How to Keep a Gratitude Journal, With 16 Prompts to Help You Get Started
According to experts, keeping a gratitude journal can have numerous health benefits. Here's what the experts want you to know about why and how to do it, including gratitude journal prompts.
Maybe you’ve heard about the potential benefits of practicing gratitude or keeping a gratitude journal. You may have even been advised to keep a gratitude journal by a doctor, family, or friends.
But are there any real benefits from keeping a gratitude journal? And how exactly does gratitude journaling work?
Experts say there’s no wrong way to do gratitude exercises like keeping a gratitude journal, unless of course you’re focusing on negative things or things that can encourage shameful feelings.
Here’s what the experts want you to know about why and how to keep a gratitude journal.
What is a gratitude journal?
According to experts, a gratitude journal is typically a journal or notepad where you jot down things for which you are grateful.
This doesn’t need to be a notepad or journal, though; it can also include listing things for which you are grateful aloud or in your mind. Some smartphone apps even allow you to text or digitally enter things you are grateful for.
“You can keep a gratitude journal on your phone, you could do it in a notebook, you could even just kind of take time to really think about those things,” says Laurie Santos, PhD, a professor of psychology and head of Silliman College at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.
“All of these types of forms of engaging with a gratitude journal can really improve your well-being.”
(Check out the Silk + Sonder journal and see if it suits your style.)
What does research show about the effects of gratitude journaling?
Experts say the evidence is overwhelming: Keeping a gratitude journal is good for your health and overall well-being.
“There’s lots and lots of studies basically suggesting that gratitude improves well-being,” Dr. Santos says.
“There’s evidence, for example, that people who are more grateful experience more benefits in terms of their self-regulation, they’re more likely to eat healthier, they’re more likely to save more for retirement,” she explains. “And there’s even evidence that people sleep better when they’re feeling more grateful.”
Jane Wilson, PhD and professor emerita at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, says there are even more benefits of keeping a gratitude journal.
“People who keep a gratitude journal experience more positive emotions such as love, joy, contentment, improved social connections, increased sense of inner peace, improved exercise, and deepened sense of focus in learning,” Dr. Wilson explains.
“Keeping a gratitude journal is the number one way researchers have explored the impact of practicing gratitude.”
“Keeping a gratitude journal strengthens one’s gratitude muscle,” she adds. “By strengthening one’s gratitude muscle, people will find they more quickly notice good things in life, and they’re better able to manage future stressful situations.”
According to the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC) at the University of California-Berkeley, expressing gratitude or exercises that encourage it can also:
- help you through tough times
- provide perspective after a loss
- live more sustainably
- motivate you to become a better person
- make you more generous and altruistic
What is gratitude?
Gratitude can have many definitions depending on whom you talk to. But according to Emiliana Simon-Thomas, PhD, science director of the Greater Good Science Center, gratitude is often defined into two basic ways.
“Science defines gratitude in a couple of ways,” she says.
“One way is reverence for that which is given. Recognizing that all kinds of stuff around us every day has nothing to do with our effort, talents, our skills. It’s just there. Yes, it may be related to our capacity to apply ourselves in many ways, but gratitude is more about appreciating and being thankful for that which we haven’t had to work for that which we’ve just received.”
She says another way we define gratitude is as a specific emotional experience.
“So how you feel that kind of warmth in your chest, that affectionate sentiment, when you are in a moment where someone has done something that’s really wonderful for you, you feel grateful right then and there is that sense of trust and connection, and social support,” she explains.
“That is another way that we define gratitude, recognizing that someone else has done something that has benefited us, and they put effort into it.”
Who can benefit from keeping a gratitude journal?
Anyone in any situation can benefit from keeping a gratitude journal or being more grateful. But keeping a gratitude journal may be especially beneficial for people with mental health conditions that skew their perception events in a negative way, including depression, anxiety, burnout, and post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), experts say.
“Research suggests that people who practice gratitude will [also] see a decrease in negative emotions such as anger, resentment, frustration, and anxiety,” Dr. Wilson says.
How do I make an entry in a gratitude journal?
Dr. Simon-Thomas says the most simple way to make a gratitude diary entry, very generally, is to list sources of goodness that you enjoy in your life that you haven’t had to work toward or earn—things that have come to you that you get to enjoy.
“It can be as simple as running water that is drinkable from a faucet, or can be really complex and detailed, like the role that a mentor in your life has played in advancing your professional career or by introducing you to a topic or a community that has been instrumental,” she explains.
She says examples of this include gratitude for things many people take for granted, such as democracy, freedom, access to education, and health care. “Those are really important kinds of gratitude,” she says, “and they do shift us toward a more optimistic view in the world.”
Dr. Wilson says she suggests beginning by pausing to reflect upon your day or week, taking a moment to savor a few blessings in your life, and then jotting the things you noticed or think of.
