques:
- Each day, before bed, write down three things you’re grateful for, from that day;
- Or, each week, on a set day, write down ten things you have been grateful for in the past seven days.
Keep it up for a month and decide then whether it’s having any positive effects on your wellbeing.
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