Applying the Science of Gratitude: The Gratitude Journal

“When it comes to gratitude, the word that jumped out at me throughout this research process is practice.” Brené Brown


Research continues to expand supporting a clear connection between an intentional practice of gratitude and a range of health and wellness benefits. I am going to call this compelling research because these are not just pink, fluffy feeling-a-smidge-happier findings. Researchers are finding actual brain changes associated with gratitude practice. Studies also confirm that a practice of gratitude can:

  • improve immune function
  • improve sleep
  • educe symptoms of illness
  • trengthen relationships
  • boost happiness
  • reduce depression
  • enhance resiliency
  • improve motivation for healthful activities such as exercise

What is happening here?

  • Gratitude writing may unhook us from the velcro of certain challenging emotions.
  • Gratitude writing has benefit even if not shared with another.
  • The benefits of a gratitude practice accumulate over time.
  • Brain changes associated with this practice persist over time.
  • Gratitude differentiates itself from happiness as it engages our social system.
  • The act of writing provides integration, synthesis, context and perpective. This expands the power of this process beyond the limited action of a thought.

A brief pause here to practice gratitude …
Interested in learning more about the science of gratitude, compassion and well-being? Check out Greater Good Magazine: Science-Based Insights for a Meaningful Life from the Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley. This site offers a treasure chest of information on these topics, mindfulness, parenting and much more. Thank you, Greater Good!

A gratitude journal is one effective means of putting your intention for gratitude into action.

Brené Brown highlights the import of practicing gratitude. Gratitude is an active process versus a passive state or quality. Many of us have heard of the practice of writing down 5 things every day for which they are grateful. This process is good. And, the science of gratitude has a lot more to offer to guide our journal practice.

Let’s start at the beginning. How grateful are you?
Greater Good offers an online Gratitude Quiz. You can use this before you embark on your Gratitude Journal practice and revisit it down the line.

What does research tell us about designing a gratitude journal practice? Robert Emmons, a leading expert on Gratefulness, highlights some of the ingredients in an evidence-based gratitude practice:

  1. Be intentional. Bring intention and commitment to your practice. Be sincere and present with your process.
  2. More is not better.
  3. Quality over quantity. Exploring in detail and depth one thing for which you are grateful has more power than a list of 10 things hastily considered.
  4. No requirement for daily dosing. Writing once or twice a week has demonstrated more benefit than a daily practice.
  5. Keep it fresh. Be sure to capture those things that were surprising or novel. We experience these with a stronger sense of gratitude.
  6. Contact the relational aspect of Gratitude. Focusing on people versus things increases the potency of the practice.

As with so many things, awareness is key. This is not a going-through-the-motions exercise.

Emmons offers this prompt to people starting a gratitude journal:

Be aware of your feelings and how you “relish” and “savor” this gift in your imagination. Take the time to be especially aware of the depth of your gratitude.

Experiment with this. Ask yourself quickly what is one thing I am grateful for today? Do it fast and note it in your mind. Now, just notice what you notice. Deepen your connection to this by writing down the item and following the prompt above:

Be aware of your feelings and how you “relish” and “savor” this gift in your imagination. Take the time to be especially aware of the depth of your gratitude.

Now what do you notice? Continue to write about this, noting your noticings.

What now?

What do you want your gratitude practice to look like?

  1. Consider these research indications as you design your own gratitude journal.
  2. Consider what works for you and anticipate what barriers might emerge to start and sustain your practice. Find ways to make your practice work for you.
  3. The folks at Greater Good even offer an online Gratitude Journal at
  4. Don’t put off until the perfect time. A perfect-enough time is now.


bharrison-small Betsy Harrison, MA LCMHC is a founding partner of Counseling Associates, a licensed clinical mental health counselor, a Certified Journal to the Self Instructor,® a Certified Daring Way™ Facilitator, and an Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine Certified Integrative Health Coach. In addition to her individual work, Betsy leads workshops on reflective writing, visual journaling, courage, creativity and wellness. A schedule of upcoming workshops is available at:

Join Betsy in January to jump start your journal practice!
Journal to the Self® Workshop
Mondays, January 8-February 12 6:15-8:15 pm New London
Visit for more information.

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