How often should you write in a gratitude journal?
Experts say there’s no hard and fast rule about how frequently to make entries in a gratitude journal to reap the benefits.
“Should you try to write your gratitude journal three times a day, or every day? Or every three days? What’s the best?” Dr. Simon-Thomas says. There are some general patterns that seem to pop up like the suggestion to write three times a day, she adds, but that won’t work for everyone.
“What the cutting edge or frontier of gratitude science now is is trying to understand the relationship between an individual and the pace and frequency that is potentially most beneficial for them,” she says.
If you’re more anxious person, maybe for you the best schedule for gratitude journaling is twice a day for two weeks. For some people who lean toward a more open-minded and flexible emotional demeanor, she says journaling once every other day for four weeks may be the most impactful.
Some research suggests the ideal frequency to write in a gratitude journal seems to be around one to three entries per week for at least two weeks, according to the GGSC. Experts say this is likely because it can become easier to become numb to sources of goodness around us if we track it every day.
How much should you write in a gratitude journal?
According to the experts, any amount of expression or embracing of gratitude, including writing it down in a journal, can be beneficial. But most also agree that the more specific and in-depth an entry is, the more impact it tends to have.
Dr. Simon-Thomas says some people find it helpful to go into a lot of detail as to why they are grateful for something or how it made them feel. Some experts also advocate for the benefit of making extended entries that can be shared with others.
“The most impactful gratitude practice is writing a gratitude letter to someone , around 300 to 500 words, and then reading it aloud to that person,” Dr. Wilson says.
While it’s still unclear precisely how many entries someone should make when writing in a gratitude journal for maximum benefit, Dr. Simon-Thomas says there’s a kind of common suggestion of jotting down three good things as a starting point because some of the early research framed it that way.
But she says that recent, unpublished research has found that listing eight things you are grateful for may be the most effective number of entries for gratitude journaling.
When should you write in a gratitude journal?
Experts say there is no specific time of day when someone should enter a gratitude journal. Dr. Wilson says to determine when to make a gratitude entry, consider the best time of day that works for you.
Dr. Simon-Thomas says anecdotally, she would make an argument for either first thing in the morning or as you are falling asleep.
She says listing things for which you’re grateful right when you wake up is a way to kind of orient and prime yourself to have that outlook during the day. She says doing this practice as you’re closing your eyes on the verge of falling asleep is a way to just relax and create that frame of mind that is most conducive to falling asleep in a peaceful way.
Overall, experts say there is no wrong time of day to make an entry in a gratitude journal or list what you are grateful for.
How long do you need to keep a gratitude journal to reap the benefits?
The jury is still out on exactly how long you need to keep a gratitude journal to reap the benefits.
“There’s evidence, for example, that simply scribbling down a few things that you’re grateful for every day can significantly improve your well-being in as little as two weeks,” Dr. Santos says.
According to some experts, about 15 days is the period at which people start experiencing long-term benefits from gratitude journaling. But Dr. Simon-Thomas says there are a lot of different statements out there about the relative period of time required. She says there’s nothing wrong with the 15-day argument, but she doesn’t think it’s definitive or generalizable.
“So it may be on average, if you invited a group of people to all start keeping a gratitude journal and measured their emotional well-being in a repeated fashion over the course of time, maybe you would find that on average, 15 days or two weeks is about what it takes to really start to shift somebody’s habit of thinking,” she says.
She adds, however, that some studies suggest just experiencing 30 to 60 seconds of gratitude, writing or reflection, can change how someone acts in the next moment, and in the next couple hours.
Is there a wrong way to do it, or are there common mistakes people make?
There aren’t many mistakes you can make when trying to keep a gratitude journal, experts say, unless you’re jotting down negative or hateful emotions or thoughts. According to the experts, entries that make you feel shame, or lead you to shame or judge others, are also not helpful when keeping a gratitude journal.
Is there any benefit to physically writing down gratitude journal entries with paper and pencil?
Putting thoughts down on paper or saying them out loud is more beneficial than simply thinking about them because it makes us more aware of our thoughts, which can make them more impactful. The GGSC also says writing helps one organize thoughts, and can help us accept those thoughts, feelings, or experiences and put them in context.
“There’s definitely evidence that writing any kind of writing is of benefit to your mental health; in fact there’s a vast literature on the benefits,” Dr. Simon-Thomas says.
“The act of writing something down, the motor effort that you put in having to move your hands to make words that reflect the ideas and the feelings that you’re having is more effortful, and the more effort that you’re putting in, the more that activity becomes something practiced, and something that is skill building, as opposed to just a reactive or, or momentary experience,” she explains.
What is gratitude fatigue?
In general, experts say expressing and embracing gratitude, and keeping a gratitude journal, are good for the well-being of most people. But like most things, some people can experience gratitude fatigue, which may cause them to feel worse about their situation or life.
