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For Happiness, Keep a Gratitude Journal

21 Post author: peter_hurford 15 July 2013 09:11PM

Want to be happier than you already are?  Many people look to self-help books as a way to become happy.  Sometimes they give good advice and sometimes they dont.  However, one of the most robust, enduring findings from psychological studies of increasing people's happiness has been that happiness can be found from journaling, especially when you keep a regular journal of what you're grateful for.

 

Gratitude

Gratitude is defined as the reliable emotional response that one has to receiving benefits<sup>1</sup>.  Gratitude is also known to correlate with subjective levels of happiness1,2,3,4,5, as well as pro-social behavior, self-efficacy, and self-worth6,7.  Moreover, this connection with happiness is found in both student and non-student populations, and persists even when controlling for extraversion, neuroticism, and agreeableness8,9.  Gratitude also fights stress, materialism, and negative self-comparisons7.

But what if you're not already grateful?  Well, there is a solution.  Regular practice of gratitude has theological origins -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all consider it a virtue and prescribe approaches for practicing10.

And it appears that religion is right on this one -- gratitude can be trained, and one way to do so is the gratitude journal.  And by training in gratitude, one can become lastingly happier.

 

Writing as a Cure

Studies have found that while talking about one's problems doesn't help one to feel better about them, even if it seems like the talk helped at the time11, writing about the problem does help.  In one study, participants who had been recently laid off from work were asked to spend a few minutes each day writing a diary about their feelings regarding the lay off.  Doing so produced boosts in happiness, self-esteem, health, and psychological and physical well-being12.  Other similar studies found similar results13.

But one doesn't need trauma in order to get these beneficial results.  Another study had people assigned to write for 20 minutes a day for four days about one of four topics at random -- either a traumatic life event, their best possible future self, both, or a nonemotional control.  A follow up five months later found that writing about either trauma or a positive future lead to reduced illness and increased subjective well-being compared to controls, though writing about trauma induced a short-term negative mood14.  Another follow up study found that reduced illness and increased subjective well-being resulted even from writing about intensely positive events15.

Affectionate writing is another type of regular journaling, where you write in your journal about affection for friends, family, or romantic partners.  This too has been found to have beneficial effects, such as lower cholesterol16.  Another study involved writing a letter of affection to someone and personally delivering it to them, which was found to decrease depressive symptoms for a few months17, but then had no further longer-term effects.

 

The Gratitude Journal

But suppose you're not recovering from a recent serious problem, but instead just want to boost your happiness in your everyday life.  What should you do?  Instead, you can get the same benefit of journaling by focusing on gratitude.

In another study, three groups of college students were asked to keep short, daily diaries -- one group would write about what they were grateful for in that day, the second group would write about what annoyed them, and the third group was asked just to keep track of events from a neutral perspective.

Those who kept careful track of what they were grateful for were more happy, more optimistic, and healthier than the other two groups at the end of the study18 after two weeks of journaling and a three-week follow up period.  This study was then replicated among another college population19 and replicated a third time among college populations17.  Researchers also tested the theory beyond college students -- in middle school classrooms20, among adults with neuromuscular disease18, and among Korean healthcare professionals21.  Each time, they found that gratitude journaling produced reliable increases in happiness.

 

Implementation

So what should we do if we want to start a gratitude journal?  Well, get a journal and start writing!  I've been keeping mine on my blog, but you could keep your wherever you like.  However, here are some tips to make the implementation better:

It won't work for everyone.  These effects only appear in the aggregate.  So far, little research has been done to find moderating effects of gratitude journaling, but it is known to work better for women than for men, though it still works for men just fine4,5,7.  It's possible that journaling won't work for certain people.  Beware of other-optimizing.

It won't work if it annoys you. If you find the journaling tedious or annoying, you'll lose the happiness boost19, so it's important you find some way to keep it fresh.  In one experiment, college students were assigned to do a gratitude journal either daily or once a week.  While both groups showed a boost, the once-a-week group actually found a higher boost in happiness19, presumably because they didn't get bored with the journal.

