What Gratitude Journaling Taught Me About Happiness
“You cannot have happiness without gratitude.”
I heard these words in a homily years ago and have struggled to put them into practice ever since. I’m the type of person to lay awake in bed at night planning my next step in life, ruminating over different career advancing tactics, and fantasizing about the future I want. I tend to reflect more on things I want than the things I already have.
The idea of keeping a gratitude journal for a month was like partaking in an intriguing experiment. I wondered if I’d finally experience the elusive gratitude = happiness equation I hadn’t solved yet.
So on the first of the month, I drafted up a little doc titled, “Gratitude Journal” in the notes app on my iPhone. Four weeks and 2,000 words later, I concluded my journey for gratitude. Here’s what happened.
“Oh crap, I gotta do this now so I don’t forget.” This is the thought that would come to me every night at 10 p.m. when my journal reminder went off. But what initially felt like a to-do task eventually became something I looked forward to, simply because I was constantly surprised by the things I was grateful for.
When I thought back on my day, I’d suddenly remember odd moments that brought me joy that I’d typically forget about. For example, during the first week of that month, I helped a designer prepare their collection for a runway show. While this was, of course, a big thing to be grateful for, my journal mostly consisted of smaller things from that week.
I was especially grateful for an authentic encounter I shared with a model. She was just very sincere and kind and I remember my heart being warmed by the genuine human connection we shared. When I was writing down the things I was grateful for, that encounter stood out to me more than anything. It made me realize that it’s more important to value the people I meet than the things I do.
At the end of the day, I’d find myself feeling the most gratitude for the human encounters I had. Whether it was chatting with a stranger on the train, listening to music all day in friend’s apartment, having a heart-to-heart with my sister on FaceTime, playing guitar with my neighbor, or sharing a meal with my aunt, my gratitude journal ended up being very people-centric.
The things I was grateful for during my nightly reflection began leaking into my day-to-day experience. Instead of later identifying moments of joy, I began thinking, “This is making me happy right now,” and I started embracing the feeling of happiness while it was happening. By taking a few moments every night to reflect on the things I was grateful for, I was conditioning myself to be more grateful 24/7.
Re-reading my gratitude journal allows me to be transported back to moments that were specifically positive. In life, it’s easy to just focus on the negative. Even when the good outweighs the bad, we remember the bad over everything. Because a gratitude journal quite literally only focuses us on the good, it made me reflect on the good that I experienced for a whole month, thus prompting a “hey, life ain’t that bad” moment.
Some things I straight up forgot about. Like one day I got distracted and walked too far, missed the block my train was on, and got lost. My wrong turned landed me on a street that held a Catholic church. The doors were wide open and warm light poured out. I took this as a sign to visit Jesus. It was such a cool, surprising moment, and I felt the call to visit Him in the tabernacle so strongly — but I somehow forgot it until re-reading my gratitude journal. Now I get to relive how cool that experience was.
Re-reading my journal also allowed me to connect some dots. Aside from the theme of valuing authentic human interaction, I noticed that the days I felt the most gratitude were days I wrote about the little things. I can’t tell you how many times I wrote down that I was grateful “for heat in winter,” or “for my comfy bed,” “for being friends with my neighbors,” or even more simply, “for feeling happy again.”
And there you have it, the gratitude = happiness equation. As I look through my journal now, the last days all repeat the same thing: gratitude for feeling happy. At the beginning of the month, I felt suffocated and limited by the very things that I was grateful for by the end of the month. I’ll admit that this was a big month for me internally — I was searching for direction and meaning. I believe I received it through lots of prayer and learning to be more grateful for all the things I jotted down at night.
I’ve realized that change doesn’t necessarily come from the big life events that happen to us — usually, it’s the smaller, internal events that build up over time until we’re transformed without realizing it. I think that’s what keeping a gratitude journal is all about: writing down the little things from each day, and then reflecting on how all those little things actually amount to big things.
Come to think of it, happiness doesn’t come from something big happening to you, either. Real happiness comes from making daily decisions to cherish the gifts you’ve been given, no matter how big or small. Having gratitude for the little things will slowly but surely build genuine joy.
Honestly, I wasn’t planning on keeping a gratitude journal after one month, but after reflecting on the impact it had on me after just four weeks, I think I’d better.