Gratitude journal – an easy 15-minute routine for self-improvement

Who guessed that journaling could make you be happier and healthier?

16 gratitude journal.jpg

Well, at some point, scientists did and started studying it. Now there is evidence that gratitude journaling can increase happiness, social intelligence, and even make you feel do more physical exercise. Gratitude journaling is a tool from a recently new field of psychology, positive psychology, which is all about increasing well-being by increasing positive emotions. Successful people like Tim Ferriss and Oprah are known to keep a gratitude journal – it is efficient and only takes 15 minutes at a time. 


In this article

  1. Become luckier by being happier
  2. What is gratitude, really?
  3. What is a gratitude journal
  4. That is negativity bias and how it affects you unconsciously
  5. How to your perception makes your world 
  6. How to improve your focus on positive things
  7. The science of gratitude journaling: what does it do?
    • wellbeing
    • physical health
    • active lifestyle 
    • sleep
    • happiness
    • social intelligence
    • long-lasting 
    • brain
    • optimism
  8. How to journal 
  9. How to do gratitude journaling in 15-minutes only



1) Become luckier by being happier

16 gratitude journal

Some people are luckier than others and more good things happen to them.
Let’s be honest here, not true. I will explain why and how can you feel yourself luckier.

Have you ever wondered what is actually going on when your friend is constantly chattering all the lucky events that happened to him during the past week, while simultaneously your life has been full of spilling coffees and forgotten keys? The truth is that they probably just pay more attention to good events and anticipate success more, and so they get it (R). Scientists currently believe that this kind of optimism can also be learned (R) (R) Fundamentally to become one of these lucky ones, you just need to learn to shift your focus.

Just try this for a moment: think about something really annoying that happened to you within the past week… Next, think about something that existed at the same time, maybe even at the same context, that was good, were already achieved or went well. Got it? There is always something good in each moment, something to be grateful for, and this is exactly what’s you need to realize for better success.

One scientifically validated method to increase positive emotions is gratitude journaling. It is as easy as it sounds; you write down things that make you grateful. As a result, you will train your brain, feel happier, and act healthier.


2) What is gratitude, really?

Brain activity

Gratitude is just not saying “thanks” to a person that serves you the delicious morning matcha at Starbucks – it is so much more.

Gratitude is a positive emotion, that has its own neural correlates and own type of brain activation (R)(R).  Besides being a positive emotion, it includes a thinking process. The thinking process has two-steps. Firstly you recognize that some event leads to a positive outcome. Then you understand that there is an external reason for the positive emotion and that reason has the power to lead to that emotion again (R). Thus, gratitude includes appreciating a thing that brings you happiness. (R) If you haven’t guessed already the reason can be a person, a hobby, a lifestyle-related thing or a health-related thing – pretty much any thing that makes you grateful for being alive.



3) What is gratitude journal? 

A gratitude journal is a scientifically validated tool from positive psychology (R). It has been shown to increase the subjective feelings of happiness and gratitude.

Journalling is a bit like meditation, it is working with your mind and improving it. Specifically, gratitude journaling is efficient for happiness because it helps you to improve your focus on positive things and understand the cause-effect relationship of happiness-increasing things in your own life. Practicing gratitude activates certain brain areas in the front of the brain (R). Thus, by journalling on gratitude, you train the neural links between life events and positive outcomes, which increases your self-knowledge. Remember that your external world is the manifestation of your internal world – your thoughts, perceptions, and attitudes, and when you work your mind, your world will change (even though it actually remains the same).

My personal favorite: The Five Minute Journal: A Happier You in 5 Minutes a Day



4) What is negativity bias and how it affects you unconsciously 

18 graittude

Majority of us have what scientists call the negativity bias. It means the natural tendency to pay more attention to negative things over positive ones (R). Evolutionary speaking, noticing threats, angry faces or loud noises have protected us from danger and increase the chance of survival. Thus your nervous system is tuned to react to them (R). Current society provides a lot of negative stimuli from media, loud noises from traffic, and distress from negative people, which we are still tuned to react. Many of these seemingly negative “important” events do not pose a threat or danger to us anymore, but we still react to them and thus pay a lot of unnecessary attention to negative stimuli.

At this point, it sounds a bit depressing, but it get’s better if you keep reading.



5) How your perception creates your world

19 graatitude

The combination of the response from your nervous system, mind, and its linkages to your perceived emotions makes up the reality that you live in. Thus your inner reflections create your external world. When everything is hopeless outside, this is also your perception of yourself and your world. Then again when everything is beautiful outside, you will like yourself and your life better. Thus, we want to train to become better at noticing the beautiful things and become more efficient to generate positive emotions naturally.



6) How to shift perspective to positive

20 gratitue

The idea is to train your attention and your emotions by contemplating on positive things that you can be grateful for.

When you start writing down daily events that made you felt good and happy, you shift your focus from the annoyances to positive things, which makes you more likely to notice them more efficiently in the future as well. When you master the skill, you also start finding good things in situations that you previously perceived as bad. For example, when it rains, you become less bothered by the rain and instead you become to realize how this will improve the wellbeing of your plants in your garden. Or when you are having a lunch with a friend in a restaurant, you are less bothered by the rude waitress and instead able to focus on how amazing it is to eat out with a good friend for a long time.

It is all about your inner reflections; what you train, you become.



