Gratitude journals might sound cheesy but there is so much evidence showing that being grateful for what we have can make us happier. Yoga teacher and author Elizabeth Gowing, shares her life-changing tips
It was New Year’s Day, and I was doing the traditional run up Cornwall’s highest peak I did every year. It’s seven miles through peat bog, icy puddles and ankle-twisting ruts. Ahead of me, a woman slipped and fell face-first into freezing mud. As she picked herself up and shook bits of the hillside out of her hair, her friend smirked at her, ‘don’t forget your Gratitude Attitude’. She laughed, and they joined the race again.
I had another hour of lonely running – and slithering – offering time to reflect on what they were talking about. It chimed with some research I’d been reading, led by the University of Berkeley, into the links between gratitude and happiness. And it was the first day of a new year so I made a resolution.
people who regularly practise gratitude have stronger immune systems, are less bothered by aches and pains, have lower blood pressure, and sleep longer
It’s now been almost four years that I’ve been keeping that resolution and a daily gratitude diary. It’s made me more mindful, it’s made me happier, and it’s strengthened all kinds of relationships, whether those that are precious or those that are more fleeting.
And when I wrote my book, Unlikely Positions in Unlikely Places: a yoga journey around Britain (£8.30 Amazon), I decided it couldn’t be a full account of what I learned as I travelled the 21 diverse yoga sessions around the country if I didn’t include in each chapter the day’s entry from my gratitude diary.
One of the most important things I learned was that gratitude is good for you. That team at Berkeley studied more than a thousand people, from ages eight to eighty, and found that people who regularly practise gratitude consistently report physical benefits such as stronger immune systems, being less bothered by aches and pains, having lower blood pressure, and sleeping longer as well as feeling more refreshed on waking.
The psychological benefits they found to regular gratitude practice include feeling more alive and awake, experiencing more joy, pleasure and optimism, and feeling less lonely.
A separate study by psychologist Alex Wood in 2008 showed that gratitude can reduce the frequency and duration of episodes of depression too.
So how to access these extraordinary benefits from an activity that costs nothing, takes less than five minutes a day, and doesn’t preclude any of your favourite foods or drinks?
1. Make it a habit aka Just Do It
Each day I write down the first new thing I’m grateful for that day. First, because I want to start my day on the right foot: this forces me to look for blessings even as I race the alarm clock and fumble my way through the bathroom.
New because when I started, this gratitude diary became filled with a sweetly predictable repetition of how lucky I was to have my partner breathing in bed beside me. And grateful though I continue to be for that good luck, I realised that with the repetition I was no longer really thinking abut my gratitude.
My partner still features reassuringly often but I try to focus on new specifics – the kind thing he said, the way he kissed my shoulder, what he did to help me, how he made me laugh…
But a morning routine might not suit everyone. Other people report the benefits, particularly on quality sleep, from focusing on gratitude at the end of the day. I’ve heard of people who use otherwise ‘dead’ time on their daily commute to focus on gratitude.
Others don’t do it every day, but on a certain day or days each week. Whatever practice suits you, making it a habit makes it more likely to happen, and thus more likely for all those benefits to accrue.
2. Share your gratitude
The second part of my daily gratitude practice is sharing the gratitude I feel. He kisses my shoulder; I thank him for kissing my shoulder. I find a message on my phone from an old friend when I wake; I write to tell them how I appreciate them.
I enjoy the feel of the sheepskin rug beneath my feet; I send my mum an email thanking her for having given it to me as a present ten Christmases ago. Sometimes I tell the people I’m writing to about my gratitude diary, and some of them have told me it’s prompted them to start the same thing.
Others have told me about their practice of writing a regular – for example weekly – ‘gratitude letter’ to someone they want to thank for the impact (maybe bigger than a sheepskin rug) that they’ve had on their life.
Sharing my gratitude has led me into some interesting conversations – like when I told the neighbour in the flat above how grateful I was for waking to the sound of her child’s laughter but then got into an argument because she thought I was passive-aggressively telling her that her daughter was noisy.
But it’s also led me to getting free vouchers from companies I’ve written to in appreciation for their particular snack.
And I’ve had some lovely exchanges with jaded customer service agents who’ve told me that I’ve made their day with my praise for their brand of tights or vitamin pills.
Probably my most treasured gratitude conversation with a stranger was when I got a reply from Caitlin Moran having tweeted her to tell her she was that day’s diary entry, for her book, How to be Famous (£6.99 Amazon).
3. Store up a gratitude hoard
When I started my gratitude diary, I did it online as part of the project being run at Berkeley, which aggregated anonymised data through their website from all the people who’d agreed to be part of the study.
