Science Supporting the Year of Gratitude Journal

Live a Happier Life by Cultivating Gratitude and Overcoming Negativity: The Year of Gratitude Journal

The Year of Gratitude Journal provides weekly journal prompts that direct readers to write and to reflect about gratitude, mindfulness, and happiness. Some prompts will challenge you to think deeply about your life in a novel way. Others might be lighthearted tasks. Regardless of the gratitude journal’s weekly topic, which is shared here, we hope that this year-long challenge helps you confront the inevitable stresses of the coming year and bring more contentment to your life.

For more information on the structure of the challenge itself, visit Join the Year of Gratitude Challenge.

Now, let’s talk about the science of gratitude and why our brains can get in the way of our happiness.

A moment to describe in a gratitude journal: An overlook of a lake with mountains in the background and fireweed in the foreground.

The Negativity Trap:  Our Brains Gravitate to Awful Experiences

Our brains are hardwired to resonate more strongly with negative experiences than with good ones, and this trend is universal. Without our brain focusing in on the dangerous and the negative in the environment, our ancestors would have struggled to recall exactly how dangerous and terrifying a particular event was. Let’s say a way, way back ancestor tried to tango with a tiger, and the fiasco ended about as well as one could expect. That ancestor learned that if you tango with a tiger, you’re lucky if the tiger doesn’t eat you.

Ergo, that ancestor’s brain jumped in and focused intensely on how awful the experience was. This hyper negative focus was a learning and defensive mechanism for survival. And once that ancestor survived, more and more of the ancestor’s descendants similarly encountered negative events and experiences and learned from them. Over time, these ancestors hardwired themselves to be on the lookout for negative events or experiences. They would constantly relive them to increase their chances of not eating that awful mushroom that made the whole family violently ill.

In short, humanity has survived because we learned how to identify dangerous and negative experiences and think about the possible repercussions.

Negativity Thinking Can Avoid Negative Events

This evolutionary survival-of-the-most-pessimistic strategy best boils down to an example about regret. Pretend for a moment that you’ve received an offer for your dream fill-in-the-blank-whatever (job, car, partner, house, kitty cat, etc.), but it comes with a few big strings attached. You’re torn about what to do. You can fixate on all the positive things that could result from this offer (cat snuggles or that acreage you’ve always wanted!). You could also fixate on all the possible things that could go wrong (cats destroying your carpet or a large tax bill).

If you focus on the negative, you could decide not to take the opportunity because the risks are too high. You may regret not having the job of your dreams, but nothing bad happened as a result of your choice. If you had taken the dream cat or car, however, you’d be paying frantically googling how to get urine out of carpet or paying those exorbitant taxes on it.

Sure, taxes aren’t exactly the stuff of do-or-die repercussions that cultivated this global tendency to be negative. Still, it’s a relevant enough example for today’s negativity-biased mind. In this way, humanity is fighting an uphill battle against a part of our brains that is as negative as it is primitive.

Negative Experiences Tend to Stick

If you hear a juicy tidbit of salacious gossip about a coworker’s marital woes, that negative information will carry weight. The gossip carries more weight than a story about how she volunteers with the elderly every weekend. If you’ve ever experienced childhood trauma (in which case, I want to hug you), that experience—even if it’s just one admittedly terrible event—is more enduring than any positive childhood experience. In fact, just having a bad day affects the next day’s chances of being negative. Alas, the same is not true of having a good day. In fact, your brain is better at recalling negative events than it is at recalling positive ones. In short, our brains rock at focusing on the negative. This tendency is called negativity bias.

Does this mean we’re doomed to be negative, pessimistic, and miserable all our lives?

Nope.

We just have to choose joy and hardwire in some happiness.

Focusing on Gratitude, Mindfulness, and Happiness Matters

Gratitude is a choice. We can choose to be grateful even when our emotions are steeped in hurt and resentment, or we would prefer our current life circumstances to be different. – Robert Emmons

To some extent, your personality affects your ability to seek out positive experiences, but not always. More importantly, you can be in charge of your own happiness by retraining your brain with more positive experiences. Also, we’re not nuts:  people much smarter than us have scientifically proven that you can retrain your brain.

Generally for any experience to be considered good, it needs about five positive moments for every negative one. This means that you need to identify and to choose to recognize smaller positive experiences in your own life to cultivate a more positive outlook. In Hardwiring Happiness, Rick Hanson developed a four-step process for creating more positive experiences to counteract the brain’s negativity bias. His steps, abbreviated HEAL, are in a nutshell:  Have a positive experience (that means, you know, being on the lookout for positive experiences and recognizing them when they occur), Enrich it, Absorb it (by focusing very hard on it), and Link it to a negative experience to soothe yourself. The last step is optional.

My Hardwiring Happiness Memory

What this practice can look like for you varies, but I’ll share one of my most memorable rewiring moments. I was laying in bed, all snuggled up against my pillow more or less in the fetal position. Then my husband rolled over to cuddle me, and my cat began purring loudly and contentedly next to me.

I had that moment of recognition:  this is a positive experience. I am loved and cherished. My husband is a wonderful partner, and I have a cat that loves me entirely more than a cat should love anyone. In this moment, I am happy. While I was cozy, snuggled up, and loved, I focused very hard on how my body and emotions felt. I did try to connect that moment of peace and security to times where I felt unloved and insecure.

