Since March 2020 I have been keeping a gratitude journal. I started writing it a couple of weeks before the first lockdown started, unaware of the pandemic that was about to turn the world upside down.
I started it as a way to cultivate gratitude after reading various studies about the positive impact being grateful has on health and wellbeing. I remember a tutor on my therapy training speaking about a study which showed that the biggest predictor of happiness was gratitude, ahead of any other factors. I was struck by that, but hadn’t got round to doing anything about it until a year ago.
I believed I was broadly optimistic as a person, trusting that things would generally work out ok. I realised that beneath that on a day-to-day level I could be quite negative, focusing on short-term worries, or things that were lacking. I wanted to change that. I wasn’t prepared for how transformative keeping a gratitude journal during a global pandemic would be.
My version of keeping a gratitude journal involves writing down at least three things I am grateful for every day, just before I go to bed. Some days I find that easier than others. On tough days it might take a huge effort to scrape together something like:
1. Pie for tea
2. Cuddles with the cat
3. Walk in the local park.
On easier days I’ll quickly list five, even six happy events- e.g:
1. Making a great pizza for tea
2. Watching a silly Netflix thriller
4. Cat purring next to me
5. Sunny walk
6. Long chat with a friend.
These aren’t generally profound occurrences, but mundane ones. It’s hard to say whether outside of a pandemic I would be feeling the same level of gratitude for these little things. Everything has felt magnified over the last year, in the context of a life lived almost entirely at home, with my partner, my cats, my sourdough starter, the houseplants.
When to write it
I find the habit of writing mine just before bed, every evening, really useful. There has been something anchoring about the routine of doing this throughout a year of pandemic-fuelled uncertainty. I have found that at the end of every single day of this pandemic I have been able to come up with at least three things that I feel genuinely grateful for. This has helped get me through some rough times. It’s shown me that whatever is happening in the world and however bleak it might all be feeling, I’m getting through it and there’s joy to be found.
Other people like to write theirs every morning, to start the day on a positive footing. For some a daily practice does not suit, and writing once or a couple of times a week is more effective, perhaps writing in more detail about the things you are grateful for. It’s about finding a way of doing this that works for you, and only sticking with it if it's useful.
An alternative to keeping a journal is writing gratitude letters. This involves writing a letter to someone you’re grateful to, often (though not always) with no intention of actually giving it to the person. This could be a good option if it feels easier to focus your gratitude on a particular person, rather than on your daily experiences.
I’m finding that the act of recording things I’m grateful for is changing my focus. I’ve started to register things during my day that I know I’ll write down that evening, things that may have otherwise gone unnoticed. I feel a greater sense of happiness and satisfaction in the little things, which add up to quite a lot actually, in the context of a year of a pandemic. With so much put on hold, postponed, cancelled. Taking joy in a blue sky, a cuddle with a pet, a triumphant sourdough loaf: these things matter right now, and bring comfort and- yes- happiness.