Now, I just type the diary in a document on my laptop, where I can write it without internet access (going online can be the beginning of the day’s distractions, and nothing kills a feeling of gratitude like being a spectator to someone else’s argument on social media).
I know some people write their gratitude notes in beautiful journals they can carry with them and which they feel add to the ritual of writing down something special in a special book.
Wherever you choose to record your gratitude I’d recommend keeping it in a form which encourages you to look back.
After the first year of making my morning notes I realised that I had a year of appreciation stored up which I could review to feel twice as good of a morning. So now I not only write down the thing I’m grateful for today, I also use the opportunity to see what I was grateful for on this day last year.
Reading previous years’ entries sometimes makes me giggle; it sometimes makes me sad – for example when I remember people who are no longer with us – and occasionally I roll my eyes at my younger self. But it makes the gratitude go further, and as I write down what I feel grateful for today, it warms me to know that this is also a note to my future self.
I also feel these notes of gratitude are a hoard I’m building up against the tough times, like canning fruit. My life is basically very happy and lucky right now.
That can’t last – we are all going to lose people we love; are going to suffer ill health; are going to struggle through bad luck or bad judgement.
I know that in those times it’s going to be a lot tougher to start my day with a perky note on my laptop about what is going right. But I also know that if I’ve got into this habit now, it will be much easier to keep it going on hard days in the future.
And according to the research by the team at the University of Berkeley, people who practise gratitude are more stress-resistant so perhaps I’m not only preparing to meet those days but even putting them off.
4. When things are going badly, recognise your ‘lucky escape’
Whether because of temporary situations in which we find ourselves – like that woman in the Cornish bog who set me off on my practice – or because of habits of personality, it can sometimes be tough to find things to feel grateful for.
Researchers suggest that getting into habits of recognising the ‘lucky escape’ can increase our capacity for gratitude: in my own gratitude diary I realise that the only day I noted that I was grateful not to have cystitis was on the day after I had thought I was getting cystitis…
You can also prompt gratitude through reflecting on tougher times in your life to realise what’s better now.
Or, you can achieve the same thing through imagining tougher times that could come. One question I sometimes push myself to think about is ‘how would I feel if I was never going to see this room/ talk to this person/ do this activity again’. I often then experience a rush of affection and engagement with a person or situation that before was challenging or boring.
A more fun way of achieving something similar is through travel. You never appreciate salt and vinegar crisps as much as you do on return to the UK after travelling the countries of the world where no such crisps can be found.
I enjoy my own bed far more on my first night back from a trip than I do on all the other nights when I tuck myself in and take it for granted.
More fundamentally, I forget to be grateful for drinking water from the tap, for washing machines or for flush toilets until I’m back from spending time in countries (or campsites) where these things are not easily available.
5. Deny yourself a little
You don’t even have to leave your own home or your own bathroom to open yourself to these forms of gratitude. Long-established spiritual practices show the power of denial for many kinds of well-being.
It might be Dry January, the 5:2 intermittent fasting regime, giving something up for Lent or the Muslim month of Ramadan: any period where you go without gives you a heightened appreciation of what you missed when the denial comes to an end. No chocolate ice-cream has ever tasted as good as the cone I enjoyed at the end of a sugar-free summer.
Most of all, these steps to developing gratitude – and enjoying the physical and psychological benefits that come from it – remind us that this is something that, like any other discipline, we can practise.
And that building up the habit of such a quick regular focus on gratitude can change your life. So wherever you are on the hill race today – whether muttering down in the mud, or whooping victoriously on your way to the finish line, say thank you!
Elizabeth Gowing’s book, Unlikely Positions: A Yoga Journey around Britain, was published this summer by Bradt.
Elizabeth Gowing has been practising yoga for twelve years but is still not a likely yogini. She is too fond of cake and to-do lists, and sometimes falls over on her mat. She has done yoga in a cramped carriage on the Trans-Siberian Railway, on a jetty off the Montenegrin coast, in a Kosovan house fortified against blood feuds and as an ice-breaker with a suspicious landlady in Cuba. This is her fifth travel book.
Elizabeth is co-founder of The Ideas Partnership charity that works in Kosovo, using the power of volunteers to tackle education, environmental and cultural heritage challenges, and to support the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities. In 2016 she was awarded the Mother Teresa Medal for humanitarian work by the President of Kosovo, and in 2017 was named by the British Prime Minister as a Point of Light for volunteering around the world.
She is an Arts Society accredited lecturer and frequent contributor to BBC Radio 4.