Thinking about the subtraction of positive events produces an even bigger boost.  While one gains a boost in happiness from reflecting on being grateful for, say, wildflowers, one can get an even higher boost in happiness if instructed to also try and imagine a world where wildflowers don't exist7.

Think about what caused these good events. Thinking not just about what you're grateful for but why things turned out the way they did to inspire gratitude also had better effects17.

 

It's not all that often that science hands us a definitive self-help practice that has been this well vetted.  Maybe it works for you; maybe it doesn't.  Maybe it's worth your time; maybe you are happy enough that you can forgo the effort.  But it's hopefully at least worth thinking about.

After all, I'm grateful that positive psychology exists.

-

(This was also cross-posted on my blog.)

 

References

(Note: Links are to PDF files.)

1: McCullough, Michael E., Jo-Ann Tsang, and Robert. A. Emmons. 2004. "Gratitude in Intermediate Affective Terrain: Links of Grateful Moods to Individual Differences and Daily Emotional Experience". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 86: 295–309.

2: Wood, Alex M., Jeffrey J. Froh, and Adam W. A. Geraghty. 2010. "Gratitude and Well-Being: A Review and Theoretical Integration". Clinical Psychology Review 30 (7): 890-905.

3: Park, Nansook, Christopher Peterson, and Martin E. P. Seligman. 2004. "Strengths of Character and Well-Being". Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 23 (5): 603-619.

4: Watkins, Phillip C., Katherine Woodward, Tamara Stone, and Russel K. Kolts. 2003. "Gratitude and Happiness: Development of a Measure of Gratitude, and Relationships with Subjective Well-Being". Social Behavior and Personality 31 (5): 431-452.

5: Kashdan, Todd B., Gitendra Uswatteb, and Terri Julian. 2006. "Gratitude and Hedonic and Eudaimonic Well-Being in Vietnam War Veterans". Behaviour Research and Therapy 44: 177–199.

6: Grant, Adam M. and Francesca Gino. 2010. "A Little Thanks Goes a Long Way: Explaining Why Gratitude Expressions Motivate Prosocial Behavior". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 98 (6): 946–955.

7: Emmons, Robert A. and Anjali Mishra. 2011. "Why Gratitude Enhances Well-Being: What We Know, What We Need to Know" in Kennon M. Sheldon, Todd B. Kashdan, Michael F. Stenger (Eds.). Designing Positive Psychology: Taking Stock and Moving Forward, 248-262. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

8: McCullough, Michael E., Jo-Ann Tsang, and Robert. A. Emmons. 2002. "The Grateful Disposition: A Conceptual and Empirical Topography". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 82 (1): 112–127.

9: Wood, Alex M., Stephen Joseph, and John Maltby. 2009. "Gratitude Predicts Psychological Well-Being Above the Big Five Facets"</a>. Personality and Individual Differences 46 (4): 443–447.

10: Emmons, Robert A. and Cheryl A. Crumpler. 2000. "Gratitude as a Human Strength: Appraising the Evidence". Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 19 (1): 56-69

11: Lyubomirsky, Sonja and Chris Tkach. 2003. "The Consequences of Dysphoric Rumination" in Costas Papageorgiou and Adrian Wells (Eds.). Depressive Rumination: Nature, Theory and Treatment, 21-41.  Chichester, England: John Wiley & Sons.

12: Spera, Stephanie P., Eric D. Buhrfeind, and James W. Pennebaker. 1994. "Expressive Writing and Coping with Job Loss". Academy of Management Journal 3, 722–733.

13: Lepore, Stephen J. and Joshua Morrison Smyth (Eds.) 2002. The Writing Cure: How Expressive Writing Promotes Health and Emotional Well-Being. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

14: King, Laura A. 2001. "The Health Benefits of Writing About Life Goals". Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 27: 798–807.

15: Burton, Chad M and Laura A. King. 2004. "The Health Benefits of Writing about Intensely Positive Experiences". Journal of Research in Personality 38: 150–163.

