Struggling with "gratitude journaling"

I’ve been poking around at building a habit of some kind of “gratitude journaling,” because in general my goal for 2020 (and this pandemic) is to do more of the common-sense life-improvement things that others report broad success with. (To my intense yet petty annoyance, waking and sleeping at the same time every day has been excellent, and I’m even starting to see some benefits from daily exercise.) Many people report great mood improvements from regularly making note of things they are grateful for or make them happy; I am ready to be one of those people.

However, after three weeks of trying this semi-regularly, I can report that it consistently makes me miserable. Trying to think of something that evokes any kind of positive feeling instead has me making mental laundry-lists of all the things I don’t feel grateful for, and all of the worst feelings I’ve felt throughout the day. I’ll spend minutes looking at a blank page and just feeling more and more upset that there’s not a single thing I can write down. Three days in a row I just wrote that I like my favourite teacups (while trying not to think about the fact that I used to have three and one broke). The closest I can get to “gratitude” is “thing I’m scared of losing.” This is not an accurate response to my circumstances!

If there’s anyone out there who has had success with some kind of positive-reflections habit, what was the trick?? Do you have advice on how to adapt this prompt somehow? Is it time for me to accept that I gave this a good-faith try, and mov on?


It is totally out of my scope of knowledge and expertise to attempt to answer your questions, but I do find your predicament very interesting, and I cannot help but feel bad that you’ve had such a negative experience in trying this, so I’m sorry for that.

Impermanence is something that is often swept under the rug in western society. To even think about its possibility evokes such negative emotion that I can understand the response you’re having. I’m not sure if I, personally, would be able to feel gratitude for everything in my life were it not for getting past the very large, very uncomfortable hurdle that is impermanence.

If you do not want to read my response further I understand, but I like using these teacups of your as an example, since there would be a relatively small amount of emotional attachment there.

These tea cups are most likely aesthetically-pleasing, and serve you well by holding good tea for you to drink. They’re important, and acknowledging that in itself is gratitude. There is fragility in their beauty, but the fact they break so easily means we should cherish them while we have them even more so, and like with most things, we should be more delicate with them. Acting delicately with them, while drinking tea for example, is also in itself an act of gratitude–to be mindful and intentional with the small details of your life like that.

While writing out gratitude can be useful for later review, I believe the feeling that can be meditated on when acting mindfully throughout your day is more important. You do not have to search your mind for the things you are grateful for, rather just plainly look at what is good in front of you at the current moment.

An aside, there’s also the idea of kintsugi* (got it mixed up with wabi-sabi, which is still interesting!), which is the Japanese art of fixing items, such as teacups, and actually making them more beautiful as a result.


Thanks very much for this response, @brennanbrown. I definitely find this experience fascinating even while I’m frustrated by it, haha, so I appreciate someone else’s thoughts to bounce off of.

I think you’re right to look at gratitude-in-the-moment and gratitude-on-reflection as different and not necessarily related habits. In the moment, I feel a lot of gratitude and pleasure in these teacups! It’s part of why I start my day with them. And really, there are a lot of little things that are just-so in my life, which I savour throughout the day. Relatedly, I actually do practice kintsugi! And what I like about it is the intimate, in-the-moment connection with an object and its history. But when it’s time to write things down later, the beautiful moment has already passed…

I now think that my problem is that the way I’ve been trying to journal, it’s making me try to increase my attachment to things that I have previously accepted the impermanence of. I’ll cast my mind over the things around me and just think “no, that will leave my life, and it will be fine.” A very common item for gratitude journals, for example, is being grateful for one’s health – but if I lost the use of a limb, or lost my sight, or developed chronic pain, my life would change but it would not be a less valuable, worthwhile life. So the problem might be that I’ve been mentally trying to force this question into being “what’s something so good that I need to hold onto it,” which is not a healthy question.

I also might have a simple logistical problem, that I’m doing this late at night when tired and more likely to be a bit cranky, especially if I’m not looking forward to the next day.

I’m not sure if I can adapt my mental journal-prompt to still get some of the benefits of recording or making explicit time for gratitude… maybe making a habit of taking a photo in the moment? Since one benefit would be to have something to look at to cheer myself up sometimes. Or maybe shifting it to something anticipatory, trying to think about one tiny moment that will be nice to experience the next day / in the upcoming day?

But it also seems like this might be advice that’s addressing a different need than the ones I have.