“Some people experience gratitude fatigue if they find themselves writing down the same thing each time they open their journal,” Dr. Wilson says. “To remedy this, look for new [or] surprising things you’re grateful for. Or … take a break from writing things down and resume the practice after a break.”
Writing prompts for gratitude journal entries
The experts say some people have no issue coming up with things they are grateful for, but this isn’t always an easy process for everyone. For some people, even trying to think of things they are grateful for, or not being able to come up with any, can be overwhelming and make you feel hopeless.
If you’re having trouble thinking of entries to make in a gratitude journal, experts advise using basic prompts that help you get started in the process. A prompt is typically a short sentence or thought that is designed to help stimulate your mind to think of things you are grateful for.
Experts say there is no perfect prompt for everyone or every situation. Some prompts may seem well-suited for a certain person or situation, but others may make someone feel worse. For example, prompts that discuss being grateful for family love and support may not be helpful for people who are not in contact with their family or don’t have family support. And not everyone has access to the same level of natural and human resources.
Examples of good prompts for gratitude journal entries include:
- I am grateful for a natural resource (water, food, clean air, sunlight).
- I am grateful for a component of the natural world (wildlife, mountains, bodies of water).
- I am grateful for modern comforts (running water, toilets, indoor heat, electricity, cars, airplanes, trains, grocery stores).
- I am grateful for institutions or services (hospitals and health care, education centers and education, emergency services like firefighters and natural disaster response services).
- I am grateful for a leisure activity (writing, reading, watching TV or movies).
- I am grateful my body is capable of … (walking, exercising, maintaining balance and posture, recovering from illness).
- I am grateful my brain is capable of … (thinking, being intelligent, being curious, having an imagination, learning new things, talking, coordinating body movement, remembering things and feelings).
- I am grateful for a stress-reducing activity (meditation, yoga, mindfulness, talking with friends and family).
- I am grateful I am alive now because … (modern amenities and comforts, scientific breakthroughs or advancements, ability to travel around the world, ability to connect with others easier).
- I am grateful for basic rights such as … (freedom, civil liberties, the right to receive education, expression of thought, the right to vote).
- I am grateful for something that someone did to help me or make me feel more secure.
- I am grateful for components of my work (respect of co-workers or bosses, benefits, positive impact of work on others or the environment, feelings of fulfillment or engagement).
- I am grateful to have certain people in my life.
- I am grateful for my pet because …
- I am grateful for a certain experience.
- I am grateful that something happened to me today.
Other tips for keeping a gratitude journal
Other tips for keeping a gratitude journal include:
- Go for depth of entries versus quantity. It’s generally better to go into as much detail as possible about why you are grateful for something than generating a long, less detailed list.
- Try to not simply go through the motions. Keeping a gratitude journal is more effective if you first commit, and stay committed to, being more grateful, happy, or optimistic. A gratitude journal entry should not be viewed as a to-do list or something you have to do against your will.
- Don’t try to make any entry if you really aren’t ready or in a good space. Pushing yourself to simply make entries can actually make you feel worse or overwhelmed and may lead to entries that are negative or shaming.
- Don’t overdo it. Many people think you have to write in a gratitude journal every day to see positive effects. But writing once or twice per week long-term may be more beneficial than daily journaling.
- Think about subtractions, not only additions. One way to stimulate feelings of gratitude is to think about how your life would be affected without certain things, such as modern comforts, friends and family, meaningful work, etc. This approach can be especially effective if someone is having a hard time coming up with something they’re grateful for.
- Savor surprises. Events that are surprising or unexpected often stimulate stronger feelings of gratitude.
- Get personal with your entries. Recording or thinking about people you are grateful for often is more impactful than thinking about things you’re grateful for.
- Think of things you’re grateful for as gifts. Thinking of things we are grateful for as gifts helps prevent many people from overlooking them or taking them for granted.
Next, check out these gratitude quotes.
- Emiliana Simon-Thomas, PhD, Science Director of the Greater Good Science Center at University of California, Berkeley located on Huichin Ohlone Land
- Greater Good Science Center: "Can Gratitude Help You Live More Sustainably?"
- Greater Good Science Center: "Can Losing a Loved One Make You More Grateful?"
- Greater Good Science Center: "Gratitude Journal"
- Greater Good Science Center: "How Gratitude Can Help You Through Hard Times"
- Greater Good Science Center: "How Gratitude Motivates Us to Become Better People"
- Greater Good Science Centers: "Tips for Keeping a Gratitude Journal"
- Greater Good Science Center: "Why a Grateful Brain Is a Giving One"
- Jane Wilson, PhD and Professor Emerita at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California,
- Laurie Santos, PhD, Professor of Psychology and Head of Silliman College at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut and host of The Happiness Lab podcast