16: Floyd, Kory, Alan C. Mikkelson, Colin Hesse, and Perry M. Pauley. 2007. "Affectionate Writing Reduces Total Cholesterol: Two Ranomized, Controlled Trials". Human Communication Research 33: 119–142.

17: Seligman, Martin E. P., Tracy A. Steen, Nansook Park, and Christopher Peterson. "Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions". American Psychologist 60: 410-421.

18: Emmons, Robert A. and Michael E. McCullough. 2003. "Counting Blessings versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84: 377–389.

19: Lyubomirsky, Sonja, Kennon M. Sheldon, and David Schkade. 2005. "Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change"Review of General Psychology 9 (2): 111-131.

20: Froh, Jeffrey J., William J. Sefick, and Robert A. Emmons. 2008. "Counting Blessings in Early Adolescents: An Experimental Study of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being". Journal of School Psychology 46 (2): 213-233.

21: Ki, Tsui Pui. 2009. "Gratitude and Stress of Health-Care Professionals in Hong Kong". Unpublished thesis.

Comments (27)

Comment author: James_Miller 16 July 2013 12:13:11AM 12 points [-]

I tried to get my 8-year-old son to keep a gratitude journal. He would dictate and I would type. I told him about the research saying that doing so can make you happier. One night he got upset with me and said he didn't want to do the journal any more, but he was going to be less happy knowing that he was forgoing doing something that could have made him more happy so I had really messed up when I told him about gratitude journals. (Although he quickly forgot about them.)

Comment author: juliawise 19 July 2013 12:16:12AM 3 points [-]

Saying aloud things we were thankful for was part of our family bedtime ritual when I was young. It's low-effort enough that I still keep it up, while I usually don't keep up tasks that involve writing something down. I recommend the verbal method if writing seems too annoying.

Comment author: Deems 16 July 2013 10:54:43PM 4 points [-]

Is the journal supposed to be write-only? From the description it sounds so, but I am wondering whether part of the process is supposed to involve reviewing your old entries.

Comment author: DreamFlasher 30 July 2014 06:01:54PM 2 points [-]

I am also very much interested in this. Above states "Studies have found that while talking about one's problems doesn't help one to feel better about them, even if it seems like the talk helped at the time (11), writing about the problem does help." - has this been analysed for the gratitude journal too?

Comment author: peter_hurford 16 July 2013 11:14:14PM 1 point [-]

I don't think the journal has to be explicitly write-only. Re-reading the journal has, to my knowledge, never been studied for happiness effects. Anecdotally, though, it seems to work, at least short term.

Comment author: Dorikka 16 July 2013 01:59:32AM 4 points [-]

Thinking about the subtraction of positive events produces an even bigger boost. While one gains a boost in happiness from reflecting on being grateful for, say, wildflowers, one can get an even higher boost in happiness if instructed to also try and imagine a world where wildflowers don't exist7.

I hypothesize that some fiction has a similar effect, and I wonder if this is true for most people. Does anyone know of studies done on this?

Comment author: CoffeeStain 15 July 2013 10:52:39PM *  4 points [-]

Conversely, it is also good to limit reading about what other people are grateful for, especially if you're feeling particularly ungrateful and they have things you don't. Facebook is a huge offender here, because people tend to post about themselves when they're doing well, rather than when they're needing support. Seeing other people as more happy than they are leaves you wondering why you aren't as happy as they are. It also feeds the illusion that others do not need your help.

Comment author: Vaniver 16 July 2013 12:25:21AM 8 points [-]

Facebook is a huge offender here, because people tend to post about themselves when they're doing well, rather than when they're needing support.

My suspicion is that people are more likely to be specific in positive than negative comments. "Vaguebooking," even if you know it represents serious pain, doesn't give you as vivid an image as someone celebrating a new job.

Comment author: David_Gerard 15 July 2013 10:54:52PM -1 points [-]

Could be just your group of friends. I have many Facebook associates who post just like that, but others whine and yet others have problems they're seeking advice on, etc.

Comment author: Roman_Duda 18 August 2013 04:00:33PM *  3 points [-]

A suggestion for implementing gratitude journaling is to use Happy Rambles.

