I never thought gratitude journaling was for me.
It seemed cliché and monotonous. I know what I’m grateful for, and I didn’t see how writing about it would solidify my thankfulness. But as I moved through the slog of a quiet and lonely winter colored by pandemic-induced restrictions and social limitations, I knew I needed to try something new last January. Gratitude journaling came to mind, probably because I’d read it on so many listicles offering tips for de-stressing. I needed to reinvigorate my prayer practice, learn to appreciate the life I was living, and notice the joys in my daily routine.
So, on January 4, 2021 I gave gratitude journaling a try. Every night, I pulled out my notebook and listed five good things that happened to me each day. I told myself I’d stick with it for at least a few weeks and see what happened, still unconvinced that the routine would propel me out of spiritual stagnation.
When I began, I recorded moments that I thought I should be grateful for. I had recently started my first professional job as a college librarian and felt an impulse to derive happiness and worth from my work. Even if watching “The Crown” with my parents was a more joyful part of my day than advancing on a project at work, it felt lame or trivial to acknowledge it. My internal editor often turned into a cynical critic, telling me what I should and shouldn’t be grateful for.
As I continued with my journaling, I began to let go of these expectations and be honest about what parts of my day I truly did enjoy: feeling energized after a fitness class, having a fun conversation at work, laughing at breakfast with my brother. Not only was I more aware of joy in my day, I realized that peace was possible even through the unpleasant and mundane parts of it. Sitting in traffic at the end of a long day can prompt my cruder vocabulary, but I found I could transform it into a moment of gratitude if I used the time to tune into an audiobook or call a friend.
Gratitude journaling has also deconstructed the myth that my worth derives from my accomplishments. Last January, I engaged in a lot of ‘if only’ thinking, like I would be happy if only my writing was accepted in a certain publication. I’d written a few articles in 2021, but looking back, I rarely find “getting an article commissioned” or “seeing my byline” appear in the year’s entries. Often, I recorded simply “writing” or “getting excited about a new idea,” focusing on the process rather than the product. While I may gain satisfaction from tangible accomplishments and praise, I’ve learned that the core joy comes from the act of writing itself.
Journaling has not eliminated the struggles I experience, but helps me acknowledge the good as it accompanies difficulties and fosters greater appreciation for my reality. In order to receive the fruits of this practice, I had to create a routine. I journal at night in a fuzzy white chair in my bedroom. If my mind is wild with stress and anxieties, I use mindfulness techniques such as deep breathing and five senses exercises to center myself. Guided meditations such as St. Ignatius’ Examen can also serve as calming introductions. While there are nights when I neglect to journal in favor of one more Netflix episode or book chapter, it is easier to stay consistent now that I have developed a habit.
The ultimate goal of this practice is to become closer to God and recognize his work in my life. I use gratitude journaling as a prelude to conversational prayer, though others may find it more beneficial to journal after prayer. If it is difficult to think of five things to write, I am honest about it. The struggle offers an opportunity to grow in intimacy and invite God into the messy parts of my life.
The gift of staying consistent with gratitude journaling for a year is that I can reflect on what is and isn’t bringing me joy. When I look back at what I’ve journaled, I see my most frequent moments of gratitude fall under the themes of connection, creativity and physical activity. And now, I have a roadmap of ideals to guide my path moving forward. Whether I’m contemplating weekend plans or what time to wake up in the morning, I can choose the options that most closely align with these ideals.