If I told you that spending less than 15 minutes a day on a straightforward activity could potentially give you positive benefits such as sleeping better, exercising more, having a better mood throughout the week and accomplishing more at work, you would probably be thinking "Yeah, right. There's no way something that takes so little time would have as many results like that." But I'm writing this today to let you know that there is an activity that can provide all of these things and more: Keeping track of the positive things that happen throughout your day.
Sitting down every day and writing a few things that went well in my day is a habit that I have picked up for a while now, and I can attest to the power this seemingly simple practice has done for me. I don't know many people who do this consistently, so I want to share why writing down the positive events in your life can have significant effects and some tips on making this part of your daily routine and help you get the most out of this practice.
Why should you keep track of the good things that happen in your life
In recent years, psychology researchers have been spending more time analyzing happiness. There's even a branch of psychology called "positive psychology" that is dedicated to finding how to define happiness and how we can harness it in our everyday lives. Thanks to the studies of these researchers, we now have more data and hard facts to back up the benefits of happiness and gratitude in our lives.
In his book Thanks! - How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, psychology professor Robert A. Emmons writes about his studies on gratitude found that individuals who keep regular gratitude journals had more psychological and physical improvements than those who don't. Emmons found that people who regularly think gratefully would have a better quality of sleep, spent more time exercising, got sick less, treated others more kindly and other similar benefits. These benefits lead to increased happiness, higher levels of energy, more optimism and a boost in our overall well-being.
Gratitude studies elsewhere have also provided the same results. Arianna Huffington wrote about the practice of gratitude exercises in her book Thrive:
"According to a study by researchers from the University of Minnesota and the University of Florida, having participants write down a list of positive events at the close of a day — and why the events made them happy — lowered their self-reported stress levels and gave them a greater sense of calm at night."
Researchers performed many of these studies recently, so there's still much to learn about happiness and gratitude. But the current findings are promising.
How to begin the practice of gratitude
With all these studies explaining the positive benefits of keeping track of the good things in our lives, how can we begin? There's a ton of different ways to do this, but I like keeping things simple, so that's what we'll go with here.
- First, get a notebook and pen. It doesn't have to be a fancy journal - any notebook will do. If you would prefer to do this electronically, your computer, tablet or phone will work.
- Next, think about good things that happened to you during the day or moments that made you feel good. Some examples of this can be "I'm happy I had lunch with my sister" or "Work went great because I got praised by my boss." If something makes you smile when you think back at it, this is a great event to use for this exercise.
- Write down at least three of those occasions. If you can think of more, go ahead and write them all down. It is recommended not to go over ten events, though, as too many can minimize or even nullify the benefits of this exercise.
That's all there is to it. It's effortless, but very practical. The average person is usually worrying about many things happening in their lives. Because of this constant worrying, we don't take the time to think about the good that's happening in our lives. And yes, we all have something good happening in our lives, even when we're feeling at our lowest point. We just have to dig deep sometimes to get something out, but trust me, it is there, no matter how tiny.
If this is the first time you're trying to practice gratitude deliberately, I'll admit that it's tough. Like any new endeavor you try out, it'll take some time to get used to the process. Like I mentioned, our brains are typically conditioned to focus on the not-so-good things, so it will be a bit resistant initially when you're showing it all these positive moments. After a few days, your brain will become more receptive to the good you're feeding it, and you'll begin to notice more favorable things going on in your life. The joy of experiencing this will spread like wildfire throughout other areas of your life. That's where the tangible benefits come into play - all in just 10 or 15 minutes of your day.
Common questions when starting out
The times I've talked about this practice with others or read about it online, I've seen a few questions come up over and over again, which I'm sure you'll have as well.
How often should I do this?
Studies show that the most benefits of writing the things you're grateful for either daily or weekly. The studies advocating for daily journaling indicate that writing at least three good things every day yields the most benefits. The studies vouching for weekly journaling explain that we would get used to the positive effects of daily writing too quickly, lessening the benefits.
Even with differing points of view, both studies still show the same positive effects so that you can choose either one and you'll always be reaping the rewards. The key here is to be consistent with whatever option you choose. Personally, I do this practice every day since it helps me keep the habit going, but you should pick whichever option that's easiest for you.
When should I write my list?
