Mental Health

How to start writing a gratitude journal to improve your emotional wellbeing

Gratitude lists, or the habit of regularly recording down and reflecting on things you’re grateful for in your life, can help us focus, take time out for ourselves and help us celebrate what brings us joy. Here’s everything you need to know about starting to write one. 

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As a writer, I’m drawn to reflecting on my life and feeling good about myself by putting pen to paper, and there’s lots of fascinating research that proves writing can help our wellbeing

The idea that writing can support our mental and physical health has been part of academic research for decades. A groundbreaking study published in the Journal Of Abnormal Psychology found that people who write regularly about their emotions reported improved moods and a more positive outlook. 

More recently, a paper from the University of Missouri’s Dr Laura King found research participants who wrote about their best positive future selves for 20 minutes a day over four consecutive days were associated with decreased illness compared to people in other control groups. 

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While creative writing, in general, can be beneficial, one of my favourite ways to write for my wellbeing is by penning gratitude lists – the habit of regularly recording down and reflecting on things I’m grateful for. 

Taking the time to compile a gratitude list once a week allows me to recognise the little things that have made me smile, like the friendly chat I had with a barista, or the satisfying crunch of fallen leaves under my boots as autumn comes.

“The act of writing itself almost helps us to slow down and really think about those points of gratitude,” explains Kate McBarron, a wellbeing practitioner and cofounder of Writing for Life. “As we’re crafting the words on the page, we’re hopefully focusing in on those things we’re feeling grateful for.”

Kate McBarron gratitude journal
Kate McBarron is a wellbeing practitioner and cofounder of Writing for Life.

Myszka Matthews runs writing and authentic self wellbeing retreats at Foxes’ Retreat in the Peak District and has helped many people to start writing to improve their wellbeing. “Just noticing what is positive about the day is something that we are not trained to do as human beings,” she explains, and writing a gratitude list can help us to switch this psychologically. With gratitude lists, Myszka says, “it’s partly the process of noticing what’s good, and it’s partly the process of looking at it in written form. The two together marry up and make a difference.”

Here, Kate and Myszka share their advice on how to use writing for wellbeing by creating gratitude lists and how to incorporate it into our daily lives. 

Make time to write your gratitude list 

Getting into a routine to regularly write your gratitude list is a good way of giving yourself the time and space to focus on the positive aspects of your life. 

Whether it’s daily, weekly, or another timeframe that works for you, try regularly setting aside 10 minutes or so to write your list. Kate recommends placing your notebook and pen somewhere you’re going to see them to help build this routine, along with setting yourself a reminder on your phone or in your diary.

Myszka suggests having a pen and notebook by the bed, especially if you want to write your gratitude list at the end of the day. She advises bookending the day by writing one gratitude list in the morning and another in the evening. The morning list should focus on what you’re looking forward to, while the evening list should note what was good about the day.

Having a set place where you sit to write your gratitude list can be helpful too. “Whether it’s in your favourite chair in your living room, or sitting out in the garden, or on a bench in a park; that place can be your trigger or your cue,” explains Kate. 

Myszka Matthews runs writing and Authentic Self Wellbeing retreats at Foxes’ Retreat in the Peak District.

Choose how you write your gratitude list 

Myszka recommends handwriting your gratitude list if you can. “The minute we make a note on our phone, we see the emails, alarms, alerts and the things we’ve missed,” she says. “A piece of paper has nothing to ask of you. It doesn’t request anything, it just accepts what you put on it.” 

Having a separate notebook, specially reserved for your gratitude lists, can get you into the frame of mind for writing, Kate explains. “But equally, don’t let it hold you back,” she adds. “I’ve been turning to gratitude lists more during the pandemic. When my brain is in a rut of worry, I stop, sit down and go through the things I’m grateful for, but quite often, I won’t have a gratitude journal with me in those moments.” At times like this, you can use a scrap of paper or even the notes app on your phone, so not having your journal to hand doesn’t stop you from writing when you need to.   

Focus on specific details 

A gratitude list works best when it focuses on specific details. If you write that you’re grateful for your family, for example, it helps to then delve a bit deeper. “What is it about having a family that you’re grateful for?” says Kate. “Or is there a particular person in your family you’re grateful for? Is there something they’ve done recently that really touched you or that meant a lot to you?”

This can be something small, like the way a family member made you a cup of tea in your favourite mug, or that they sent you a funny message that made you laugh.

Both Kate and Myszka tell me that focusing on your senses and what’s around you is a great way to get ideas flowing and to become grounded in the moment. Myszka suggests writing down something you can see, hear, touch, taste, and smell. This can help you focus on details and is useful if you find it hard to get started with writing your list.  

Let the ideas flow 

As you write, try not to worry about spelling and grammar, or being judged. This writing is just for you. No one else is going to read it, so you can write anything you like. “As long as you can be kind to yourself, then you’re free to write whatever flows out of you,” says Kate.

Letting the ideas flow without getting hung up on whether you’ve put a comma in the right place can help you get into the writing zone and to focus on the content of what you’re writing.

Some people find it helps to set a number of things to write about on their gratitude list, eg five or 10 things they are grateful for. But it’s important to not let this feel intimidating or limiting.

I found that once I got into the habit of writing gratitude lists, the words came a lot more easily to me. And some days it can be harder to write than others – maybe we’re tired, or struggling to focus. Acknowledge how you feel, but don’t let it put you off trying to write a gratitude list another time. 

Writing can bring up difficult emotions so it's important to monitor how you feel when writing for wellbeing.

Look after your wellbeing as you write 

When Myszka works with people, she reminds them that the process of writing for wellbeing can bring up difficult memories and emotions. “Decide if you’re in a safe place to take responsibility for yourself when you’re writing,” she says. “If you’re not feeling in a safe place, talk to someone first; don’t just leap off the deep end thinking, ‘I’ll sort this out myself by journaling about it.’ Sometimes it’s too difficult and we need help.”

Kate explains that it’s important to monitor our emotions when writing for wellbeing. “If things are starting to feel a bit overwhelming, or things are going down a difficult path, then I tell people to just step back from whatever they’re writing and take a few deep breaths.” You may find you can then return to your writing, change your perspective, or take a break from it.

If I need to take a step back, I’ll go sing along to my favourite music or spend time with someone else, away from my writing space. It’s important to be honest with yourself about how you feel. 

Read back through your gratitude lists 

One of the wonderful things about gratitude lists is they can act as an ongoing reminder of the positives in our lives. Taking time to read back through our lists can help us remember the people, places and experiences that matter to us.

Myszka explains that gratitude lists and other creative writing activities like journaling can help us to see how we got through difficult times. “There’s a sense of achievement, there’s a sense of getting through it,” she says. “And if it’s looking back at lovely things, it’s a reminder that lovely things do happen.”

“I think it’s a lovely way to chart all those moments in time that mean a lot to you,” says Kate. “And sometimes, particularly during times of stress, to sit down and have this record of those good things and moments you might have forgotten even happened. You can just spend a moment immersing yourself in it again.”

I love reading back through my gratitude lists. It helps me see where my happiness lies and reminds me that it’s a good idea to arrange a catch up with a friend or make the time to go for a country walk.

Getting into the habit of writing a gratitude list gives us time to reflect on what’s going well, notice the little things, and celebrate what brings us joy

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Images: Getty, courtesy Kate McBarron and Myszka Matthews