The ticket to happiness and results is simple: keep a gratitude journal.
You can take advantage of this extraordinary success-producing path. You need only the ability to write and think.
According to Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage (he spent over a decade in academic institutions studying this subject and conducting research), this activity is a foolproof method of rewiring your brain so your thoughts reflect a positive outlook.
“When the brain is positive every possible outcome we know how to test for raises dramatically.” — Shawn Achor
Giving Thanks Transformed Me Completely
I’ve been cultivating gratitude for over five years. I attest to the genuineness of Achor’s findings. Every one of my actions or activities that can be measured has shown dramatic improvement.
Over this period: I doubled my reading speed; I beat more than 180 personal fitness records; I was sick only twice; I got a better job and I obtained three professional certificates;
I learned new skills; I started a new career on the side; I published 15 books; my income doubled.
I also overcame my shyness and now have new friends all over the world.
But that is not all.
Some aspects of life aren’t measurable, yet we certainly know when improvement happens. Since I began the discipline of keeping gratitude journals, my self-confidence, self-esteem, self-discipline, self-efficacy and resilience have noticeably increased or improved.
Reflecting on my experience, I speculate that every action we take will have observably better results when our minds are positively focused, we just don’t have methods to prove this yet.
The Pareto Principle in Cultivating Gratitude
Pareto uncovered a ratio that appears in nature, and also in human endeavor: 80% of output consistently comes from 20% of input. High achievers embrace this; they look for the activities that produce the most results, and concentrate on those.
In gratitude journaling, one simple, small piece of effort produces 80% of possible results:
“Turn up and write your gratitude journal consistently.”
Yes, there are some journaling ‘best practices’, but you can expend a lot more effort and only get an additional 20% on the results ledger. I keep things simple — and I don’t follow most of the ‘best practices’ below. But I do show up every day and keep my gratitude journals.
The 200,000 people who read my Quora answer were excited. Expressing gratitude is such an easy fix for a stagnant life; it can facilitate drastic improvement. However, many of my readers asked questions that indicated their focus was on unnecessary details or trivia.
What’s the best way to do it? Does it make a difference if I type or write by hand? Should I write in a bullet-point manner or elaborate my reasons for being grateful?
These readers had missed the point. As a result, many didn’t even get started. However, you may also have questions like these, so I will provide ‘Michal’s Notes’ for the common distractions.
I want you to start, and get results!
Handwriting or typing?
In 2016 I read How Your Memory Works by Sia Mojaher. This book is packed with scientific references, but my main takeaway was that a human mind remembers better when there are more associations it can attach to a memory.
This is why lectures (most of the time) will anchor more concepts in your mind than dry textbooks. You’ll remember not only the data, but other things like the professor’s tone of voice, a funny anecdote he said about discovering the specific formula, the weird face he made and the smell of a classroom.
The same goes with writing by hand. It provides more associations for your mind than you get by typing. This has been proven by joint research led by French and American scientists. They mathematically and computationally demonstrated that “there is a difference in how the brain controls the body’s slightest action.”
Writing by hand imprints a stronger signal in the web of associations that comprises your memory: people learn better when they write by hand, than when they type. It’s obvious, when you know about the associating nature of human memory.
Instead of attaching one keystroke to a piece of data, your mind registers multiple discrete signals that went to each of dozens of muscle movements that are needed to write a single word.
If you need speed and consistent legibility, you type. But when writing a gratitude journal, you want lasting and profound impressions.
Handwriting will provide them.
When to write?
Multiple studies have shown how the way we begin our day has profound effects on the rest of it. And many people begin their day watching or listening to news. Yet there have been plenty of studies done about the harmful effects of negative news on our mood and attitude.
Research has been done on the long-term negative effects of being exposed to negativity. Other studies concluded that being positive cuts the long term risk of coronary diseases by half (researchers studied 30 years of data).
One of the most interesting studies was the one featured in Harvard Business Review stating that “Individuals who watched just three minutes of negative news in the morning had a whopping 27% greater likelihood of reporting their day as unhappy six to eight hours later.”
The most telling effect happened to people who watched transformative stories. Watchers reported having a good day 88 percent of the time.
The evidence is clear enough: your entire day will be impacted by your experiences at the beginning of it. And you can choose whether this is positive or negative.
I recently got a message from a new coaching client, who struggled with procrastination. One of the small tweaks I recommended was to jot down in the morning a few things he was grateful for. This is his feedback after the first day:
“I had a minute in the morning to think about what I’m grateful for. The effect was really good and it took me by surprise. I was overfilled with the positive energy for the whole day. Once again, thank you for the right on-the-spot advice.”
Start your day by writing entries in your gratitude journal. It will make an immediate difference to your sense of wellbeing.
Three new things or the same things?
You can write about the same occurrences or people for as many days as your gratitude for them remains in your thoughts.
But your mind is also constantly experiencing new things. Every second, about 11 MILLION sensory impulses are detected by your brain, the most sophisticated searching mechanism known to humanity.
Storing information is just a tiny part of the brain’s function. Filtering is what really matters, that’s why every piece of data in your memory gets multiple associations attached to it. The more associations, the easier it is for your mind to reference the data.
