6 Writers Share How They Use Gratitude Journaling to Shift Their Mindsets
Gratitude may be something we devote time to around the Thanksgiving table every fall — but beyond that, how often do we acknowledge the things in our life that have blessed us, helped us grow, and perhaps even challenged us in ways we didn’t think were possible? Mindfully expressing gratitude can be a meaningful addition to your self-care routine that’s just as essential as a physical exam, a healthy way to mentally check in and put your life in perspective. Regularly writing out a list of things to be thankful for in a designated gratitude journal is one simple way to do that, but it can be intimidating to get started when there are a multitude of different methods to personalize to your personal style of gratitude. We asked six writers from different professional backgrounds to give us a window into how their own gratitude practices have changed their outlooks monumentally and share how we can incorporate those moments into our own daily lives.
1. Appreciating the Smallest Things: Alexandra Dudley, blogger, recipe developer, and author of Cookbook Land & Sea, has used gratitude journaling for the past 10 years, and she increases her journaling at times when she feels particularly low. “I battle a lot with uncertainty and self-doubt and struggle with anxiety. Working freelance can heighten that feeling of being ‘lost,’ and is often very lonely,” she admits. Her practice is simple: She jots down a list of things that are going smoothly in her life — sometimes every day, or just once a week — and it brings her down to earth. Dudley often repeats certain things from a previous day when she makes lists, but the whole process makes her appreciate that the smallest things, like a hot meal, can be a luxury to some people. “Don’t worry about having to find new things to be grateful for, and don’t feel foolish for cherishing the tiny things, like someone smiling at you on a bus.”
2. Writing Letters to the Things/People Who Have Helped Her Grow: It took Jessica Ciencin Henriquez, a writer, editor, and teacher, until she was in her 30s to come to terms with how much she had to be grateful for — and it made her radically change her perspective on her life, her career, and her personal relationships with family and friends. The persistent voice in her head was her mother’s, who repeated the mantra “Energy Flows Where Your Attention Goes” to Henriquez whenever she felt the need to complain about whatever was going wrong in her life at that moment, like financial problems or issues at work. “For so long, I was focusing on what I didn’t have or what I didn’t like, and so those things continued to multiply. As soon as I realized that it worked the other way around too, I made a point to show gratitude and send energy to what was going right in my life,” says Henriquez. After finally letting her mother’s words sink in at the exact right time, she began her gratitude regime: letter writing, to things and people that others might not think to thank.
“I write letters to the things that have hurt me and helped me grow. I thank the people and circumstances that challenge me, and I thank the people that force me to look at myself honestly. Everyone is here to teach us, and I find that the people that bring out the most pain are giving us the lessons that change our lives the most.” She’s now passed down the gratitude practice to her six-year-old son, who makes a daily list of things that spark happiness — he manages to find joy in the simplest places, Henriquez says, like a tree that provides shade, or a parking spot, no matter how long it takes to find. She’s been inspired to take a page out of her son’s book and say thank you for the little moments in life, which have the power to shift not only your present mood but your entire mindset.
3. Helping to Improve Physical Health: Dr. Heather Bartos, MD, Physician, Blogger, and Owner of Be. Women’s Health and Wellness, has a scientific approach to gratitude: She includes it in her treatment of the “whole woman” in her practice, assuring her patients that it can boost their physical health as well. “Gratitude has scientifically been proven to lower blood pressure and cortisol levels and increase overall feelings of wellness — there is no pill on Earth that can do that.” Dr. Bartos encourages her patients to keep a journal and pick it up especially during the times when they’re not feeling their personal best. “I focus my gratitude practice on what works in the body. So many women are unhappy with their age, their weight, etc., and they forget that the body is a magnificent system and it works for us every minute of the day.” This can be a purely mental check-in as well, she points out — say, while you drive to work or brush your teeth — as long as you have a few moments of appreciation of what your body is capable of.