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Ooh, there’s a classic Beeminder blog post about this, “Everything is Amazing, Even Gratitude Journaling”. I tried it for a few months starting Jan 2, 2013, and some of my entries still crack me up:

  • 2013-01-02: Learned you can just ask google for the status of a flight
  • 2013-01-03: Human vision is an amazing superpower – consider the insane amount of detail about your surroundings that you can instantly capture in your brain. And you’re doing it remotely! Not so much as touching anything you’re creating the mapping of. Craziness. It sure is great to have superpowers, eh? It’s funny how we forget that we have them as we fantasize about epsilon improvements like x-ray vision or being able to fly (actually we can do all those things too, with machine assistance).
  • 2013-01-04: We can just walk 2 blocks and have amazing Thai food served to us
  • 2013-01-05: You can call a landline in Australia and talk for an hour for like $2
  • 2013-01-06: It suddenly (in the last few decades) became socially acceptable to be gay, not to mention the broader such progress since the Victorian era
  • 2013-01-07: LCD monitors are amazing compared to CRTs which are amazing compared to TTYs which are amazing compared to blinking lights and seven-segment displays which are still plenty amazing
  • 2013-01-08: Books! The sheer information density of this pocket-sized thing that lasts for hundreds of years and can convey literally anything you can conceive of. Wow. The fact that books are now marginally massless is icing.
  • 2013-01-09: I have a universal Turing machine in my pocket, bitches (this is so easy that it’s already boring – I guess that fact is worthy of an entry). Btw, I’ve been carrying a universal Turing machine in my pocket since i was a kid (HP28S).
  • 2013-01-10: It’s amazing that the real-time full-duplex voice-chat app on my pocket computer isn’t the most amazing thing it can do. A few that could make a case for even more amazing: Doppler radar to magically know when it’s going to rain, being able to write arbitrary programs, GPS navigation (with spoken directions), access to much of the world’s information (including music), and of course thoroughly sci-fi-esque video conferencing.
  • 2013-01-13: Place-value notation (as opposed to Roman numerals) is an amazingly ingenious innovation. I think it’s an example of why people who think math isn’t that important for in-the-trenches programmers (at least ones solving business problems as opposed to writing rendering engines or something) are missing the forest for the trees. IT’S ALL MATH. Just that some of it we take for granted. (Hey, speaking of taking things for granted, what a nice accidental tie-in to this Beeminder [gratitude journaling] goal!)
  • 2013-01-16: Running water. That you can drink! It’s crazy how rich the poor are in the first world. Think about all the luxuries (fancy gadgets and vacations and services) that you’d give up before giving up running water and refrigeration and electricity. If you think in absolute terms (and why shouldn’t you?) then the first world poor are easily 90% as rich as the disgustingly wealthy. If you think there’s some breakthrough to be had when you break 6 figures or something then you’re surely stuck in non-absolute thinking and after you hit that 6 figures or whatever you’ll be pining for a second house, or a private jet, or a private island. I’m not saying money doesn’t buy happiness, just that if you’re in the first world then you’re already at the point of diminishing returns! [I thought of a pithier way to put this: People assess their prosperity with the bottom of the y-axis cut off. Classic way to lie with statistics! I didn’t want this to be political though. I’m thinking about the problem that’s the opposite of akrasia where you perpetually think that a bit more sacrifice now will pay off later.]
  • 2013-01-19: How far math gets you in understanding the universe. What is up with that? It’s practically suspicious. PS: I just remembered about this:
  • 2013-01-20: How generally comfy everything is. Mattresses and fluffy pillows and heat and air conditioning. You can mostly avoid bugs and parasites. We even have painkillers. Most pain and discomfort in the first world is probably voluntary (like workouts and camping). That’s pretty remarkable.
  • 2013-01-21: Think about the extravagance of employing a jester – someone whose full-time job it is to simply entertain you. Now think about the fact that you have 24/7 access to all the most gifted entertainers in the world. [Including dead ones, which is a whole other category of amazing.]
  • 2013-01-24: Living in walking distance of a million other people is pretty amazing (I guess that’s not literally true for those of us not in Manhattan, but it’s close enough to true for all of us who live in cities). It means that no matter what you’re into there are like-minded people nearby. The new ways to find them afforded by the internet is icing.
  • 2013-01-26: How many of my friends and family would be dead (often multiple times over) without modern medicine? My impression is that it’s literally over half.
  • 2013-01-27: The invention of money. Consider the crazy coordination problem that’s being solved when you do whatever your day job is and manage to convert that into food, shelter, toys, and anything else that any combination of other humans can possibly do or create for you. Arguably money is the most fundamental prerequisite for human civilization, since what is civilization but the solving of just that kind of massive coordination problem?
  • 2013-01-30: Andy Brett: I had a good one today – cars are fucking amazing; Me: I hate them, yet I can’t help but agree; Andy: Like, that thing has been sitting in subfreezing temperatures, mostly idle, for six weeks and suddenly, on a whim, I’m like, ‘I want you to whisk me magically to the ocean in full climate control. And I want to go FAST’; Me: And compare to the alternative of horses and carriages – like orders of magnitude better on every dimension including cost.
  • 2013-02-01: Self-control is the biggest problem facing many of the world’s people|
