How to Make a Gratitude Journal Really Work

It’s been a month since American Thanksgiving already! Are you still feeling grateful? Are you still counting your blessings?

In the next few posts, I will be going over some specifics on different kinds of journaling. It’s always a good time to start journaling, but January is a common time to get started on a fresh one. Perhaps I can inspire you, and sort out the different types of journals so you can decide what works best for you. Today, we will start with:

The Gratitude Journal

Ah, the gratitude journal. The search for gratitude is rampant, and I feel like it has gotten more and more popular to talk about and more sought-after.

Why Gratitude is So Coveted

Somewhere along the line, gratitude has almost become something that is aspirational. “Aspirational” has become something of a dirty word in my mind, and that in itself is a large part of why the search for gratitude is so rampant. Let me break it down.

Aspiration and Consumerism

It is fairly apparent how some industries use and take advantage of “aspiration.” Make up, skin care, plastic surgery – it is easy to sell people on putting a toxin in their body if they aspire to not have wrinkles. Now, there’s not a lot wrong with wrinkles in themselves. Maybe they can make it harder for your blink to spread tears evenly across your cornea, but that is an extreme case. Otherwise, most people don’t like wrinkles because they don’t like how they look or because they think it makes them look old and they don’t like to feel old. These ideas that ‘having wrinkles makes you ugly’ and ‘looking old makes you less desirable’ are mostly made up.

So, fine, people get ideas from all sorts of places and it sways how they feel about certain things. It is okay to not like your wrinkles. BUT the thing that perpetuates this idea the most is the industries that make money off of you feeling bad about yourself. If you don’t want to cover up your wrinkles, or prevent wrinkles, or get rid of your wrinkles, you are way less likely to spend money on expensive make up, skin care, or Botox. It’s not that these industries see you are unhappy and try to help you, they see you are unhappy and take advantage of you. In some cases, they might even see you are happy and try to convince you to be unhappy.

Those are the obvious sources of aspirational consumerism. But so much marketing relies on this. I see so many commercials for houses, diets, fitness, restaurants, interior design, electronics, cars, pharmaceuticals, fashion, tourism, etc. that promise your life will be better. You have to want something you don’t have and aspire to have a better life. The products promise to give you that better life, but they can’t succeed too much, because then they would lose you as a customer. There’s always someone at the other end of these commercials, and the goal of these commercials is to make you feel bad. And when you feel bad, it is a lot harder to feel grateful.

Aspiration and Gratitude

The paradoxical phenomenon that I can feel happening is that gratitude is becoming aspirational, too. There are many places (including this blog post) that tout gratitude. In some twisted way, I want to make you feel like you need to be grateful to be happy, and once you conquer the idea of gratitude, your life will be better. You may need to buy a course on how to journal for gratitude, but your life will be better. (¬_¬)

My hope is that I am able to teach you as much as possible (for free) so that you can actually achieve it on your own.

Hank Green talks about how wanting things is easy when society applauds what you want and is hard when society boos what you want.

Back to the Journal

I’ve seen many sources encouraging keeping a gratitude journal. This is how I usually see it explained.

Every night before bed, simply list 3-5 things you are thankful for.

Now this might be life-changing for you. For some people with certain fast-paced lifestyles, the act of simply slowing down before bed can work wonders. I agree that this is a good start to to the process, and a good way to start to wrap your head around the concept of active gratitude if you had never heard it before.

But if you go just go through the motions and continue to do it too long, it can start to feel like this:

Here, Natasha tells Brittany she should be grateful instead of angry
(America’s Next Top Model Cycle 8)

Natasha tells Brittany, who is having an angry, teary breakdown, that some people have war in their countries in an effort to calm her down. Now, the sentiment is not totally off base, right? We have all been in situations when we are getting worked up over something minimal, then we remind ourselves of the big picture, and it successfully calms us down.

But It doesn’t always work that great, though, does it? It’s not that simple.

Sometimes it makes us feel worse about feeling angry or self-interested or sad or resentful. These emotions are all completely valid and it is important to have them sometimes. Feeling gratitude is not supposed to erase these feelings completely.

That doesn’t mean it can’t make you feel better.

I saw this post on Instagram the other day (@thehappinessprojectuk):

I agree with the sentiment, but it felt like they were saying that most people would find the idea of saying “you shouldn’t be happy because things could be better” ludicrous. But this is what aspirational marketing is all about. (This is what aggressive parenting is all about, too, but that’s a story for another day).

Feeling grateful for what you already have can make you feel better.

How Gratitude Helps You Feel Better


My favorite way to do a gratitude journal is to first write everything that is on your mind. Journal what happened that day, how someone made you feel, what you are scared or anxious about, your to do list for the day. Get that all out of your head and onto paper first.

There is a common self-care saying that says you cant pour from an empty cup. This means that if you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t have anything to give to others.

But I like to think of it a little differently – You can fill up your cup with whatever you want, unless it is already full. If you pour your milk-flavored gratitude into your orange-juice-flavored stress, it will not be a fun time. If your cup is already full, you have to actively empty it.

