When life is hard, it’s hard to see the positive things.
During a challenging experience, it’s understandable to want to stay in your head and repeat the negative thoughts or feelings in a loop. Why think positive when everything feels terrible? Worry demands attention, and often looms larger than anything else.
But getting control of those negative thoughts can have a huge impact on your mental health, and even your physical health. A simple way to tame those negative thoughts and keep them at bay is to ground yourself in the present and express gratitude for the things you do have in your life.
It might seem counterintuitive to slow down and think positive when everything in your life is telling you to feel anxious and stressed. But actually this is when gratitude can make the biggest positive difference.
If you’ve never kept a gratitude journal before, it’s a simple and enriching way to recognize all the wonderful things you have going on. Instead of worrying about the future or feeling regretful about the past, you can re-center your thoughts and re-familiarize yourself with all the wonderful people and resources that you would have normally taken for granted.
Below are some simple ways to appreciate the little things in your life. You might surprise yourself with what you find!
The benefits of gratitude journaling
If you’re new to practicing gratitude and wondering why everyone from Oprah Winfrey to Elizabeth Gilbert seems to recommend it, then you’ll be happy to know that there are myriad mental and physical benefits to gratitude, including:
- Boosting self esteem
- Being more mindful and present
- Cultivating friendships
- Becoming more resilient
- Getting a good night’s sleep
And according to this study, expressing gratitude can improve your mental health and outlook:
“One group wrote about things they were grateful for that had occurred during the week. A second group wrote about daily irritations or things that had displeased them, and the third wrote about events that had affected them (with no emphasis on them being positive or negative). After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation.”
Practicing gratitude doesn’t mean that you have to ignore the realities of your life or pretend that everything is okay. It’s just a nice way to help you see the other side of things.
It’s easy to succumb to negative thoughts and worries, but gratitude journaling can help you see the big picture. You can think of it as “an assignment you’ve created for your brain.”
Rather than forcing yourself to be positive when you don’t feel like it, a gratitude journal is a practical way to rein in your negative thoughts and give your brain something else to focus on.
Plus, your journal is a safe space to express all your concerns, worries, and doubts. After expressing yourself, you can see if there’s a way to glean a positive outcome or an important lesson from this. Maybe you’ll realize that you’ve had a similar problem in the past and if you were able to overcome those challenges then, you’ll be equipped to handle them now.
5 ways to keep a gratitude journal for stress relief
1. Positive lessons
Use your current journal or notebook to unload any heavy thoughts occupying your mind. Write without judgment or planning -- just get those abstract, complex feelings out on the page. Don’t feel pressured to be insightful and write beautiful prose -- even a simple “I don’t like this!!!” can feel like a release.
Afterwards, see if there’s anything positive that can come from this experience. If you’re struggling to find any benefits, maybe it can be something small like, “This experience is teaching me how to ______.” Or, “I know this feeling will pass.”
2. Five senses
This exercise that Elizabeth Gilbert practices is great to do in your journal or for walking outside. This exercise is especially useful if your mind is whirling with worry and you need a way to appreciate the here and now:
“Take note of five things that you can see, four things that you can hear, three things that you can feel, two things that you can smell, and one thing that you can taste. Taking a few minutes to do this a few times a day will quite literally return you to your senses.”
3. Happiness compass
There are going to be times when you feel lost or unmoored in life. This can happen especially after big personal or professional changes, like graduating college or losing a job, or if you feel like you’ve been stuck in the same routine. In these moments, we can feel a strong yearning or stirring for something more.
If you’re feeling this way, take the Ink+Volt Happiness Compass exercise. This exercise uses guided questions to help you reflect on the things that truly make you happy. Once you determine your true north, you can start steering yourself in the direction that makes you feel good, rather than grasping at quick fixes.
4. Heart of the matter
This exercise can help you recognize the people, places, and things that make your life and your heart feel full. It’s easy to take for granted the friends and loved ones that have been there for us, but when we take a second to recognize and appreciate them, we can witness how wonderful and how truly lucky we are in our current lives.
Identify the people, places, and things that inspire these pillars of your life:
5. Gratitude table
This is an exercise that you can do alone or with co-workers or loved ones. If you’re in a meeting, go around and express what you appreciate about each person. Make sure to listen to what they have to say about you too!
If you’re doing this exercise alone, write a list of people in your life and write down what you love, appreciate, or respect about them. And if you could write a letter of appreciation to yourself, what would it say?
If you’d like more prompts to help inspire your gratitude practice, you can find little gratitude challenges in the Ink+Volt Gratitude Journal. It even has inspirational quotes to encourage and motivate you during tough times.
If you’re ever feeling worried about a tough personal or professional situation, try to take a deep breath and remember that you already have so much goodness in your life, including the present moment.