  • 2013-02-04: One word: plastics. It’s so easy to take the amazingness of plastic for granted but imagine the market value a few generations ago of a plastic screw-top bottle. It would be huge. Nearly weightless, leak-proof, unbreakable. It’s pretty much magical. And what does such a marvel of engineering cost? To say they’re free to every man, woman, and child is an understatement. In fact, if this were a journal of how much everything sucked I could be complaining about the problem of disposing of the surplus of them. Which is amazing.
  • 2013-02-07: You know those dystopian novels where civilization collapses, money becomes worthless, etc? It’s pretty amazing that humans apparently have their shit together enough that that doesn’t actually happen.
  • 2013-02-09: Today, while driving (being driven) to a play, I wanted to know why the oceans are salty. Typing ‘why are the o’ was enough for Google to guess what I wanted to know. (Just typing ‘why is’ is enough for it to come up as the 2nd guess, after, of course, ‘why is the sky blue?’) To say it’s like having a full encyclopedia in my pocket is only the tip of the iceberg.
  • 2013-02-11: It’s not quite right to just say ‘cars are amazing’. If you took one back in time it wouldn’t last long, even if you could procure fuel, which you couldn’t. The amazingness requires a vast, elaborate infrastructure with thousands or millions of people working to maintain it every day.
  • 2013-02-13: Specialization / division of labor. Everywhere you look in daily life, whole human lifetimes have been devoted to trivial improvements in your comfort and convenience.
  • 2013-02-15: My brother fell and broke his front teeth clean off when he was a kid. Wait, that’s not the amazing and wonderful part. He got composites glued on that have functioned perfectly to this day. You can’t even tell. Materials science FTW.
  • 2013-02-17: Seen on Twitter: ‘When I feel depressed, I think, I’m doing pretty well for minerals and water, stirred under sun for 4.7 billion years. Most of it is mud.’ So, yeah, being a sentient life-form. Damn.
  • 2013-02-21: As Blake Lambert says, I’m grateful to be skateful. Skates are a brilliant form of transportation. Approximately as fast as a bike, but with no moving parts, except the wheels themselves (literally no moving parts in the case of ice skates). And you can wear them, and put them in a backpack. So you don’t have to have a place to lock them up, or be limited by what other forms of transportation you can switch to, like with a bike. It’s just like, wear this and you can magically triple your speed – no external machinery required (well, ok, we’re assuming roads). It’s pretty much like having a super hero cape or something.
  • 2013-02-23: My watch shows upcoming events on my calendar (and text messages and incoming calls). Until recently it’s been sad how little watch technology had advanced since the Casio calculator and tele-memo watch * had as a kid. That’s finally changing.
  • 2013-02-24: Meeting Josh Estelle and family for dinner, not only could we coordinate in real time by voice or text, he caused to appear in my hand a map with his real time location and current speed. (My first time trying Glympse – super slick.)
  • 2013-02-26: It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that there are an infinite number of things I could write here. Wow, language. I mean holy freaking crap. It’s, like, whatever, I can’t even describe it.
  • 2013-03-01: It’s about to be commonplace to be able to capture whatever you’re looking at as a picture by saying ‘ok glass take a picture’. I’m not sold on all of the Glass hype but that feature alone is simply amazing.
  • 2013-03-04: A long list of things to be amazed by at optometrist. Have I already been amazed by materials science? Oh, and how I just pulled out my phone and video-chatted with Bethany to get her 2 cents about which glasses to get.
  • 2013-03-05: I’ve been playing back-to-back Scrabble games with my grandma via my phone (and grandma via iPad) for a couple years now
  • 2013-03-08: I’ve probably already mentioned my phone by now but check this out: I had an errand to run across town so I had Google Maps give me spoken directions while I read a novel (also on my phone) as I walked through downtown in the beautiful sunshine. Apologies to those who find people walking down the street with their noses in their phones super obnoxious. But note that if it weren’t for that option I’d have preferred to drive, which incurs a greater social cost (pollution, congestion, and traffic accidents). Anyway, for today’s amazing thing I’ll go with the fact that Google Maps on my phone has, I think, now subsumed the utility of a dedicated GPS navigation device, which were already a total godsend.
  • 2013-03-11: My friend had to have her uterus removed due to cancer risk so she first got several fertilized embryos – her own babies, mind you! – cryogenically frozen to be brought to term later by a family member. The mind: it boggles.
  • 2013-03-14: You know how wonderfully amazing it would be if we cured cancer? Well my impression is that we’re kind of at least halfway there, at least from my informal sampling of people I know whose cancer modern medicine has thoroughly vanquished compared to those who’ve died. Obviously it takes a huge toll still, even on survivors, but compare to a few generations ago when cancer was an unambiguous death sentence.
  • 2013-03-16: I’m wearing a watch that can measure my heartrate without a chest strap. [It was Basis, now defunct.]
  • 2013-03-18: The atomic bomb is technologically amazing and though it’s not something to be grateful for, we can be grateful that we’ve managed not to use it to decimate humanity. HT Michael Tiffany,
  • 2013-03-19: There’s a new Android phone coming out next month (Samsung Galaxy S4) that has a screen resolution higher than my laptop’s 1440x900 pixels. Though I guess that’s a retina-like display where the pixel count becomes meaningless. Which itself is of course amazing. I guess once retina displays are the norm, only size (i.e., the physical dimensions of the screen) matters.
  • 2013-04-09: There’s an app on my phone that can measure my heart rate by detecting tiny fluctuations in the color of my face via the phone’s video camera
  • 2013-04-19: You can’t use the world’s most comprehensive encyclopedia as your Slow News source because it’s pretty much real-time

