Finding the grateful moments: Reflecting on over 1.5 years keeping a gratitude journal.

In 2018 I completed my own Happiness Project, inspired by Gretchen Rubin’s book by the same name. Before the year began, I decided on one focus for the month. Goals ranged from learning to garden, working on total immersion swimming, to doing something out of my routine every day of the month. (I wrote about the project here, and wrote about each month’s goal on my blog as well).

In September, my goal was to develop a gratitude practice by starting a journal in which I wrote down three things each day that I was grateful for, and wrote about it here. I have maintained that practice, and as I just finished that journal (literally, filled up every page), it presents as a good time to reflect on the practice. Why have I kept this up for so long when so many habits so easily go by the wayside?

Here are some of my thoughts about why this has stuck:

  • It is really easy. It takes me just a minute or two and I do it the very first thing when I crawl into bed at night.
  • I like reflecting on my day each and every day. It’s amazing how often I might be grumpy in the evening, forgetting something joyful earlier in that very same day.
  • When I have trouble finding something to write, it gives me good feedback. Some days aren’t bad, but they also are just not memorable. Or maybe my mood is bad. I can take a moment to reflect on why, and continually do that which brings me joy more often.
  • Sometimes I am surprised at the items I write down. I am quite a hermit, but spending time with people whether on a call or meeting for an outside adventure, always makes it to the list – so maybe I should make sure to do more of it!
  • I like looking back. If you keep a journal, you can look back and reflect. I’m sure I would love that, but it would take a lot more time and while it has been a practice, it isn’t currently. But with the simple, quick, gratitude journal I can get enough snippets to remember what was going on in my life this time last year, etc.

Am I a happier person because of it? 

The touted purpose of a gratitude practice is often to shift your mindset to being more positive and seeing events as positive. However, actually measuring that in myself is a difficult feat. I do not go about my day thinking – oh, that is something to put in my gratitude journal. Indeed, I do not think I give it a moment of thought before I start writing. But, I cannot imagine that examining my day to look for the positive moments is going to do anything but make me a little more positive. If each day I go to sleep remembering something I am grateful for, even though I cannot measure it, I think it adds up to help keep me positive.

What now? 

I write this in 2020 amidst a global pandemic, in a country with some of the highest infection rate numbers where wearing a mask has become a political issue. In the midst of global protests for race equality, in support of Black Lives Matter, and calls to overhaul our policing system and to use resources differently. With uncertainly of the future ahead, heightened for people who have lost jobs and those with children who may or may not have a school to attend in the fall.

It is possible that you struggle in this moment to find the positive, to find things to feel great about, and to find joy everyday.

Starting your own gratitude journal could help you thrive in this period of time. As I wrote about here, I have seen others benefit tremendously from the practice, and what do you have to lose?

Let me know if you do try it, and if you stick with it! What do you like or not like about it?

A year with my gratitude journal.

In 2018 I did my own happiness project. I explained it here. In brief, there is a book by Gretchen Rubin called the Happiness Project in which she writes about her year of trying new habits. I created my own version and attempted a new habit or focus each month for the year. I posted updates throughout even though many months I didn’t quite do what I had planned at the beginning of the year.

One habit, however, has stuck with me, and I realized recently that I have been keeping a gratitude journal quite consistently for over a year now. Here are my reflections on the practice and encouragement to consider your own.

What I do for my gratitude journal

I keep a journal by my bedside. Each evening I write down three things that I’m grateful for. Usually this ends up being three things I enjoyed most about my day. I don’t bring it when I travel, and sometimes forget to start again when I return. I put it in a drawer out of sight if house sitters stay at the house. Eventually I remember, take it out, and resume the practice.

Why I keep doing it

I look forward to it when I crawl into bed. I’m not precisely sure why, but I think I like being forced to reflect on the day behind me. Sometimes I surprise myself when I would think that I had a fine day, but then struggle to come up with anything to write down. Those moments help me to reflect on what really brings me joy, and I have found that this can differ from what I would have previously expected.

I also really enjoy looking back in time. What was going on six months or a year ago? It reminds me of the good times, since that’s my focus, but also gives me points of reference that put me back into that time period to allow me to recall other things going on in my life at the time.

What else do I keep in this journal?

At some point I started a “manifestation journal” in the back of the journal I currently use as my gratitude journal. This is where I put my ginormous big-picture goals that I have in my life. It is less than a page long at the moment. I enjoy looking at it. Sometimes I add to it. Sometimes I chuckle at the audacity of the goals I wrote down that now seem unattainable. But….who knows what will come true before I die. (This podcast with Samin Nosrat was my inspiration for a manifestation journal).

