If you use your journal like I do, you use it for everything, scribbling down various thoughts, desires, heartaches, happenings, and everything in between, including action items and gratitude lists. Let’s focus on this last one: gratitude lists.
For me, the practice of creating gratitude lists started during a stressful time. I wasn’t sleeping well, waking up in the middle of the night, insomnia for months. Upon sharing my issue, the resulting recommendation was to come up with a list of ten things I was grateful for, and even more specifically, the items had to come from the day that had just passed. So it began, but first just mentally, a list of ten items for which I was grateful, counting on my fingers in the middle of the night.
But it didn’t end there, because I still woke up and stayed awake, the insomnia continuing. Not able to come up with another solution myself, the same person said, “Well, then make it thirty-six things.” Thirty-six things? That seemed impossible, especially during such a stressful time. But I tried it anyway.
It really did the trick! So focused on the positive and even nitty-gritty detail, I often relaxed and fell asleep during the middle of the night. Eventually, I didn’t wake during the night, but because I still felt a call to be grateful, I created daily gratitude lists of thirty-six things in my journals. I did this every day for a long time, and now I do it when I feel called to give thanks.
I do understand that a list of thirty-six things can feel daunting, and isn’t necessarily required, so I want to break it down into steps and journaling prompts.
STEP 1: DETERMINE YOUR TIMEFRAME
I almost always journal in the morning, so I use the previous day as the timeframe from which to collect my gratitude. For those who journal before bed, the timeframe might be the current day. As with most things, you get to decide. Once you have decided your timeframe, start with these journaling prompts:
JOURNAL PROMPT: What happened during this timeframe for which I am grateful?
JOURNAL PROMPT: What things made my day easier/were pleasing?
JOURNAL PROMPT: Who made my day better?
JOURNAL PROMPT: Where did I enjoy being today?
JOURNAL PROMPT: How did my body help me?
The practice requires us to be still and consider small touchpoints during the day: maybe a person was kind, or called, or wrote an article which I enjoyed reading; maybe I stayed inside all day, but looked out a window and certain trees, animals, or birds gave me pleasure; maybe I read something about beautiful far-away islands in a magazine, or noticed a rainbow in a television commercial; maybe I went to a park where children played.
STEP 2: DETERMINE NUMBER OF ITEMS TO PUT ON YOUR LIST
My experience has taught me that ten is too few, but maybe it is better for you than a daily gratitude list of thirty-six things. You get to decide how often and how many. You may even decide to challenge yourself to not repeat items and then maybe just a handful of items each day makes sense. I recommend that you commit to trying it for ten to twenty days and continue or come back to it whenever it is helpful or you feel called to do so. Of course, there are many other options for journaling with gratitude. Let me share some variations.
On some days, it might seem like we have the same items listed as the day before. On other days, the list might all be vastly different. On days when items are a repeat, we might want to give detail for these repetitive items as to why we are grateful for the thing, person, event, and so on.
For example, maybe you bought a bag of oranges and you write orange on your list for five days. Once the item, person, place repeats, consider expanding upon the item.
JOURNAL PROMPT: Why am I grateful for this person, place, or thing which shows up often on my gratitude list?
Next to oranges, then, over the five days, the descriptions would vary each day. Possibilities are endless, but might include these types of descriptions: oranges are versatile; I used the zest of one for a recipe; oranges have a long shelf life; I made fresh orange juice for my kids; I remembered that my son wanted me to buy oranges.
Sometimes we might not feel like creating an exhaustive list or thinking about an entire day. In this case, forget about getting to 36 different items. Just list one or two items and then dig deeper.
Digging deeper means that we take just one good thing and we stretch it out. For example, the cinnamon bread we ate was especially good and so we simply write “cinnamon bread” on our list; below “bread” we look below the surface of the item itself. For example, we might add cinnamon spice, the baker’s hands, the mixing equipment, eggs, flour, sugar. If we dig even deeper, the list might expand more: the recipe, the recipe’s creator, the farmer who sowed the wheat, cinnamon bark, the tropical growing conditions, and so on.
Tired of always thinking about the day before? Here are a couple more categories:
A. List out the things for which you are looking forward to doing or happening, like the birth of a new baby, a wedding, a vacation, finishing a project, a scheduled lunch date, etc. Count these items towards your desired number of items. For me, I use the abbreviation 2LF2 as a column header for this category.
B. Simply write “God* in my life.” This shows up on almost every one of my lists because it is the “place” to which I direct my gratitude. It also counts as one item!
I am sure there are more variations on this theme. The best part is that all of the ones suggested above can keep us focused on the good things in our lives. Secondarily, it costs nothing!
If you have a different practice that could benefit our readers, please share it with us.
*For this column, I want to define God by not defining God. I suggest that each of us use the term which feels most comfortable. I use God as a universal term. You may decide that Spirit, Great Spirit, Higher Power, Sensibility, Best Self, or SOMETHING else better suits you. It is not for me to decide what term you use. It is only for me to decide which term I use. I often use the term God.
Author bio: Marie Higgins left corporate America after more than 15 years in human resources management to pursue life. Before long she found massage therapy and became a nationally certified, state-licensed massage therapist. At the same time, she felt a partial hardening of the heart, figuratively and spiritually, so she found a spiritual coach to help, and became an active journaling person. Included in her journals are the gratitude lists that helped her heart soften and moved her to write poetry. In 2017 she included these poems in her debut book, Sprouting Spiritual Growth: A Memoir and a Guide to Spiritual Journaling. Since then Marie maintains a journaling practice that includes writing poetry whenever inspiration strikes. Marie lives in suburban Philadelphia with her husband, two young adult children and an active foxhound.