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Gratitude journaling 101

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Quizlet is proud to partner with real students to showcase authentic voices on our blog. This guest post is by Trevor Mahoney, a Finance and Management Information Systems major at Santa Clara University.

During this season of the year, it’s important to reflect on the things in your life that you are thankful for. And with November midterms on the horizon, it may do you some good to stop and take a moment to refresh.

Gratitude journaling is a great way to do this. This positive activity can help improve your mental health and remind you of all the good that exists in your life.

Before actually diving into the thick of it, though, it’s important to look at what exactly gratitude journaling is, as well as the potential benefits it may offer.

What is gratitude journaling?

In short, gratitude journaling is the practice of recording and reflecting on items that you are either thankful or happy for. The activity is meant to force you to focus on the positive aspects of your life and to become more accepting of the negatives that will inevitably occur.

Gratitude journaling was originally introduced as an aspect of positive psychology. As discussed on Psychology Today, positive psychology:

  • Values meaning and deep satisfaction over temporary happiness
  • Identifies and builds mental assets, rather than focusing on weaknesses
  • Emphasizes determining one’s own character strengths

In simpler terms, positive psychology encourages focusing on the positive. Gratitude journaling emerged as a way to keep track of those positive things.

Students face substantial stress and it’s easy to get down on ourselves. Keeping a gratitude journal can help with overall mental health and just make you feel more positive in general.

gratitude journaling outside.jpgImage by StockSnap from Pixabay

How can I get started?

The awesome thing about gratitude journaling is that there is no one way to do it. This is supposed to be a reflective activity, so you should do it in a way that feels comfortable.

If you’re old-fashioned, grab a piece of paper or empty notebook. If you prefer to add a little bit of technology into your life, open a Word document or Notes app.

To create your first entry, just write down the things you are thankful for or what makes you happy. Again, there is no right or wrong way to tackle this.

You could use bullet points or long, thought-out paragraphs. Really, the only requirement is to write in such a way that reading back what you wrote triggers a flood of positive emotions.

With that in mind, there are a few general guidelines you should follow when attempting this activity:

1. Avoid surface-level writing

The purpose of maintaining a gratitude journal is to have something that reminds you of the positive and trains you to recall those good feelings, improving your overall mindset. But just writing surface-level details about events or people that made you happy isn’t going to do the trick.

Look at it like this: Which of these examples is better?

This afternoon, Becky bought me a cookie from the university dining hall.


I mentioned to Becky how much I love the cookies in the dining hall, and she bought me one today as a surprise during lunch. It meant a lot knowing that she listened to me and thought about me enough to buy a cookie for me.

These are relatively simple examples, but you get the idea. You want to pour your emotion into the paper and really describe what happened and why it warrants being added to your gratitude journal. It’s less about what you write and more about how something made you feel.

2. Be consistent, not excessive

Journaling isn’t something that needs to be done every day. There won’t be some monumental event happening every time you step outside and you don’t need to write in your journal just to write.

You should reserve the pages of your journal for things that actually matter to you. Normal journaling is fine to do every day when you’re just jotting down thoughts, but gratitude journaling is introspective.

In fact, a study from UC Berkeley polled people who wrote in their gratitude once a week for six weeks vs. people who wrote in their journal three times a week. At the end of the study, the group who only wrote in their journal once a week reported higher happiness boosts.

Your brain adapts to positive activities and treats them like normal events if you focus on them every day. It seems counterintuitive, but getting the best effects from a gratitude journal is done by periodic writing, not constant writing. That means you should save the gratitude journaling for events that warrant it.

3. Emphasize surprises

As mentioned, one of the biggest goals for gratitude journaling is to elicit emotion when you read back on the pages. Even if you are writing in-depth entries, it can still be hard to feel the same emotion you felt the day you wrote that entry. That’s why you should focus on surprises.