I was going to include some excerpts but I like those so much that I included the entire thing. I don’t know if that will be useful for you but I enjoyed writing those and rereading them now, 7 years later!


Oh man, I love your list! Those are some great grateful items!

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First of all, if it’s making you upset, it’s definitely a good idea to take a break.

There’s some research that those things don’t work well if you do them too often.

Writing occasionally (once or twice per week) is more beneficial than daily journaling. In fact, one study by Lyubomirsky and her colleagues found that people who wrote in their gratitude journals once a week for six weeks reported boosts in happiness afterward; people who wrote three times per week didn’t. “We adapt to positive events quickly, especially if we constantly focus on them,” says Emmons. “It seems counterintuitive, but it is how the mind works.”

There was another study - I can’t find the link now - but they did tried making kids do it, and found that it didn’t work, and the kids were just writing the same simple things over and over.

Another suggestion I have is to stop forcing yourself. It seems like you’re making yourself think of things that you’re “grateful” for, and it’s like a parent making a kid say thank you - it just breeds resentment like lilacs out of the dead land. Maybe try just writing something you’re grateful for only when you actually feel gratitude. Can you carry around a little notebook, or use your phone or something, and just write it when you think of it?

Trying to think of something that evokes any kind of positive feeling instead has me making mental laundry-lists of all the things I don’t feel grateful for, and all of the worst feelings I’ve felt throughout the day. I’ll spend minutes looking at a blank page and just feeling more and more upset that there’s not a single thing I can write down. Three days in a row I just wrote that I like my favourite teacups (while trying not to think about the fact that I used to have three and one broke)

Reverse psychology might also be fun to play with here. Why don’t you try an ingratitude journal?! Go ahead and write down the dangerous bad stuff. The stuff you’re trying not to think about. The stuff that really grinds your gears. All the things you hate and want to shoot with a laser beam. Really look at your suffering, your anger and frustration, your anxiety, and stop pushing all those things away. Get it all out on paper.

While gratitude can be a great practice, the way you’re doing it (trying not to think about “bad” stuff, pushing it away) sounds more like denial and repression to me, and that way lies misery.

