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Abigail Pogrebin Headshot

I've Drunk the Kool-Aid: Gratitude works.

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I never thought I'd say it, let alone do it: I'm keeping a gratitude journal.
It's hard for me to even write those words because I know they conjure a lemming-like embrace of the latest self-help stunt. We've all heard the guarantee: "Write about gratitude and you'll start feeling more grateful...which will then change your perspective on life."
Pablum, right? Well, this is one time I've embraced my inner pablum. Because that's exactly what happened to me. I started writing down sweet moments. And life started feeling lighter.
The journal experiment began by accident. Last July, my family and in-laws were browsing the quaint main street of Bolton Landing near Lake George after eating too much at a seafood restaurant called Son of a Sailor. My husband took the kids to an ice cream stand, and I wandered into a kitschy gift shop. Amid the miniature plastic canoes and bad photos of sailboats and sunsets, I spotted a small orange bound book, whose cover title read simply: "Gratitude. A Journal."
I picked it up and the first page introduction already had my number: "If you're anything like me, you probably spend more time thinking about your problems than you do reflecting on the good things in your life." It was true. I'd never call myself angst-ridden, but my mind does tend to go to what's wrong instead of what's right. It continued: "It makes sense - problems need to be solved, whereas good things are, well, good. So of course the bad stuff winds up getting more of our attention."
The brief introduction suggested a simple exercise: each day, write down something nice that happened; it offered blank space --18 lines --on each 3"x4"page, with a place to fill in the date on top. The limited canvas was reassuring: they weren't asking for a novel. Actually there wasn't room to say very much at all. Which means I'd only have to jot down a moment or two, the briefest snapshot of when I'd felt lucky or thankful that day.
I held the book in my hands. I liked the sturdy smallness of it. The plain orange cover with three sparse dandelion drawings. The plainness of the assignment. I put the book back down. I picked it back up. I put it down. The dialogue in my head was predictable:
This is dumb. If you want to keep a journal, start typing entries in your laptop.
Don't fool yourself. You'll never type a journal entry every day and you'll lose track of where it's located in all your hard-drive files.
Who actually writes in long-hand anymore? It will be a chore.
What's hard about writing with a pen? You once kept a diary.
I'd feel embarrassed to keep this by my bedside.
You can turn it over so no one sees the title.
Why write gratitude down? Just feel grateful and skip the gimmick.
But maybe there's something in the recording itself....
I circled the store, deciding finally to skip the purchase and join my cone-eating family.
But then I circled back to the book. And suddenly I'd bought it.
As soon as I owned it, I cherished it.
As soon as I started writing in it, something began to change. That's the surprising thing: the effect was immediate. I found myself noticing moments throughout each day when I felt good, and thinking, "That will go on today's page;" "That was the moment." But then there'd be another one. Maybe even three. And by the time I opened the book before bed, (now my inviolable evening ritual), I had more gems than I had space, and wrote in shorthand to squeeze it all in. But the greater revelation wasn't that there were more happy moments than I expected; it was that there was one. Every single day. Before I started the journal, if someone had asked me whether I experienced at least one kind of mini-joyful instant every single day, I'd have answered no. But I'd have been wrong. Because there they were. Page after page, moment after moment. Tiny or vital. Mostly tiny. Even if I'd had a "bad day," there was always a good hour or minute or afternoon shining from the mud.
The journal didn't become a date book. I disciplined myself not to simply recount activities or events. The prerequisite for inclusion was gratitude: if I wasn't particularly grateful for it, if a moment hadn't given me that jolt of well-being, then it didn't belong in the book. If I'd gone somewhere or had a conversation that maybe should have made me feel good but didn't, it shouldn't make the cut.
As the pages accumulated, I'd sometimes go back to re-read - which had its own powerful effect: it crystallized how much happiness I'd been having. I enjoyed reliving the highlight reel, and was startled by how instantaneously - and vividly - the moment came back to life.
Many of the snapshots are utterly mundane. Something I ate. A view. Something my daughter said. Watching my son do something he hadn't enjoyed in a while. A bike ride with my husband. Believe me, you'd be bored to read my little orange book. Only I know why these particular nuggets were exquisite. And I'm sure yours would be similarly specific and maybe just as inscrutable and dull. But I love that these jewels are now preserved in ink. So, unless I lose the little orange book, I'll never forget these pure, insignificant highs, and otherwise might have lost them, because they weren't important enough to retain. I've learned that the bricks of blessing can be haphazard, and surprisingly ordinary.
These days, when I'm about to turn off my light at night, I'm aware of feeling a certain buoyancy and calm instead of the old weight of the checklist - that tally of all the ways I'd fallen short that day.
I joke to my husband next to me, if he's been teasing about something, that he's about to get excised from my gratitude journal.

Zeroing in each night on that day's joy doesn't make me self-conscious when I'm living it, but it does make me conscious. Conscious of when "the moment" happens, curious about when one will next appear. And yes, it may sound too good be true, but my perspective has been torqued so that I generally see a brighter picture. When, at the end of each day, I might have focused on all its deficiencies and shortcomings, something reminds me to look at how much glimmers. I've now got the book to prove it.

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