This is why I am such a big fan of free writing. It gets the thoughts our of your head, whatever they may be. Then, and only then, at the end of my journaling session, if I still have the time and energy, I like to add in some thoughts on gratitude.

…And Long Lasting

Writing about your blessings imprints a good attitude about the good things in your life, and it makes you more intentional about it. Just like if your brain gets a lot of practice worrying about things, it will be very good at worrying, and fall into that behavior very quickly.

If your brain gets a lot of practice being grateful, it will be very good at it, and will fall into that behavior very quickly.

How to make it a meaningful habit

Making gratitude a habit takes time, but making a meaningful gratitude habit takes finesse. You don’t want to spend many days listing good things without ever really having a significant thought about them. You should be having conversations with yourself about why you are grateful.

You get to figure out what about your life makes you feel the best.

Some Questions To Get You Started

What do you love about your life?

This is the straight forward question to ask yourself. What do you already love about the life you already have. Another way to look at this is: Why have I not chosen a completely different path than the one I am on right now? (AKA why would I hate to have another person’s life).

What do you want your life to look like?

This is where aspiration can be helpful. If there are things you want in your life in the future that you don’t have already, think about how close you are to achieving it. Think about how far you have come. If you are making a lot of sacrifices now, you can be grateful for your ability to think ahead. You can think about how close your current life looks like the life you want, and be grateful for that.

Why do you want those things?

Sometimes you have a yearning in your head for what you want out of life, and you never even thought about why you want it. Maybe you want to have a good job so you can make enough money to go to Paris, but that seems really far off. It feels like they way you are going, you may never get to Paris, and you won’t accomplish your dreams. When your brain starts thinking that way, it can be really difficult to be grateful.

Have you ever stopped and thought about why you want to go to Paris? There can be so many different reasons you want to go to Paris, so you should try to figure out what your reason is. Maybe you want to speak French or eat the cuisine or see the museums or live in the culture. Maybe you saw it in a movie. Maybe you want to feel romantic. When you start to parse out the reasons you want something, you might find more creative ways to fill the void.

A Note on Lifestyle Inflation

Lifestyle inflation is the phenomenon that happens as your income increases over time. When you don’t have a lot of money, you get by with having roommates and not having cable and eating peanut butter and jelly. For a lot of people, including myself, we get through these hard times by telling ourselves it is temporary. We aspire to have a better life. We are encouraged to want a better life and applauded for having dreams of something better. (See Hank Green’s Video above)

But when we get some of those things – enough money to rent an apartment by yourself and cook real meals by yourself, you are encouraged to want more – getting a bigger apartment, buying a house, or going out to fancy restaurants.

Learning to be grateful for what you have makes it easier to stay away from lifestyle inflation.

What to Be Grateful for When Things Seem Awful

Be grateful that you didn’t have to grow your own lettuce for your salad. Be grateful that things that can’t be grown in your apartment can still easily get to you. Eat an avocado lately? What about salmon? Be grateful for people preserving their culture, cultures melding, and maybe even making it mainstream enough for you to be able to go to the grocery store and buy your favorite sesame tzatziki ranch dressing (I made that up – but I’m sure there’s something you eat that wouldn’t be possible without the movement of people and ideas).

What to Write When You Can’t Think of Anything

Not feeling like there’s much to be grateful for? That’s fiiiine – totally fine! Maybe even better. Write *about* being grateful – when was the last time you were really grateful, what was in your life then that you might be missing now? Write about what it feels like to be grateful – how your tummy feels when it’s well fed, how your head feels when you aren’t stressed, how your feet feel when you get to put them up at the end of the day. Even if you are stressed out, hungry, and tired, you are still grateful for the good times. Ain’t we lucky we got ’em?

Understand Your Choices

What did you choose to do today? What did you choose to do today that was strictly for yourself. Maybe you chose to make a pita pizza instead of your usual sandwich, or maybe you chose to make your usual, comforting sandwich. I chose to stretch in bed for a few minutes before I got up. I chose to use fabric softener. Get this one – I chose to not write my gratitude list for the day. Understanding your choices can help you to understand that you are taking care of yourself (pro tip, this is another way to say “self care.”) If you can’t think of a choice today, make sure you have one for tomorrow.

Then, try to answer why you will make that choice for yourself. It can be abstract. Think outside the box. Why do you think this is the way things need to be. Did you make the rules, or did somebody else?


Gratitude is not just being grateful for what you have right now – it’s often very unhelpful to think “it could be worse,” or “count your blessings.” If your gratitude journal isn’t doing it for you, and you’re having a hard time sticking with it, try to change your tactics. Your gratitude journal should reflect on why you are better today than you were yesterday, and if you are not feeling that, why tomorrow will be better than today. 
And, if all else fails, be grateful for tomorrows.

Good Luck on your journey towards a more grateful mindset. Let me know how it goes.

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  • Do you know of any gratitude journal apps? My free account to Sanvello just expired, so I can’t track gratitude there anymore. 😕

      • Thanks! I love longform journaling by hand (when I do it), but I like using an app for short gratitude entries. I might use the Shine app for now.

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