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Anna G. Larson, Published January 08 2014

Giving thanks: Gratitude journals cultivate positivity

Fargo - A morning run. Hot coffee. Sunshine.

Taking time to recognize the small (and big) things in life can help people sleep better, exercise more regularly and feel better about their lives as a whole, according to researchers at the University of California, Davis.

Keeping a gratitude journal or list is a way to acknowledge people and experiences that evoke positive feelings, and 22-year-old Taylor McAllister’s seen the effect it’s had on her life.

Inspired by a story she read online about a “grateful jar,” McAllister, of Fargo, started recording what she’s grateful for in a Google document on her computer two years ago.

For each entry, she lists at least five things for which she’s grateful. An entry from March 26, 2012 reads: Time flies when you are grateful. Today it’s chatting with Jen, napping, making lists, strawberry-banana orange juice, being alive and brooms.

The short, simple phrases don’t require a lot of time, and she writes them sporadically.

“I love it because there are so many negative pieces of news thrown at us during a day, it’s easy to get down and stay there,” she says. “I am a firm believer in giving yourself doses of positivity more frequently than our negative world we live in.”

McAllister’s thoughts align with those of positive psychology researchers. The positive psychology movement started roughly 20 years ago because there was a need to focus on positive things, like what goes right in life and what is involved in a happy life, says Mark Chekola, a former Minnesota State University Moorhead professor who’s studied happiness for more than 40 years.

Chekola points to celebrities like Oprah for popularizing gratitude journals. The talk-show host started a gratitude journal 17 years ago and calls it the most important thing she’s ever done.

“Oprah’s pretty powerful. When you have a celebrity doing it, that has an influence on people,” Chekola says.

Gratitude journal templates online guide people as they document their gratitude, and apps for smartphones take the writing out of the process, but the general idea is the same: Gratitude journals are a strategy for increasing happiness over time, according to positive psychology researchers.

Chekola likes the idea of expressing gratitude not only in a journal or list, but to a person.

“Write them a letter, and give it to them in person. It works amazingly well,” he says. “It’s a very positive thing both for the person who is expressing their gratitude and the person who is receiving the expression of gratitude. It really fosters connections.”

He also suggests people add why they’re grateful for items on their list, saying it can be useful to people when they’re deciding what path to take in life.

The frequency of gratitude journal entries depends on the person. Some researchers have found that people see the greatest improvement in happiness when they write in a journal once a week. Others have found that doing it once a day is best.

“Be flexible and realize that if it feels like a duty, maybe you’re doing it too often,” he says.

Periodically, Chekola lists what he’s grateful for, and has found it especially useful when he’s stressed.

“I think it helps us to reframe things in our lives because it can be so easy to focus on negative things,” he says.

He also likes to practice gratitude because it “takes us out of ourselves.”

“Sometimes people refer to it as a spiritual emotion or something transcendent. The general idea is that gratitude is something that takes us out of ourselves and connects us to something larger. It could be other people, it could be the world,” Chekola says. “Gratitude journals are a strategy to get us away from being too preoccupied with ourselves.”

Kelly Meyer of Moorhead says practicing gratitude helps her connect with people, even strangers. She’s kept a gratitude journal for seven years.

“Being in a place of gratitude, you start seeing how we’re all connected and how we can serve each other better just by being ourselves,” she says.

Meyer typically writes her entries before she goes to bed.

“It’s not just the will. It’s the practice,” she says. “If you want your body to be better, or you want to be better as an instrument, you take the time to do the work. The gratitude journal is kind of doing the work.”

Whether it’s through a gratitude journal, a list or a phone app, recognizing gratitude is an overwhelmingly positive practice, Chekola says.

“Gratitude is a way of focusing on ways in which your life is satisfying to you and ways in which you like your life. That can be really enhancing,” he says. “It’s often easy to be preoccupied with challenges and things that are negative.”

McAllister intends to keep adding to her gratitude list indefinitely.

“They are great for looking back on. That’s my favorite part,” she says. “If you love to write yourself letters, do it. If you love to type, start a document. If you’re into jars, do the jar thing. It’s totally up to you, because it’s your life and no one can tell you what to be grateful for or how to celebrate your life.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Anna G. Larson at (701) 241-5525

Tips for starting a gratitude journal

• Don’t just go through the motions. Make a decision to be consciously more grateful.

• Don’t put pressure on yourself to write every day.

• Write when the mood strikes.

• Consider also explaining why you’re grateful.

• Focus on people rather than things.

• Don’t rush.

• Keep out the negative.

• Savor surprises by recoding them in the journal, as they tend to elicit stronger levels of gratitude.

• Don’t wait to start because you can’t find the perfect notebook.

• Find what works for you – whether it’s a list, a journal or a phone app.

Sources: SimpleLifeCorp.com, TinyBuddha.com, and GreaterGood.Berkeley.Edu