You know how an hour-long yoga practice is sort of magical in how it can transform your day? Well, gratitude journaling has the same type of magic … and the power to shift your entire life.
I have cultivated a gratitude practice, interwoven with my yoga practice, for more than a decade. It started for me as I was emerging from a toxic romance and in the throes of a bitter heartbreak. I knew I needed to pull myself out of my depression. Yoga classes, coffee with friends, and even talk therapy wasn’t enough.
That’s when I pulled out an old notebook and forced myself to list 10 things I was grateful for. I decided to do that every day. By the time I filled up the notebook, I was laughing again and moving on with my life.
If you know me personally and have shared your troubles with me, chances are I’ve encouraged you to start gratitude journaling, too. I consider it the ultimate safe-care tool.
Gratitude seems like something you either have or you don’t, but it’s much more fluid. In the past, I used to create a negative feedback loop in my head: I wasn’t grateful enough, and that made me a worse person, and thus there was less to be grateful for, and on and on.
Ugh! It reminds me of the old saying, “Don’t believe everything you think!” Just like yoga and most skills, gratitude takes practice to master.
When things just aren’t going your way, it’s easy and natural to focus on the problem. After all, as yoga teachers, we want everything to be peaceful both outside and inside of us. If you don’t face the problem, you can’t find a solution, right? Gratitude journaling lets you be grateful for the solution before you even discover it.
The Science of Gratitude
Have you ever defended the bliss of a good savasana with a simple, “You just have to try it!” Gratitude journaling is the same way, and with a lot of science to back it up.
A 2015 study published in the UK journal called Psychotherapy Research found that patients reported significantly better mental health for months after they initiated a gratitude journaling practice.
Another study reported by Harvard Medical School discovered that expressions of gratitude increased the happiness levels of participants more than any other activity, and the benefits again lingered for more than a month.
Turns out, expressions of gratitude — which don’t have to be shared, by the way — exercises the regions in the brain that regulate stress and produces pleasurable sensations. It’s kind of a “fake it ‘til ya make it” workout for your mental health. And it works.
Steps for Gratitude Journaling
Really, there’s nothing to lose by starting a gratitude journal, besides five minutes in quiet focus. But even that in itself is a gift you can give to yourself. To cultivate (or reignite or even refine!) your gratitude practice, follow these simple steps:
1. Pick a format, any format.
Decide how you want your gratitude journal to look. You can’t go wrong here. I’ve completed gratitude lists in a wide variety of formats, using:
A spiral-bound notebook and an old pencil
A fancy hardbound journal with inspirational artwork and a purple pen
A long list on a note-taking app on my smartphone
A specific gratitude diary app that gave me thoughtful prompts
An annual month-long commitment to a daily gratitude-related social media posting
Collage-style gratitude-focused vision boards
Listing out loud my gratitude before my evening meal
Instead of coming up with an excuse for why you won’t stick to a particular format, find one that will work.
2. List 3-10 things you’re grateful for every day.
You could just list a single thing, if you’re really that short on time. But I’ve discovered that forcing yourself to move past the obvious things, like your pet or a loved one, is when the real magic happens.
For example, let’s say you are grateful for a friend, and you’re grateful for the salad he made you. But then you can find gratitude for the people at the produce stand who sold those veggies. Think about the farmer who harvested everything, the person who picked the olives to make the olive oil for your dressing, and the warmth of the sun that helped make your meal grow.
Soon, you’ll notice that there is a lot to be grateful for. All you need to do is stop and think about it.
3. Commit to the practice.
You might not notice any change at first. Especially when you’re stuck in a rut or find yourself getting sucked into a mental black hole, it can be a challenge to see the bright side. Give it a few weeks. Experiment with yourself.
It comes back to science. The more you do something, the more your brain starts to rewire itself. It’s called neuroplasticity and neurogenesis, and it’s basically a workout for your mental health. Before too long, you will get stronger and feel better.
You’ll still have tough days, that’s just life. When you’re feeling kicked around, go back to your journal. Spend time reviewing your lists from a couple weeks ago. Remember the things that make you feel good, and let go of the stuff that isn’t helping you be your highest self.
Need more ideas to deepen your gratitude? Try incorporating these ideas to your journaling practice:
- Say it loud: Tell a different person every day that you are grateful for them.
- Send love notes: Drop surprise postcards in the mail to those you appreciate.
- Ask others: Encourage those around you to share what makes them grateful. Listen closely.
- Be present: Notice what you’re experiencing with your bodily senses and find new, more subtle reasons to give thanks.
Eventually, you will find that we are living in a world overflowing with gratitude — but it won’t happen overnight. Remember Yoga Sutra 1.14; practice must be done regularly, with enthusiasm, and for a long time before it bears fruit. But what sweet fruit it is, and how grateful we are for it!
Author: Suzanne Wentley- Sponsored by beyogi
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