Breathe New Life Into Your Gratitude Journal

By Dr. Rahan Ali, Ph.D.

You’ve probably heard about gratitude journaling and the many benefits that “counting your blessings” can have on your relationships, mental health, sleep, etc.  Two of the biggest challenges with keeping a gratitude journal are thinking of what to write about and preventing the journal from getting stale. Some of the best ones start out great, but a few weeks or months later, we get tired of seeing the same entries over and over, we “engage” less with what we’re writing about, and it becomes more of a mechanical exercise. Eventually, we stop keeping the journal.

To prevent that from happening and help stimulate our journaling, we can begin making gratitude entries in different categories. Following are several examples that will diversify your entries and energize your gratitude journal.


The Biggies
This category includes areas such as our health, loved ones, good fortune, our higher power, etc.  It’s an important category and one of the most profound to reflect on, and it’s where most gratitude journals begin.  It’s also, however, where most of them stall. The Biggies are so important and we’ve been reminded to appreciate them so much that they become clichés: At least you have your health!  At least nobody was hurt! Finish your food—other people are starving in the world!   Or we develop guilty associations to these because we see their appreciation as more of an obligation than something we do naturally.  Of course, any gratitude journal will definitely have several Biggies, but that doesn’t have to be the only category we use.

The Everyday Stuff
What better way to follow the Biggies than to focus on the smaller, mundane things in life?  You’d be surprised how much potency in gratitude journaling comes from this category. It’s specific (specificity always helps!) and is usually tied to that actual day.  Maybe you got three green lights in a row on your drive in today. Or you learned that issue at work got taken care of before you got to it. Or the toast popped up a perfect golden-brown.  Or it was a sunny day. They’re little things, but sometimes that’s all it takes to have a good day. And when you practice recognizing these in hindsight (for example, if reflecting on the day when gratitude journaling later that night), you eventually start to recognize those things on the fly, while they’re happening.  That accumulation of little everyday things helps to convince us “this is turning out to be a good day.”

Taking Action
Everyone likes a sunny day or having three straight green lights, but it’s not something we have much influence over.  For stressed out, depressed, or anxious people, there’s a tendency to see ourselves in a passive role when it comes to life: stuff happens and we react to it. That’s only natural, but it’s helpful to remember that we help create our good fortune.  This category involves being grateful for the good experiences or outcomes that you helped bring about through your actions.  Maybe you got up earlier than normal today and it allowed you to write that email before you left the house.  Maybe you did some yard work that you’ve been meaning to do. Maybe the dinner you cooked was even tastier than normal; you might normally say “it turned out” good, but don’t rob yourself of the credit!  It turned out good because YOU cooked it that way (even if you don’t know what you did!).

Enjoying Life
This category is exactly what you think it is.  It could be a good meal, a favorite movie, a fun game with family or friends, or a song you love to sing along with.  Busy people sometimes let their gratitude journals focus on work achievements—that’s great, but where’s the fun? When therapists treat people for depression, they usually increase two kinds of activities: 1) activities that produce a sense of accomplishment (work achievements are a big part of this) and 2) activities that produce a sense of pleasure.  Both are important!  But focusing strictly on achievements will lessen your enjoyment in life, and this enjoyment is key to mental health.  Some of the best Enjoying Life items are when it’s unexpected: a movie was better than you thought it’d be, a game was more competitive than it looked at the start, or the shuffle setting for your music found a good song you’d never heard or knew you had.  

What an Age (We Live In)
As we get older, it’s tempting to complain about changes in technology, culture, and the state of the world.  We engage in a cognitive bias that psychologists call “rosy retrospection.” It’s not just remembering the past fondly, but inaccurately remembering the past as better than things are now (and it’s not just older folks—I’ve heard twenty-somethings do it!).  With each passing decade, we add new “rosy memories” to our archive, which sounds good but risks biasing us into thinking our present is continually getting worse!  One way to counteract this tendency is to focus on what we have today—this time, this age—that we can be grateful for. The most common example is a technological advancement (e.g., what an age I live in that I can see and interact with family thousands of miles away).  But if you want to get really creative, you can think of things you don’t always appreciate now but that you might miss in ten or twenty years. The point is to not wait years to look back on today fondly—try to appreciate tomorrow’s nostalgia today!

Character Builders
This last category might seem puzzling and most people wouldn’t think of it, but it’s increasingly important in mental health.  It’s the opportunity to show qualities such as patience, frustration tolerance, or grit. Perhaps you had to show patience with the person ahead of you in line at the bank.  Or that task of cleaning an appliance was harder than you thought. Maybe you had to give a presentation in front of others and you had to sit with that nervousness beforehand.  Although none of these situations is particularly pleasant and you probably wouldn’t have asked for them, can you see how they could build character? And it eventually has benefits: for people that suffer from anxiety, one of the best remedies comes out of learning to tolerate some discomfort.  In areas such as work and school, one of the best predictors of success is higher levels of frustration tolerance. Not everyone is born with these traits—they happen through experiences, so why not be grateful when those experiences happen?


So what do you do with these categories?  Simply start using them. You can ask them as questions every night to help you think of journal entries.  You can survey your last several entries to see if there’s a certain category you haven’t used in a while. You might try to have each category represented periodically.  Personally, I like to have at least one “Taking Action” entry every day, and I also try to have a “What an Age” entry every week. Decide what works for you. You can even create more categories (it’s okay if they overlap) based on what you think you need to appreciate more in life.  The point is to engage more with your journal and diversify it a little: play your own Gratitude Journal Bingo! Good luck!

If you’d like to read more about the effects of gratitude journaling, some great articles can be found here and here.  

This post is for educational purposes only and not intended to diagnose mental health issues or serve as a treatment plan.  It is for the general public and not directed at any one person.