You might consider trying your own

There are numerous journaling activities. If you don’t already have a journaling practice that works for you, this is an easy way to start. If evening isn’t a good time for you, you can do it first thing in the morning, or any other time that suits you (and that you can maintain fairly consistently). I worked with one client who did it whenever they thought of something positive. This isn’t ideal and is likely to wain over time, however, when they were doing it, they reported a huge shift in mindset. This client struggled with depression and this practice gave them a big boost.

When we begin to look for the positive, it can change our mindset. You probably have negative stories in your head that you do not realize are there.

If this practice resonates with you in any way, give it a shot. The worst that can happen is if you decide it isn’t for you.

My Happiness Project : November & December & year-long summary

My experience with a month saying yes to all social opportunities, a failed yoga practice, and my Happiness Project conclusion.

November: This month I was to “say yes to all social invites/seek out social events.” A couple of quizzes have defined me as an ambivert. An ambivert is someone who has characteristics of both extroverts and introverts. While I didn’t know what this was until recently, it makes sense for me. I like to be social, however I spend vast amounts of time alone and I enjoy that. I am no social butterfly, but I can do fine meeting new people if I have the right energy behind me. It can even energize me, but again, I need go in with the right energy. And when not required, I often shy away from social events. Hence, I thought that making it non-negotiable for the month would be a good move to get me out and about and doing more than I might otherwise. It did turn out to be a rather social month, but I didn’t entirely succeed. One evening we were set to go to a movie in town, but after spending 6 straight hours at work writing a single document with two co-workers, I just needed alone time and had no energy left to interact with others.

In conclusion at the end of the month, I think I should continue to be empowered just to be myself. That means recognizing when I am making excuses and getting myself out of the house as often as I am up for it, but also ensuring that I get plenty of down time. It is a constantly changing balance that I just need to be aware of and trying to manage the best I can.

In December, my plan was to do yoga at least 10 minutes per day. I planned this thinking that I would be in the off-season in terms of triathlon training, and thus committing to a yoga practice would be doable time-wise. Instead, I was in the midst of Ironman training for an early March race. I recognize 10 minutes per day is not long, but when facing 1-2 other workouts every day, it isn’t where I wanted to put my energy. I attempted to trade a yoga practice for a journaling practice which I had gotten out of the habit of, but that didn’t quite stick either, so I ultimately ended my Happiness Project a little early.

Overall I am really glad I did this project. I found it particularly valuable when I wanted to try out a practice to see how I liked it (such as a gratitude journal which has stuck with me) and when I wanted to push myself in a way that broadened the way I think about things but didn’t take too much time (such as doing something out of my comfort zone or routine every day). I have not chosen to do the same thing in 2019 as one of my goals for the year is to be more focused on a few things that matter rather than getting too scattered as I tend to do, which means I have less time for everything and am feeling regret over not doing X, Y, and Z all of the time. However, I suspect I may try the Happiness Project thing again down the road.

My Happiness Project: October

My experience trying to do something kind for others everyday for a month as part of my Happiness Project.

As a recap, for 2018 I decided to set a goal for each month and I write about my experience of the month here on my blog. This was inspired by the Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin, an enjoyable book and she recently released an updated edition for its 10th anniversary (though that appears to only be available in a Kindle version).

My task for October was “Kindness – do something kind for someone every day – mostly strangers.” 

I am not an outwardly kind person. If you have are using crutches after an injury or are disabled, or struggling with any task for whatever reason, I am not the most likely person to offer assistance even if it appears you are struggling to accomplish something. If you are a new neighbor, I am unlikely to be the friendly person to bring you a freshly baked pie. And I am unlikely to standout as a particularly wonderful customer, I certainly will not leave an overly generous tip, and it is unlikely that I will make pleasant conversation if I do not have to.

It isn’t that I don’t care, it just isn’t my instinct. In terms of offering assistance, I believe my hesitation stems from my own stubbornness. If I am struggling with something, I usually do not welcome help because I want to do it on my own, however inefficient or painful that may be. Historically it has not occurred to me that others are different.  I avoid small talk because I am shy, and selfishly I am probably having a vibrant conversation in my own head not even recognizing that I could be striking up a conversation. I think my lack of overwhelming kindness to neighbors is also rooted in shyness. As for tipping, that is my own stinginess, or maybe my overall dislike of tipping, but I promise you will get something, and hopefully it will not be noticeably small, just also not noticeably big.