It doesn't matter which time of day you decide to sit down and write your list of things you're grateful for. You can write your list after you wake up in the morning, after you finish your lunch break, or just before you go to bed. There's no "perfect time" for writing - again, go with whichever option is the easiest.
My tip, especially for beginners, would be to sit down and write your list in the evening. The evening hours are typically calmer as you begin to unwind and wrap up your day, making it a great time to sit down for a few minutes undisturbed. If you decide to do the practice daily, the evening is also a good time because you'll still have a few moments fresh in your mind from the day, instead of having to spend more brain power thinking about the previous day.
What if I can't think of anything?
As I mentioned, when you're starting this routine, it will be a bit difficult to think of something. But even if you're a seasoned practitioner, there will be days when it's still hard to come up with something for many reasons (you didn't sleep well, you had a horrible day at work, etc.).
One trick that I've used in the past that seems helpful is to think of the following sentence: I'm grateful for _____ because of _____ and then fill in the blanks. I feel it helps you get your memory jogged and trigger at least one event that makes you feel grateful.
If you still can't think of anything and have spent more than a few minutes in thought, don't force it nor be discouraged about it. Just leave as many entries as you were able to get and try the next day again. Don't give up!
Tips for making the most of your gratitude practice
I've been writing down a list of things I'm grateful for just about every single day since 2013. Along the way, I've discovered plenty of things that have worked well or that I had to improve. Here are a few pointers to help you make the most out of this routine.
Be consistent: I'm repeating this because I can't stress enough how important it is to be regular with any new habit you want to accomplish. Whether you choose to make this a daily or weekly custom, make sure you do it at those times. A great way to do this is to use any reminder or calendar app on your computer or phone to remind you to do this at the same time every day or every week. By doing it at the same time, it will make forming the habit a lot easier.
Use pen (or pencil) and paper instead of an electronic device: I'm a huge advocate of writing things down using a pen instead of a keyboard. While it's simpler and more convenient to use something like a laptop or smartphone to write something down quicker, using a keyboard is so effortless you won't be thinking about what you're writing down. Using pen and paper forces you to slow down and think, and will be beneficial in make sure your brain gets the message about the good things happening in your life, extending the benefits of this practice.
Review past days/weeks occasionally: There's plenty of benefits by just writing down the things you're grateful for. If you only do this, you'll still be doing a lot of good for yourself. However, I've found that going back to read my older entries has enhanced the benefits I get out of this practice. It's cool to look back at my list from a month or two ago and to smile when I remember something significant that happened. It's especially beneficial if you review your records when you're not feeling all that great - it's an instant pick-me-up to see those great things again.
Write a note as soon as something good happens: We all have days where our brains just don't work to their full capacity, and it's easy to forget something that happened even merely a few hours ago. One tip I have is to write down a quick note (either on paper or an electronic device) as soon as something happens. It will make writing down your list a lot more comfortable.
Go deep: When writing something you're grateful for, you'll get the maximum benefits by being very specific about that moment. Being explicit will help in the future in multiple ways. First, when you go back and review this entry, having details about a specific moment helps you vividly replay that time. Also, by taking the time to think about the details of an event, you're conditioning your mind to pay more attention to those small aspects so when something similar happens next time, you'll react positively instead of potentially ignoring the moment. As an example, writing something like "I had lunch with my dad" as an item is alright, but rephrasing it instead as "I had lunch with my dad at the cafe near the ocean. It was a beautiful sunny day, and I enjoyed seeing my dad smiling as he was eating his club sandwich and talking about his golf outing with my brother provides so much more details that remain in your memory long after writing it down.
More focus on people instead of things: Focusing on things, like new purchases, is proper to have on your list. However, focusing on people has a lot more impact. For example, if you received a present, focus on being thankful for the person who gave you the gift instead of the gift itself. Most material possessions can come and go in an instant, and we won't be worse off than before we had it. The people nearest and dearest to your heart - your spouse, your parents, your best friends - are irreplaceable and should be providing you with the most and best moments of gratitude.
I can honestly say that this practice is one of the best habits I have in my life. Ever since I began this routine, I've overcome a lot of less-than-stellar moments in my life and have had a lot of good come into it. I hope this article helps you look into this practice and incorporate it into your life. I'm sure it will be as helpful to you as it was with me.