What it does It sends you an email every day at 8pm, asking you what you're grateful for (this is by default; both the time and frequency of the emails can be changed). You reply to the emails as often as you want to. You can view your past entries by going to the site. It takes less than 30 seconds to sign up.

Advantages The main advantage is that it makes gratitude journaling a behaviour that has an environmental trigger, and so you don't need to use your system 2 to get yourself to do it.

Drawbacks It doesn't send you a random past journal entry in your daily email as the site claims.

Comment author: Suryc11 16 July 2013 01:39:40PM 3 points [-]

I was broken up with recently, and keeping a reflection document has proven tremendously helpful (in dealing with my emotions, feelings, etc.).

That motivated me to start journaling, and this post will likely motivate me to continue journaling, so thank you!

Comment author: AlexSchell 27 July 2013 02:16:13PM 2 points [-]

Richard Wiseman ("59 Seconds") describes a lower-cost version of this idea, where you write in response to 5 distinct gratitude-related prompts for 5 consecutive days and repeat every couple of months as desired.

I roughly remember four of the prompts: express gratitude about something, remember and reflect on a past peak experience, write to someone you care about to express how important they are in your life, and think about 3 things that have gone well for you in the past week.

Comment author: peter_hurford 27 July 2013 02:55:57PM 1 point [-]

...and imagine something about your future going well, and write about it.

Comment author: [deleted] 16 July 2013 12:00:08AM 2 points [-]

What do you mean by 'happiness?' Assuming this works, I'm a little unclear on the actual payoff. Do you mean a lack of pain or the presence of pleasure, or something else entirely?

Comment author: peter_hurford 16 July 2013 07:18:14AM 7 points [-]

In these studies, "happiness" is measured in a variety of ways. For example, the first study used these methods:

Satisfaction with life. The 5-item Satisfaction With Life Scale (SWLS; Diener, Emmons, Larsen, & Griffin, 1985) assesses the cognitive component of subjective well-being. Items (e.g., “In most ways my life is close to ideal”) are rated on a 7-point scale (1 strongly disagree; 7  strongly agree). In previous work, the SWLS had a 2-month test–retest correlation coefficient of r  .82, and coefficient alpha  .87 (Diener et al., 1985).

Campbell Well-Being Scale. The Campbell Well-Being Scale consists of nine semantic differential scales (e.g., boring–interesting, miserable–enjoyable, discouraged–hopeful) that provide an overall index of general well-being (Campbell, Converse, & Rodgers, 1976). The scale correlates with other measures of well-being and has acceptable internal consistency and reliability (Beckie & Hayduk, 1997).

Optimism. The widely used Life Orientation Test (LOT; Scheier, Carver, & Bridges, 1994) is an eight-item scale for assessing dispositional optimism. Scheier et al. (1994) reported an internal consistency reliability of   .82 and test–retest stabilities ranging from .56 to .79 across four time periods.

Depressive symptoms. Participants also completed the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale (Radloff, 1977). Participants used a 4-point Likert-type scale (1  Rarely or none of the time [less than 1 day] and 4  most or all of the time [5–7 days]) to indicate how often during the last week they experienced each of 20 affective and somatic symptoms that characterize major depressive episodes. Total scores are the sums of scores from all 20 items. Radloff (1977) reported test–retest stabilities ranging from r  .67 (4 weeks) to r  .32 (12 months). Internal consistency was estimated as   .90 (Radloff, 1977).

Positive affectivity (PA) and negative affectivity (NA). The Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS; Watson, Clark, & Tellegen, 1988) measures general tendencies to experience positive (e.g., “proud”) and negative (e.g., “guilty”) affect. Participants used a 5-point Likert-type scale (1  very slightly or not at all; 5  extremely) to indicate how well each of 20 adjectives described “how they generally feel.” Coefficient alphas of the positive and negative scales range in the mid- to upper .80s (Watson et al., 1988).

Comment author: [deleted] 16 July 2013 12:54:24PM 1 point [-]

Excellent, thanks.

