I encourage you to keep a gratitude journal. It is useful to focus not only on negative symptoms and suffering, but also on themes of positivity, joy, meaning, and gratitude.
What is a gratitude journal? It is quite simple! It involves writing down things you feel sincerely thankful for…
Emmons and McCulluough (2003) stated that gratitude-journaling exercises are associated with better sleep, increased well-being, and reductions of physical pain. O’Leary and Dockray (2015) demonstrated that simple exercises of gratitude journaling are beneficial for well-being. Researchers showed that gratitude influenced the hypothalamus and the brain regions associated with the neurotransmitter dopamine, as well it increased the production of serotonin (Korb, 2015; Zahn et al., 2009).
So, there is science that proves that gratitude journaling not only feels good, and helps you feel better, but it even changes your brain!
If you have suffered a lot in your life, with depression, anxiety, trauma, or physical pain, it may be very hard for you to think of things you feel grateful for. In fact, you may object to the exercise altogether! It might seem like you would be just “forcing yourself” to think of something positive to say. It might feel like another example where your suffering was not being addressed, and instead you were just being asked to “be happy.” But I believe that gratitude journaling is a very, very powerful idea. It is not a substitute for addressing your pain and suffering. If you have suffered, it is important to express that freely! But it is also important, as a component of your therapy, to spend time regularly focusing on those parts of your life, or your world, that are good, healthy, and beautiful. This focus will introduce more balance into your life, and will even allow you to express your pain with greater poise and clarity.
While I often count my blessings, I think it’s very healthy to actually take some time to write them down on paper on a daily basis. Writing my gratitude brings joy and satisfaction as I deliberately take more time to savour the blessings and the happy moments that happen in my life.
Here are some short and long examples that I had written:
I am thankful for the beautiful autumn leaves.
I am thankful for having fresh air to breathe.
I am thankful that I feel physically comfortable today.
I am thankful for my friends.
I am thankful for visiting places where people greet me with a big smile, a warm “welcome back,” and sometimes a funny joke.
I am thankful because I can sing and play musical instruments.
I am lucky to have a couple of teachers, whom I have known for a decade or even more. They are not really teachers, but they are “my teachers." They helped and inspired me. Whenever we meet, we treat each other with respect and genuineness. They don’t treat me as someone beneath them but as an equal. When I share my good news with them, they are always happy for me. They encourage me, and sometimes, they challenge me. While I often express my gratitude, the most wonderful form of gratitude is to actually give back to the community. I aspire to be like my teachers, to pass on all the kindness that I have received. I am happy to be part of this beautiful cycle of sharing and passing on kindness.
As I am starting my counselling practice, there have been twists and turns on the road. However, there has also been a lot of genuine encouragement and support. I feel very grateful to see health care professionals being so kind, initiating, and showing their interest in referring clients to me. I appreciate their empathy as well as their enthusiasm in helping. Even just the thought of wanting to help or wanting to connect me to others really moves me. It reminds me of the spirit of the health care system. I just wanted to take this opportunity to reflect and say thank you to those who genuinely care. In life, we need those twists and turns on the road: they can make the destination much sweeter.
Developing a daily routine of gratitude journaling is very satisfying; writing good things down can give us better “lenses” to focus on the positive things. Sometimes even in situations that involve disappointments or setbacks, you can teach yourself to derive positive meaning from them, such as the lessons learned or the insights that foster growth. Also, after counting your blessings, those negative experiences would likely become much less important and would lose their power over you. I see that gratitude journaling improves my sense of well-being! A very easy method to start is to write down three to five positive things that you are thankful for each day!
A next step for gratitude journaling is to personally express gratitude to the people in your life who have helped you. Write a thank-you note, send a gratitude email, or bring a small gift. Pay a visit and express your gratitude face to face!
As I wrap this post up, I would like to introduce two songs to you, with therapeutic lyrics, which talk about gratitude: Flashlight by Bethany Mota and Better Place by Rachel Platten. I don’t know what or who is your “flashlight” and what makes your place a “better place.” I’d like to encourage you to keep an open mind and to appreciate goodness in your life, such as the people who love you, the religion you believe in, your passions, your hobbies, your strengths, nature, cultures, good books, education, knowledge, art, food, music, and all the other positive things. Let these be your “flashlight,” as they together can make your place a “better place.”
Affirmation: I enrich my life when I give thanks and write down what I am thankful for each day.
Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 377-389. doi:10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.117
Korb, A. (2015). The upward spiral: Using neuroscience to reverse the course of depression, one small change at a time. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
O'Leary, K., & Dockray, S. (2015). The effects of two novel gratitude and mindfulness interventions on well-being. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 21(4), 243-245. doi:10.1089/acm.2014.0119
Zahn, R., Moll, J., Paiva, M., Garrido, G., Krueger, F., Huey, E. D., & Grafman, J. (2009). The neural basis of human social values: Evidence from functional MRI. Cerebral Cortex, 19(2), 276-283. doi:10.1093/cercor/bhn080