Thus, as your mind is looking for associations and reasons to attach priority to information, give it plenty! Each day, find at least three new reasons you’re grateful for something in your life: a scene you saw that brought a smile; a friend who helped you; the taste of a meal.
Ask yourself: what am I most grateful for today?
Your mind will act like a puppy happily chasing a ball.
Throw it a question; it will joyfully look for new reasons why you should be grateful.
Give specific reasons or bullet points?
Given that the more associations a memory has, the more powerful it is, you’ll probably have guessed the answer to this: reflecting on your reasons for gratitude will imprint gratefulness into your mind in a more effective way than a brief note that records only, say, that someone helped you.
Imagine re-reading your journal in a year from now. Use a few extra words so you can recall and re-live these moments when you read over your entries in the future. Thus, instead of merely Jack; my car; nice weather … you might write:
Jack: he helped me with a huge project, I can always count on him.
My car: it is old, yet still reliable! Today I was again on time at the office.
Nice weather: constant rain over the last few days has been depressing; nice to see the sun again.
See? It’s just a bit of additional work, but the effect is deeper.
When you add reasons to your bullet points, it affects more associations. You add to your entry not just the image of the item or person you are grateful for; you add your feelings, you employ other senses (the sun’s warmth on your skin) and you stir elder memories (how Jack helped you in the last month and a year ago).
With a few additional strokes of your pen, you’ll make the entry much more meaningful.
Be empowered; Start today!
When I discovered the immense power of gratitude, I quickly shared it with my family. My teenage son answered with a typical rebellious adolescent attitude: “But, I have nothing to be grateful for.”
Most adults are not so adamant about this point, but quite a lot of my readers were concerned about exhausting their gratitude resources.
I can easily reassure everyone who is concerned about this. You won’t run out. It’s no more likely to happen than the world’s oxygen being used up because people are breathing it.
You can be grateful for: your possessions; relationships; weather patterns; opportunities to serve or contribute to others or causes; chance encounters; your state of health, wealth or understanding, (and any improvement in any of those); your talents, achievements, and your progress towards goals … and you can be grateful for every challenge you face and every obstacle you overcome.
We are helped by many in this life, every day, directly or indirectly. Circumstances may go in our favor, misfortune might pass us by — or it strikes us and we recover. You’ll never lack for things to be grateful about, once you open your mind to the infinite possible experiences waiting for you every single day.
We have barely scratched the surface. You’ll look back in a year, amazed at your pile of gratitude entries.
Expressing gratitude is a joyous part of my day
I keep three gratitude journals: I record thoughts about my wife, my kids and my everyday experiences.
The first two are easy, almost self-explanatory. Every day I express gratitude for the members of my family, and for their attitudes, opinions, creativity and actions.
But everyday experiences?
A few examples will make this clearer.
When reflecting on my day, I include my various awakenings and amazements about the beauty of nature. I mention people who were generous or helpful to me, good meeting outcomes, maybe an accomplishment — even if minor. I also write about my realizations of faults and failings, because when I notice these, I have the chance to change my course. Naturally, I’m grateful to get opportunities to improve myself.
I write my journals in the evening. I spend five to twenty minutes on my daily gratitude practice. I write entries by hand in the diaries. At least in this aspect I stick to the recommendations I have given you!
To save time, I tend to bullet point my entries. I rarely elaborate on my reflections.
I regularly find myself repeating the same reasons for being grateful. For example, I have been writing (articles, books, etc.) every day since the 23rd of September 2013, but almost every day I note my specific daily word count in my gratitude diary.
However, among the many repeated items I scribble every day will always be at least three entries which I am recording for the first time.
The stunning example of gratitude’s immense power
When it comes to gratitude journaling, my hero is one of my friends from the Coach.me platform. Let’s call her Diane (this is not her real name, but I want to protect her privacy).
She also doesn’t stick to the letter when it comes to the ‘perfect way’ of keeping a journal.
She often writes only one thing in her journal.
She often elaborates on her entry, but not always.
She doesn’t write them by hand. She types her entries in the Coach.me application.
Diane often repeats the same reason she is grateful. She frequently writes about meals in her journal. (By the way, foods are one of the most common things recurring in many gratitude journals; this is my observation from going through many journals of other Coach.me users).
She had been keeping her gratitude journal very diligently for about two years when a tragedy happened: Her boyfriend died suddenly in a car accident.
She had already been through tough times, she was divorced.
I observed with disbelief how she kept her gratitude journal through that terrible time. It kept her sane. It kept her present for her son. It allowed her to find the strength for the everyday stuff when her world collapsed.
Today Diane’s streak is well over 1,000 days long.
Progress, not perfection
Your gratitude routine doesn’t have to be ‘perfect.’ Recall that 80% of possible results come from how consistently you cultivate gratitude, not from how you keep a ‘perfect’ gratitude journal.
But if you want to maximize your gratitude, keep these points in mind:
-Write your entries in the journal by hand
-Do it in the morning to positively frame your day
-Elaborate on your entries: think of the reasons or specifics for your gratitude
-Note down at least three new things
And … be grateful you learned about acknowledging your gratitude. Your life transforms when you do.
This article was originally published on Medium.