Comment author: Lumifer 16 July 2013 04:07:57PM 1 point [-]

Is this different from the usual "power of positive thinking"? You are grateful for good things, so consciously trying to recall what one is/should be grateful for is basically the same as trying to remember which good things happened to you today.

Comment author: malcolmocean 16 July 2013 04:05:19AM 1 point [-]

Glad to see this. I'll offer that I got into the habit of thinking of 10 things daily I was grateful for (this was triggered by a walk I took across campus every day) and just counting them on my fingers. Also, I tried not to repeat anything, ever. This means that over the course of several months I thought of over a thousand things I was grateful for.

I've tried keeping a journal too, and I found this to be much nicer as a daily practice as it took place during downtime, plus if it didn't happen I could do it while on my way to sleep at night (tip: raise your hands above your head and hold them there until you're done. Pretty good at keeping you awake and focused while you think of things, unless you're very sleep deprived.)

Also, trying to constantly think of new things I was grateful for, instead of just writing "my family" every other day made this an exercise in noticing and creativity as well. I had to really probe into different areas of my life and different events in my day to find new sources of gratitude. I noticed a subjective shift in my mindset after a few months of doing this, where I would start to notice things I was grateful for when I wasn't doing the exercise, and become more grateful for having mistakes I could learn from. Not that I made more mistakes, I just responded in a more positive way.

Comment author: westward 16 August 2013 07:44:43PM 0 points [-]

Does this technique require going back and reading entries?

I've kept journals in the past, but never felt comfortable actually reading what I'd written.

Comment author: peter_hurford 16 August 2013 10:38:35PM 0 points [-]

No, it does not.

Comment author: aphyer 23 July 2013 12:23:55AM 0 points [-]

One question regarding the specifics of the 'write stuff down to feel better about it' that doesn't seem to be covered:

After (to take the example from the article) being laid off, I'll probably have a rather negative view of the event. I will feel bad about it, and I will want to blame others. When I write my "feelings regarding the layoff", if they wind up as an angry rant about "my stupid worthless boss" and "my goddamn no-good backstabbing coworkers", does that still work? Or do I need to be more even-handed about this, identify things I might have done wrong and reasons I might have deserved it, admit that it was mostly my fault, etc...?

I don't have access to the books you cite as sources, so it's possible that this is covered specifically in them. But if you can actually boost "happiness, self-esteem, health, and psychological and physical well-being" by writing down an angry rant, I would find that rather surprising.

Comment author: gwern 23 July 2013 12:44:53AM 3 points [-]

You could look at http://lesswrong.com/lw/94t/meta_analysis_of_writing_therapy/ for more details about the instructions in these writing experiments.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 23 July 2013 01:40:55PM *  0 points [-]

When I write my "feelings regarding the layoff", if they wind up as an angry rant about "my stupid worthless boss" and "my goddamn no-good backstabbing coworkers", does that still work? Or do I need to be more even-handed about this, identify things I might have done wrong and reasons I might have deserved it, admit that it was mostly my fault, etc...?

I don't know the specifics of writing this sort of journal, but I do want to point out that "my stupid worthless boss" and "my goddamn no-good backstabbing coworkers" are not feelings. They are beliefs about the situation, and as such are true or false. If you anticipate believing these things in the future, you might as well go ahead and believe them now, and start getting your resume out pronto.

ETA: Something that had not occurred to me when writing that is that I'm getting laid off in about six weeks time. But I've seen it coming at least a year out. Too complicated, idiosyncratic, and irrelevant story to go into any detail about, but I've simply counted my money, counted what I want to do with my time, and am not actually inconvenienced by it.

Comment author: Xodarap 20 July 2013 03:43:06PM 0 points [-]

Anyone have tips to measure the effectiveness of interventions like this?

Comment author: Roman_Duda 18 August 2013 03:55:14PM 1 point [-]

You can measure your happiness using the measures that positive psychologists use, for free, here: http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/

Comment author: peter_hurford 21 July 2013 08:35:30AM 0 points [-]

In general, scientific study. For an individual personally, I think youd have to rely on introspection.