4. Being Present in the Moment: Alison Canavan — a UCLA-Trained Mindfulness Facilitator, Wellness Coach, Speaker, and Award-Winning Author of Minding Mum — battled with postpartum depression and its aftermath, which was a major catalyst for her to begin gratitude journaling. Even after emerging from that period of struggle, she’s kept up with the practice for the past eight years. For her, the key is being present in the moment instead of focusing on what’s lacking in your life. “So many of us feel stuck and inhibited in this life, and bringing gratitude in awakens us to a beautiful energy that’s untapped if you are always wanting,” says Canavan. “When you are always wanting, you are not present, content, or really living.”
Canavan’s transition from a supermodel in the fashion industry to a health and mindfulness coach in the wellness industry has enriched her sense of gratitude as well. She focuses and helps others focus on their interior rather than their exterior, which she finds makes her work all the more rewarding. Expressing gratitude can take on many forms, but writing about what makes us grateful should not just be a box we tick on our to-do list, according to Canavan: “It’s a way of life.” She shares her positive energy and suggestions of gratitude practices on social media, which can include anything from letter writing to nature walks: This can help engage people and spark their thinking about gratitude, especially on platforms where people tend to fixate on what other people have or what they themselves don’t.
5. Staying Grounded Every Day: Kristin Meekhof, LMSW, Speaker, Life Coach, and Author of A Widow’s Guide to Healing, cherishes her gratitude practice, as it now carries the memory of her late husband — they began the back-and-forth email chain before they got married. “I was complaining about something so minute, and he insisted that we begin a gratitude practice via email. Each day we emailed each other our gratitude lists. And even after his terminal cancer diagnosis, he insisted on continuing this practice: this time in person, not via email.” Now, writing out her thoughts in a gratitude journal is Meekhof’s own personal way of staying grounded, processing both the difficult moments and the victorious ones in her life. She urges her clients to do the same in the way that works for them. It could even involve taking photos with your phone throughout the day of things that bring you joy or a surge of gratefulness, she suggests, and reflecting on or writing about them at the end of your day.
6. Healing From the Inside Out: Writer, actress, speaker, and award-winning author of I Am Yours Reema Zaman’s gratitude journaling was born from an unexpected place: an experience of extreme trauma. “I began a gratitude journal after I was raped at age 23, while living by myself in New York City. Growing up, I had always been a grateful and emotionally resilient child and teenager, but after the assault, I recognized that to heal and rise beyond the trauma, I needed active daily practices of gratitude and grounding to strengthen myself.” When she first began this process, Zaman added a physical manifestation of her own gratitude on her body. “I write ‘Love’ on the back of my left hand, a daily reminder and medicine. When a month is particularly grueling, I’ll remind myself, This is one chapter. It is vital. Hold steady your flame,” she writes in I Am Yours, her recently published memoir.
Another facet of Zaman’s healing involved writing lists of the things she appreciated about herself — which initially felt like an act of self-centeredness, especially because of the way women in society are conditioned to see themselves. “There is nothing inherently arrogant or selfish about acknowledging and honoring one’s inner beauty and strength. The daily practice of writing that I was grateful and proud of qualities within myself was precisely what I needed to counteract and release the conditioned shame, galvanize my healing process, and fortify my soul.” Waking up with a thankful spirit is also an integral part of her morning routine, just as much as yoga and having a cup of coffee, and it’s as innate as brushing her teeth. “My life, career, and relationships are the result of my commitment to sacred routines grounded in gratitude.”
Zaman leads with gratitude and love in all of her work, and through her writing, she passes along these pillars of her life to her readers. Now she’s also imparting her gratitude practice to students, both adults who take her memoir writing classes and high school students in several schools in Oregon, who will read I Am Yours as part of their English Language Arts curriculum. Gratitude journaling is what kicks off Zaman’s class each time, and it helps her students sink into the proper empathetic frame of mind to either write their own personal stories or absorb and respond to those of others. “It’s essential; practicing gratitude is enormously significant in shifting a person’s mindset from ‘Why is this happening to me?’ to ‘This is happening for me.’”
(Photos via Getty)
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