As I age, I am recognizing that while I am stubborn, not everyone is. In the instances when I have thought to offer a hand, every time, my assistance has either been welcomed, or very politely declined. I am also recognizing that just because it isn’t easy to reach out to a neighbor, or strike up a conversation with a stranger, it is no excuse not to do it. Reaching out will enrich my life, and maybe the lives of others. I can learn the skill of conversation, I can learn to reach out and show that I care by making eye contact, asking good questions, and listening fully.

So, in October, I wanted to push that learning curve and to make a conscious effort of being really kind to others.

Whether I was successful or not is a difficult thing to judge. Sometimes my effort involved just a genuine hello to a stranger. I have no way to know if that meant anything to them or not. But I do no that I made more an effort in my own actions. I sincerely complimented other people during this month in ways that I might have shied away from had it not been the month’s task. There were other days when I thought of something but didn’t do it, and still days where I couldn’t even come up with a good idea for kindness. I kept a journal of my kindness acts each day, and one day’s entry was simply “didn’t kill air BnB dog.” The farm dog where we were staying on vacation kept following me when I tried to run, so I had to return back to the property. In my own self-centered world, this action – rather than continuing on my merry way because it was MY run – fit in as my kind act; this is what I’m up against, but at least this month was an improvement.

Awhile back, and I forget where or from whom, but someone said that they had roommates who described them as just there – I think there was a better term but cannot recall it – but the idea was that this person was easy to live with in the sense that they never made a mess they didn’t clean up, or too much noise at bad times. But they also didn’t add anything. No special dinners made for the group, didn’t clean up after others, etc. I think this is kind of like me. I clean up. I care. But I’m not the life of the party, and I’m unlikely to offer much spontaneity or fun. I’m not sure anyone would describe me as mean. But I’m not very memorable either. My hope is to find a nice balance as I continue to age; to reach out more, but I know I will also remain true to myself, living much of my life in my own head.

One thing I love about coaching is that I feel comfortable with being kind. It is my job, and I no longer have hesitation or shyness about making a small gesture. I love nothing more than becoming an expert in a client and pouring my heart into our work together. Sometimes I bring gifts to our sessions, or something on a birthday. Maybe, in part, this is why the profession feels like a great fit for me.

My Happiness Project: September

My experience keeping a gratitude journal for a month. 40% of our happiness is determined by our actions and thoughts.

September: Practice gratitude. Keep a gratitude journal for the month. Learn about other techniques for the practice.

Every day in September I jotted down 3 things at the end of the day that I was grateful for. I had unsuccessfully tried this before for no more than a few days, but I wanted to try again for a longer period of time to see what would happen. I had heard of tales of this practice making people look for gratitude throughout the day (knowing they would have to find things in the evening to write down), thereby making them more positive in everyday life. I am not aware of this effect happening to me, however it is possible that there were subtle unconscious changes. I am much happier this month; though I would attribute it more to a ginormous career shift. Still, I really enjoyed the practice and I have continued with it. I enjoy the daily reflection on what stands out.

A person’s happiness or satisfaction in life is generally believed to be comprised of a small part circumstances (job, home, relationship status, etc – I’m assuming circumstances after ones basic needs are met), a fairly large portion genetic makeup, and then approximately 40% one’s own thoughts and actions. Thus, by focusing on changing our outlook, we can really have a large impact on how we move through the world and our day to day satisfaction.

I recently met with a client who was a little down in everyday life and actually wrote one of his goals as developing a better outlook on life. However, when we started to discuss this more in depth, he laughed and said that it would be impossible to change his outlook. I suggested that he write just one thing each evening that he was grateful for; even if it were the same few things over and over. When we checked in a couple of weeks later, he was absolutely tickled by the exercise. It had an incredible impact! He kept it in his office, wrote many things a day, and sometimes reflecting on it during difficult moments helped to get him past the difficulties and back to work with a better mindset.

For now, I will continue my own practice, and this is a tool I will definitely continue to recommend for the right person at the right time. Have you tried a gratitude journal, what was your experience? Or do you enjoy a similar practice?

As a health coach, I support clients to find the food and way of eating that works best for them. It includes actual foods, as well as practical and emotional factors (such as gratitude!). If you are interested in learning more about that kind of support, contact me to schedule a free health history. You will not be told what to do, but together we will figure out a path forward.