7 Tips That Help Get to the Nitty-Gritty of Gratitude Journaling

Keeping a gratitude journal is the most well-known gratitude practice for good reason:  It's very simple and highly effective.

But maybe you're staring at your pretty new journal and wondering how to start.  How can you make this practice as meaningful as possible?


7 tips for keeping a gratitude journal

1.  Write twice a week.

I used to think that writing in my journal every day was best for cultivating thankfulness.  But Robert Emmons, the world's leading scientific expert on gratitude, suggests twice per week.  Why?  Because making daily entries seems to cause what Emmons calls "gratitude fatigue."  It becomes too routine, just one more thing to cross off a to-do list, and doesn't stimulate the desired response.

I suggest you choose two specific evenings so that you don't forget – perhaps Sunday and Wednesday.

2.  Be specific and detailed.

Journaling works because it takes the thoughts that flit through your brain and makes them concrete.  But you don't want to create a mindless list that anyone could write, such as "I'm grateful for my spouse, my kids, nice weather, a good dinner."  The more detailed you make your entries, the more lively, memorable, and personal they are.  For example:

  • I'm grateful for my husband's quirky sense of humor and his ability to identify every bird I see (and point out the ones I missed!).
  • I'm grateful for my daughter's soft heart and strong sense of justice.
  • I'm grateful for the rain today, and the beautiful sunset as the sky started to clear.
  • I'm grateful for the hot, juicy, savory burger I had for dinner, and the crisp, tangy sweetness of the fresh apple I ate afterwards.

3.  Don't be obvious.

When you only think about the big or obvious things – family, job, house, health – you'll find it hard to keep your entries fresh.  It's not that you can't repeat things, just that searching for more diversity keeps your eyes and mind open, and stretches your gratitude muscles.

So think about everything that makes your life good, that adds to your happiness in even the smallest way, and that shouldn't be taken for granted.  This could include:

  • Technology (your phone or computer, the internet, the ability to FaceTime or video chat, your favorite music on the radio)
  • Food (the existence of dark chocolate and coffee, the arrival of tangelo season, a dozen delicious organic eggs laid by your neighbor's pampered hens)
  • Conveniences or tools (central heating, new and efficient windshield wipers, canned tomatoes)
  • Things that please your senses (the sound of rain on the roof, the scent of your lavender soap, the softness of your grandchild's cheek)

4.  Think beyond yourself.

Do give thanks for people and things that directly benefit you (or have done so in the past), but don't forget those which benefit your loved ones.  Appreciate your child's teacher, your sick father's doctor and nurses, and your sister's new and much-needed washing machine.

5.  Start where you are.

This is a reminder from Emmons, who says you can still begin and benefit from a gratitude journal even during a hard time of your life, "even if the only item on your list is 'nothing bad happened today.'"

6.  Look to the end.

When we remember that an experience won't last forever, we feel more grateful for the time we have left, and remind ourselves to make the most of it.  So when you go through something that has a definite expiration date – a vacation, pregnancy, a college class – pay attention and really savor the details.  When I was in the middle of being a Mama and homeschooling my kids, my husband and I would remind each other, "They'll never be this young again."  And now they're 32 and 30.  I'm glad I usually cherished the time I had with them.

7.  Harness your inner George Bailey.

This is a suggestion from Brett McKay, long-time blogger at The Art of Manliness.  In the classic film, It's a Wonderful Life, George Bailey has to experience a world in which he had never been born in order to understand how rich and blessed his life really is.  

Try to imagine a similar alternate universe.  Rather than writing about something you're thankful for, write about how that thing might not have happened.  What if you had never met your spouse, never had children, never entered your profession or taken a different job than the one you have?  What would your life be like without your education or your best friend?

McKay writes, "Research shows that this exercise, by challenging your secure, complacent sense that something good in your life was always bound to happen, heightens your feeling of gratitude...."  Thinking this way reminds you that these things are gifts, not things you've somehow earned or are naturally entitled to.  

As you continue your gratitude journal,* you train your mind to notice and dwell on the many good things in your life.  You build up a huge storehouse of positive memories and blessings to which you can refer when you need an injection of hope, and you make yourself strong and confident to handle dark days when they come.

* This blog is reader-supported. If you buy through my links, I may earn a small commission.

Updated June 2023


  1. Hello, Karen. I´m from Argentina. I´ve recently discovered your blog and been reading it most avidly during this past week. Thanks for all the advices and inspiration. Your writing is clear and deep, very insightful. It appeals me the idea of a gratitude journal since I´ve always kept notebooks only for writing down the things that worried me, made me sad, etc. In a few words, journaling was a way of doing catharsis. But didn´t work very well for me. So I´ll try this new approach as I enjoy writing (in Spanish, as you can see!) and need to be more conscious and focused during the busy year. Greetings!

    1. Hello, and thank you so much for reading and for taking the time to comment! I understand your idea of "catharsis" in writing about the things that worry and sadden you, but I have found that what I take the time and effort to think about and focus on determines my entire outlook on life. So it seemed to me that writing about all I have to be thankful for, and focusing on that, would help me to see the goodness in my life and change my whole way of thinking. I believe this approach will work for you too, helping you to feel more positive and hopeful. I wish you all the best!


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