This snuggle-cozy love fest happened over a year ago. I can still vividly remember how powerfully I felt loved in that moment as a result of my choice to focus my mind so intently on it.

So, yeah, maybe we’re a little nuts, but the good kind of nuts:  the kind that moves you toward a happier, more mindful, and more grateful self just by noticing what you already have. You can take control of your attitude and your life. I certainly hope you will do so by joining us for our year-long challenge of cultivating more awareness for what we already have in our lives. We could all be a little more grateful, a little more mindful, and a little more happy.

Journaling Effectively Practices Gratitude at a Deep Level

I journal my joy, and my joy expands exponentially forevermore. So be it. – Amy Leigh Mercree

Journal writing is an effective way to challenge a negative mindset. Journaling  allows us to refocus the brain on positive elements in our lives or to address any challenges we’re facing. Writing is a way to delve into who we are as people. Further, research suggests that expressive writing—the type of writing often found in a gratitude journal as we examine our experiences—can help people accept who they are and gain greater perspective.

In fact, expressive writing may even have improved the physical symptoms and functioning level of cancer patients. I know from my own experience grappling with the chronic pain of fibromyalgia that writing about it and getting to the awful nitty gritty of what I was feeling and experiencing let me better come to terms with my chronic pain and how my life changed.

The Benefits of a Gratitude Journal

Moreover, gratitude is a game changer because it affects so many other elements of our lives. According to the Harvard Medical School, “gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.” So, by cultivating gratitude, we also cultivate happiness and improve our quality of life. How do we cultivate gratitude? By taking a moment to pause and to be mindful. Gratitude, mindfulness, and happiness are interconnected.

According to research, people who keep various kinds of gratitude journals tend to have more optimistic life outlooks, exercise more regularly, have a healthier immune system, make better progress toward personal goals, and are more supportive and helpful to others. Additionally, people who practice gratitude feel less lonely, sleep better, have lower blood pressure, and are more resilient in stressful situations. These benefits certainly appeal to me, and I imagine they appeal to you too.

A gratitude journal lets you better connect to yourself and what you’re grateful for. You can make lists every day. At least one study has suggested, however, that keeping a weekly gratitude journal is more effective than writing every day. Regardless of how often you choose to chronicle your gratitude, we’d certainly suggest being mindful and attuned to those daily positive experiences. This mindfulness will help rewire your brain. In doing so with focus and purpose, you’ll be making excellent strides toward a happier life.

Cultivate Gratitude, Mindfulness, and Happiness with Us at the Year of Gratitude Journal

Are we happiness gurus dispensing wisdom while sitting in mammoth caves adjacent to alpine meadows blooming with delicate wildflowers?

Umm. In a word, no. In two, absolutely not.

We are, however, two friends committed to making our corner of the earth a more positive place by choosing joy.

We hope you’ll choose to be joyful with us.

Bibliography for the Year of Gratitude:

Baumeister, Roy F., Ellen Bratslavsky, Catrin Finkenauer, and Kathleen D. Vohs. “Bad is Stronger Than Good.” Review of General Psychology, vol. 5, no. 4, 2001, pp. 323-370.

Emmons, Robert. “Gratitude and Well Being: Summary of Findings.” Emmons Lab, http://emmons.faculty.ucdavis.edu/gratitude-and-well-being. Accessed 12 December 2017.

“Giving Thanks Can Make You Happier.” Healthbeat, Harvard Health Publishing, www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/giving-thanks-can-make-you-happier. Accessed 12 December 2017.

Gortner, Eva Marie, Stephanie S. Rude, and James W. Pennebaker. “Benefits of Expressive Writing in Lowering Rumination and Depressive Symptoms.” Behavior Therapy, vol. 37, issue 3, 2006, pp. 292-303.

Emmons, Robert. “Why Gratitude Is Good.” Greater Good Magazine, 16 November 2010, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_gratitude_is_good. Accessed 11 December 2017.

Hanson, Rick. Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence. Harmony, 2013.

Hardy, Benjamin P. “Why Keeping a Daily Journal Could Change Your Life.” Medium, 26 June 2017, https://medium.com/the-mission/why-keeping-a-daily-journal-could-change-your-life-9a4c11f1a475. Accessed 12 December 2017.

Marsh, Jason. “Tips for Keeping a Gratitude Journal.” Greater Good Magazine, 17 November 2011, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/tips_for_keeping_a_gratitude_journal. Accessed 12 December 2017.

Milbury Kathrin, Amy Spelman, Christopher Wood, Surena F. Matin, Nizar Tannir, Eric Jonasch, Louis Pisters, Qi Wei, and Lorenzo Cohen. “Randomized Controlled Trial of Expressive Writing for Patients With Renal Cell Carcinoma.” Journal of Clinical Oncology, vol, 32, no. 7, 2014, pp. 663-670.

Morin, Amy. “7 Scientifically Proven Benefits Of Gratitude That Will Motivate You To Give Thanks Year-Round.” Forbes, 23 November 2014, www.forbes.com/sites/amymorin/2014/11/23/7-scientifically-proven-benefits-of-gratitude-that-will-motivate-you-to-give-thanks-year-round/#4427a7e6183c. Accessed 10 December 2017.

Rubin, Gretchen. The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun. Harper Paperbacks, 2015.