Yeah - that’s not a good practice! The idea is more like, what are you grateful for in the present moment, even knowing that you still might lose it tomorrow?


Also relevant, since we’re talking about impermanence, is the practice of death contemplation, which is directly related to gratitude. Thinking about death can inspire gratitude.

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I have actually seen other people adopt exactly the opposite practice. When things are really awful, it can just feel like an awful trick to try and force your brain to come up with good things. I can’t find their webpage/post/whatever it was, which was way better than mine, but there is also power in giving yourself space to acknowledge that no, actually, everything was rubbish. Especially if you’re not getting that space anywhere else in your life. Sometimes writing it down can help us process it; sometimes it just allows us to listen to ourselves and give ourselves the sympathy we need in a rough time.

I don’t think there’s any reason to keep on with something that isn’t helping and is, if anything, hindering.


I wanted to thank everyone here for the very thoughtful and helpful advice. I have totally abandoned “gratitude journaling”, for a huge improvement in my mood and life satisfaction. Instead I have been taking more photos during the day to appreciate the nice things, and otherwise focusing my energy into things like doing stretches or tidying to improve my mood. (I almost wonder if there is a “love languages”-esque mismatch – cleaning something makes me feel huge gratitude for its role in my life!) It was really liberating to have an outside opinion that what I was doing was just not working, so I could move on to other things.


Yay! So happy to hear :smiley: The photos sound really awesome - so is it gratitude photojournaling?

Cleaning is definitely not my gratitude language! Quite the contrary, it makes me grumpy and resentful.

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I would say that gratitude journaling is a good way to get into the habit of learning to control your perspective. I know you want to take a break, and that’s fine, but I would say try to keep going. Learning to manage your perspective isn’t easy and can be confusing. It’s actually great that you have been struggling with it for three weeks. It’s a sign that you’re learning.

The thing we are practicing is the management of perspective. Perspective meaning the valuation of what is normal. If our perspective of what is normal holds higher than reality, it causes us to feel negative emotions. If our perspective of what is normal holds lower than of reality, it causes us to feel positive emotions. The impact of the emotion will be relative to the importance or value of the idea.

The variables that we play around with, to achieve strong positive mental states are the perspective and the value that we assign things. Gratitude journaling is one way to make this a conscious process. Eventually this does become an unconscious process. But to improve it, we must either have an environment that can encourage it naturally or we can do an activity that allows for deliberate practice.

The emotions we experience seem to be a way to help us survive and keep our theories better in alignment with reality. To be accurate and not misleading, positivity is associated with delusion for this reason. Positive people are people who are consistently reflecting on life out of alignment with reality. Meaning, their mental model of the world is much bleaker than the average person. Becoming a positive person from being naturally more negative leads to a person experiencing a lot of pain mentally because of the destruction of that mental perspective.

The opposite is true. Just to give you a complete picture, A negative person or a person who consistently experiences negative emotions outwardly comes to this state by having strong expectations in their mind that do not align with reality often. It is also a form of delusion.

Being a positive person, or a negative person will generally not be better or worse than the other. Because the pain will always need to be present either externally or internally. The emotions are just a way to achieve homeostasis. The overall goal of some spiritual practices that go heavily into these ideas ultimately abandon seeking pleasure for this reason. But in the end, there is no escaping the minds desire to be aligned with reality.

The benefits of being a positive person is that a person will outwardly reflect a positive disposition. However like I said, this is achieved through time, effort, and pain. The consequences of letting our mental state exceed our reality allows for us to experience positive emotions internally, but subjects us more to negative emotions when met with reality at an undermined time. And lastly, although a strong alignment with reality and the mind is possible with some error because of the instability of predicting reality, it does cause one to lack emotions, and the inability to exude vibrancy in their daily life unlike someone who is seen as positive. The balanced state comes with with the ability of becoming perceived as more rational, and more consistent. So yeah, no right or wrong way to live life. Everyone has a solution, but only you can live your own life based off of your experiences and life situation.

Personally, I strive to be a positive person when I am determined to make improvements, but I don’t prioritize it, as in the end it generally seems to work out to be equal. It’s just one way of being. I hope that this helps spur on some insight into the nature of things, but I’m sure that most of it has to be achieved through a personal commitment to wanting to learn things like this. These are just a reflection of my opinions from my life. I’m sure there are other models of thinking that can approximate emotions or how life works as well. :slight_smile: thanks for reading.

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