7) Scientific benefits of gratitude journaling




1) Gratitude increases well-being

In a 10-week study of 200 people, those who wrote down things to be grateful for increased their wellbeing significantly. They reported feeling more interested, joyful, thankful, calm and appreciative and less distressed, irritable, sad or nervous. Those who wrote down general life events did not change in their wellbeing and those who wrote down negative things decreased their wellbeing. (R)


2) Gratefulness makes you feel physically healthier 

10-weel gratitude journaling compared to normal journaling lead participants to experience fewer symptoms of physical illness like headaches, stomachache, chest pain, stiff or sore muscles, and sore throat. (R)



3) Gratitude journaling is linked to more active lifestyle

In a 10-week study of 200 people, those who did gratitude journaling spent 1.5 hr more weekly doing physical exercise compared to those who wrote about hassles of the day (R).



4) Gratitude journaling can improve sleep (and decrease nightmares?)

Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of personality and social psychology84(2), 377.

In one study of 21-days, the group who kept a gratitude journal reported getting more hours of sleep each night and waking up more refreshed compared to control conditions.

I have a lot of personal experience with gratitude journaling before bed and I love it. Many times when do it I actually end up dreaming about happy things. Having previously been suffering from nightmares, this has been an amazing tool for me and I still try to do this at least 2-3 times a week or if I feel stressed before bedtime and end up sleeping like a baby.



5) Gratitude increase happiness and decrease depressive symptoms

Gratitude journaling increase positive emotions like determination, enthusiasm, interest, joy, and feelings of strength (R) and helps in maintaining general positive mood (R)

In another setting, people who did gratitude journalling for 21-days not only reported more daily positive emotions but also less negative emotions during the study (R)

Another study showed that this increase in happiness and decrease in depressive symptoms can happen even after one week of journaling (R)



6) Gratefulness improves social and emotional intelligence 

10-weeks gratitude journaling made people feel more joy and happiness in response to help they receive from other people. (R)

In another study, two-weeks of gratitude journaling made people offer more emotional support and help to other people compared to the control groups (R)



7) Gratitude journaling leads to long-lasting improvements in mood

In a highly cited paper of Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, gratitude journaling was concluded to have long-lasting effects; even one-month post-test people who did gratitude journaling were happier and less depressed than they had been at baseline. In addition, they stayed happier and less depressed at the three-month and six-month follow-ups.  (R)



8) Gratitude improves the brain

Brain scanning studies have shown that when people feel grateful, certain areas at the front part of the brain activates. These are the same areas that activate when you make decisions and learn. 

One gratitude exercise, gratitude letters, have shown to lead greater activation in the front of the brain only after three months of gratitude exercising. (R)



9) Grateful people are more optimistic about the upcoming week

In one study, people in the gratitude journaling condition felt more satisfied with their lives as a whole, felt more optimism about the upcoming week, and felt more connected to others than the control group. (R)



8) How to do gratitude journaling in 15-minutes only


Writing gratitude journal is easy. Take a journal, phone or a piece of paper and a pen. Before you go to bed (or while being in your bed, before you close your eyes) reflect back on your day and write down 3 things you are grateful for today and why. It can be a specific happening, a person or a general thing in your life.

for example:

I am grateful for having a cup of coffee with Mark today. Mark is a great friend and he always brings me to a happy mood. Today we shared some great ideas about how to take our business further. It was encouraging and inspiring, especially the idea about XXX”

Try to be as specific as possible to really get back to that great moment and recreate the happy moment. This also makes you avoid overlaps and repetition.

If you can not figure out anything really good from the day, you can revert the day for good before bedtime by writing about general things that are good in your life:

  • your physical health and what are you happy with it
  • firstly think about the worst times in your life and how are things so much better today and why
  • Who did you meet today that you are extremely grateful for?
  • some specific strength / personal attribute in yourself that you are grateful to have naturally
  • a skill or talent that you have trained and are happy to have now, something that increases the quality of your life
  • one successful thing today that you made
  • a person that you have in your everyday life / as a friend that you are happy for and why


Time and duration:

Writing the journal normally takes about 15 minutes

Studies show that 1-3 times per week can be even more efficient than keeping a daily journal and even one week of journalling may significantly improve your wellbeing. (R)





Bolier, L., Haverman, M., Westerhof, G. J., Riper, H., Smit, F., & Bohlmeijer, E. (2013). Positive psychology interventions: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled studies. BMC Public Health, 13, 119.

Carver, C. S., Scheier, M. F., & Segerstrom, S. C. (2010). Optimism. Clinical Psychology Review, 30(7), 879–889.

Fox, G. R., Kaplan, J., Damasio, H., & Damasio, A. (2015). Neural correlates of gratitude. Frontiers in Psychology, 6.

Gander, F., Proyer, R. T., Ruch, W., & Wyss, T. (2013). Strength-Based Positive Interventions: Further Evidence for Their Potential in Enhancing Well-Being and Alleviating Depression. Journal of Happiness Studies, 14(4), 1241–1259.

results,  search. (2004). The Luck Factor: The Four Essential Principles. Miramax Books.

Sacks, O. (1884). Gratitude by Oliver Sacks. Picador.

Sander, D., Grafman, J., & Zalla, T. (2003). The human amygdala: an evolved system for relevance detection. Reviews in the Neurosciences, 14(4), 303–316.

Sansone, R. A., & Sansone, L. A. (2010). Gratitude and Well Being. Psychiatry (Edgmont), 7(11), 18–22.

Seligman, M. (2018). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. S.l.: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

Seligman, M. E., Maier, S. F., & Geer, J. H. (1968). Alleviation of learned helplessness in the dog. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 73(3), 256–262.

Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: empirical validation of interventions. The American Psychologist, 60(5), 410–421.

Weiner, B. (1985). An attributional theory of achievement motivation and emotion. Psychological Review, 92(4), 548–573.


Author: Inka Immonen

Science blogger, yoga teacher, biohacker and a psychology student at the University of Aberdeen; upgrading mind and body health with fitness, nutrition, and mindfulness

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