How Gratitude Journalling Changed My Life

Believe me, I am the most cycnical person I know. Unwittingly, behind every too-kind gesture, unctuous compliment, and altruistic move, I always looked for the ulterior motives and deceit. It is neither intentional nor something I’m proud of to admit my cold-bloodedness, but the miserable truth of it is that I usually see the worst, most practical version of things.

That’s why, when I heard about gratitude journalling as a legitimate method to substantially improve your mood, I thought it was wishy-washy and silly. All you have to do is write 3 things you are grateful for, and you feel happier? How was it that simple? How on Earth could my brain be so easily tricked?

But I did it, several times, failing initially. I had attempted it half-heartedly and while multitasking, did it as though checking off boxes, tried it through mobile apps and little notepads, and for some reason, it never quite clicked for me.

Then, just a week ago, during a lingering pit of despair that the current situation evokes, I tried it again, this time earnestly, thoroughly, writing with vivid, poetic detail the sights, emotions, and sensations that a particular moment brought, and call it placebo or wishful thinking, but I felt better. For me, to do it effectively, it required patience, a sort of whole-hearted belief in what I was writing, and just a tad bit of creativity. For me, scribbling down 3 bullet points with single-word descriptions didn’t quite do it for me- it felt hollow and obvious- but journalling the important aspects of my gratitude did help me.

There are a few reasons why I think it did.

Gratitude makes you notice the good things over the bad.

One of my favourite quotes from Lady Bird is when Sister Joan remarks in the form of an innocent question, “Don’t you think that maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?”

We are the sum of what we pay attention to, where our mind travels and our thoughts wander. Our attention is a measure of love, of care, and of attitude. To harness that focus into the positive, rewarding areas of life, rather than the negative, uncontrollable, fear-evoking, reminds us of what to pay attention to. We give our attention to a whole host of anxious, uninspiring channels, whether it’s a tedious scroll of social media or the chores that we don’t want to do or the unappealing monotony of a day job, but we never realize that there’s so many other places to put attention into.

Instead of sulking over the boredom of washing dirty dishes piled up haphazardly, I enjoy and appreciate that the kitchen sink faces a window into my backyard, where I stare into an unkept yet relaxing array of plants. Instead of focusing on another repetitive day of work, I focus on how I’m glad to be earning income while having the chance to help my co-workers.

There are always two sides to every coin, and it is entirely our choice which one to look at. Gratitude journalling just helps us tip the scales in a favourable direction.

Gratitude makes you look forward to the good things.

My personality naturally directs me towards the logistical, urgent matters of the day- which, before quarantine, were catching the bus at the right minute or getting work in before a deadline. I wake up and that’s where my mind goes- which is good, because it keeps my busy life in check, and bad, because I never woke up happy or inspired. What is the point of going about your day if you don’t source some sort of joy from it?

Gratitude made me ponder and visualize where my joy would come from each day. Could have been a new release of a show or a takeout meal from my favourite restaurant. Could have been catching the wind while going biking. Once you do it enough times, you have to start getting creative, and that only makes it more fun. Could be how I could wear a different sweater at each morning’s Zoom call. Gratitude never runs out.

Gtatitude puts you in the moment.

Gratitude journalling has made me actively seek out mood-boosting things to write about. While I would otherwise neglect to give it another thought, I now deeply appreciate small, immediate, momentary things to a greater degree.

The woolly blanket wrapped around my shoulder, or the candle in my bedroom, or the Moleskine journal I have on order, or the wind rushing in through my window. Gratitude is a little alert that draws your attention to the wonderful, basic simplicity of the things we’d normally take for granted.

There is a window in my kitchen where the sun shines through and it casts a glow right across the room to a tall glass display. While waiting for my food to heat up with my headphones on, I sometimes get lost in the rhythm of the music and start singing in the middle of the kitchen. And on a particular spin, I turned around and caught the silhouette of myself dancing in the cabinet glass, and for a moment, I stopped and smiled. You forget how many times you’re happy without knowing it. As Kurt Vonnegut says better, “I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

Gratitude journalling has put me in a new world of thought- one of enough, of plenty, of generosity, of attention and love. It is a game you get lost in. I found myself grateful for literacy and speech and written word, that I had this historically rare privilege of transcribing my thoughts second by second on a page.

I found myself grateful for sadness, for it is the dear and near cousin of joy. Happiness is surrounded, preceded and suceeded by sadness, but it is also only as great as it is because we’ve experienced sadness. And sadness is this binding element that all of humanity has in common, in times of suffering, crisis, poverty, and uncertainty.

Listening to a song on Spotify a while ago, a lyric hit me with a rude awakening, “Cynicism isn’t wisdom, it’s a lazy way to say that you’ve been burned.” You can focus on the very worst, as a cynic would. Or, you can focus on the very best.

Part of happiness is choosing to be happy. It is daring to see the silver lining while your world falls apart. It is admiring the frivolous things for a crumb of joy, but I tell you, it is never just a crumb. Appreciating the most basic creates a multiplying yield of joy in everything.

Valuing the most basic makes you realize how everything else is just a footnote. You have enough as it is, you always did.

Just try it, for a few days, but really try to put your heart into it. Try to visualize it in your head, to come back to it, to describe it fully. Be a fool. Trust that things are good, trust that the good always outweighs the bad. And with enough practice, you’ll believe it.

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Michelle Lu

A young person trying to figure out life. A misadventurer, an explorer, a philosopher, a risk taker and a mistaker.