Gratitude Journals – Do They Really Work?

Gratitude journals have become extremely popular with many therapists, coaches, and psychologists who have discussed them with their clients. Sometimes called “counting your blessings” or “three good things,” it involves writing down at least three things you are grateful for on a regular basis. Journal entries can be full sentences or a single word.

The idea being that when you start registering what you’re grateful for, you start training your brain to search for more things to be grateful for. A simple search online for the benefits of a gratitude journal reveals tremendous support for the success of gratitude journals in improving mental and physical health. This includes reducing stress, improving sleep, feeling more optimistic about the future, overcoming loneliness, and reducing anxiety.

But where is the science behind all this?

A study reported by found that people who wrote down 3 good things that happened in their day, along with the cause, felt significantly happier and less depressed even 6 months after the study ended. Physiological changes associated with journaling gratitude included a drop in blood pressure and heart rate as well as stimulation of digestion.

Expressing gratitude has been shown to release hormones from our brains, including:

Dopamine- Triggers positive emotions

Serotonin – Improves our mood, willpower and motivation

Oxytocin – Calming effect

So, research suggests that regular gratitude journals could really support our mental and physical fitness.

But are there any downsides?

It may be possible to “overdo” a gratitude journal. If you make too long a list of things to be grateful for and find it hard to find things to write down, you may end up feeling less grateful than if you didn’t keep a journal! In one study, people who filled in their gratitude journal weekly were happier after six weeks than those who filled it in three times a week. If you’re having trouble finding things to include in your gratitude journal, try reducing the frequency or number of things you include in your journal.

Gratitude can be confused with indebtedness. Someone may have done something for you, but if you feel like you owe them now, any appreciation can be overridden by the need to pay them back. Check your entries – Do you feel a positive emotion as a result of the gratitude entry?

Focusing on gratitude shouldn’t mean we completely ignore the negatives. You also have to pay attention to the things in your life that are not as you would like them to be. An alternative approach to the standard gratitude journal is to write down 3 things you are grateful for and one thing you would like to improve. Obviously, the individual task of writing down an area for improvement is unlikely to change it without further action, but writing it down as part of a gratitude journal can help balance the negative with the positive.

In summary, the neuroscience of keeping a gratitude journal seems worthy of consideration for all of us, but like so many tools at our disposal, not all tools work for everyone, so we would do well to be cautious.