As covered on a session of the New York Public Radio, the brain goes through something known as the surprise sequence whenever a surprise occurs. The unexpected rush of emotions that accompanies a surprise causes your brain to release a neuro alert that tells your body something important just happened.

Your cognitive abilities are overwhelmed, and for a brief moment in time, you are completely absorbed in what just happened. It’s estimated that your emotions, good or bad, are amplified by up to 400 percent.

Therefore, happiness and joy are all amplified when you go through a positive surprise. That’s also why you want to focus on adding surprises into your journal above all else. They will elicit the strongest reactions once more when you read back on them.

Had a tough day of class? That’s alright. Go back to the surprise section of your journal for a quick pick-me-up!

There really is no wrong way to start a gratitude journal. It doesn’t need to be a daily activity. It’s as easy as starting a new note on your smartphone. Just make sure your reflections are deep and thought-out. For a little inspiration to get started, here’s some great prompt ideas from Intelligent Change:

  • What is an opportunity I have today that most people don’t?
  • What positive quality can I find within something I think will suck today?
  • What do I appreciate about the city I live in?
  • What is one good thing that happened during the day?
  • What relationship am I grateful for?

Once you get that ball rolling, you’ll be sucked in. Start filling out that journal today.

Want more prompts? Check out this Quizlet study set for more ideas.

students working together gratitude.jpgImage by StockSnap from Pixabay

Why Should I Take Up Gratitude Journaling?

Now that we’ve covered what exactly gratitude journaling is, where it comes from, and how to do it, it’s time to look at what you get out of this activity. Spoiler: These mental benefits are extremely rewarding. Here are a few of the most prominent:

1. Increased positivity

As mentioned, it’s easy to get down on yourself as a student. Maybe you failed a test that you studied super-hard for, or maybe your group didn’t do so well on a project. Regardless of what has you down, taking the time to start a gratitude journal can keep negative thoughts at bay.

2. Stress reduction and improved mental health

On the same line of thought as positivity, students are a hotspot for stress. It feels as though we have midterms all the time. Final projects come crashing down all at once.

But studies have shown that writing down what you’re thankful for can lead to better sleep and lower stress levels.

A study conducted on university students found that depression was prevalent in 13.8% of undergraduate students and 11.3% of graduate students. The daily stress in college is a serious problem, but the study found that gratitude tracking mitigated it. This study tracked depression symptoms before and after gratitude journaling and the numbers were fairly lower for those who stuck with their tracking.

Acknowledging gratitude unlocks positive emotions in the brain that can reduce stress and improve overall mental health.

3. Improved focus on what matters

Far too often in college, we focus on the assignments piling up and the tests on the horizon. With so much to do, it can be easy to get lost in the stressful aspects of university life. Taking the time to write down what we are thankful for and the things that make us happy is a great way to switch up this mindset.

Robert Emmons from UC Davis conducted a gratitude test to see if this improved mindset would actually benefit students. The summary of his findings revealed that those who kept a gratitude list over a two-month period were more likely to make serious progress on life goals, compared to those who did not keep a journal.

Getting lost in the stress of life will only bog you down. Balancing those negative emotions with positive ones can help bring you back to reality.

Start a gratitude journal today

It is all too easy to get lost in the hustle and bustle of life. With a million assignments coming up and midterms throughout the month of November, you may believe that you don’t have time to set up a gratitude journal. Taking the time to do this, though, may help you perform better on your goals both academically and personally.

During the season of thanks, take the time to reflect and be grateful. Every person has something to be thankful for. Acknowledging it can help you gain a more upbeat mindset. So, get that pen and paper or keyboard ready and begin journaling today!

Trevor Mahoney is wrapping up his last year at Santa Clara University where he studies Finance and Management Information Systems. He has been an avid reader his whole life, which evolved into a passion for writing while he studied abroad in New Zealand last year. He is currently searching for a post-college job and hopes to work at the intersection of business and technology.


  1. garco10

    I did not know this can help us deal with problems.

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