How to Start a Gratitude Journal for a More Meaningful Life

Daily gratitude journaling trains your brain, breaking vicious cycles of negative thoughts and providing physical and mental health benefits

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Every day, you have more than 60,000 thoughts going through your mind. “That’s 60,000 assumptions, worries, ideas, expectations, tasks, interpretations and beliefs influencing not just what you do but how you feel about it and your life,” says psychologist and author Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD. But how many of those thoughts are positive? Given the constant pressure and uncertainty many of us face, it’s understandable that our ruminations lead to stress, fear and anxiety. But there’s a simple solution that can help change the balance of these thoughts and, in turn, teach you how to be happy in your life: gratitude journaling.

Learning how to practice gratitude isn’t something that Lombardo advises only her clients to do. It’s also a daily practice that she swears by for herself. “One of the best things I’ve done is make a habit of starting my day writing in a gratitude journal, listing things I’m grateful for,” she says. “Focusing on what you’re grateful for helps break vicious cycles of negative thoughts and has many physical and mental health benefits.”

Simply starting the practice of gratitude journaling is half the battle. Luckily, we have the best tips, tricks, products and expert advice to help you start your own gratitude journal. Once you’ve learned the basics, get inspired to start by reading these gratitude quotes.

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What is a gratitude journal?

A gratitude journal is anything that helps you track the things you’re grateful for. While it can be a notebook, think beyond the page: It could be an app or even a file on your computer. The type of journal and how it’s used will differ from one person to the next, just like the notes found inside.

It’s worth finding a method of gratitude journaling that works for you—turn the practice into a habit and you could reap health rewards. Being grateful can help prevent disease and help you live longer.

Some other science-backed benefits of being grateful include:

  • Lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, some cancers and other lifestyle diseases
  • Stronger immune system
  • Sharper memory and less mental decline with aging
  • Higher-quality sleep and less insomnia
  • Reduced perception of chronic pain
  • Less inflammation in the body
  • Better mood and less incidence of depression and anxiety
  • Higher self-confidence and fewer feelings of anger, jealousy and envy
  • Greater ability to forgive yourself and others
  • Better ability to prioritize and manage time

How to keep a gratitude journal

Gratitude journaling is a type of directed meditation, training your brain to look for the positives in your life, says Lombardo. The trick, she adds, is that you have to have a method to record what you’re grateful for. Simply thinking the thoughts won’t help you form a habit and isn’t enough to keep them at the front of your mind.

To give yourself a good chance of forming a habit that’ll stick, plan your gratitude journaling practice. The steps below are a good place to start.

  1. Choose a method of journaling. Some people prefer to speak their thoughts aloud, while others like to type them, and yet others prefer handwriting.
  2. Decide how you’ll record your thoughts. Consider whether you want to jot down a few words, make bulleted lists, write detailed thoughts in full sentences or draw or illustrate your gratitude.
  3. Choose a type of gratitude journal. Once you’ve established your gratitude journaling preferences, select a paper or digital journal that’s right for you. (We’ve got plenty of recommendations below!)
  4. Set a time to journal. A goal without a plan is just a wish. So choose a time—like before bed, during your lunch break or upon waking—when you will write in your journal. Place the journal and a pen in the spot where you will be able to see it (if you’re writing by hand), and set an alarm on your phone to remind you to do it. Alternatively, you could also make use of a vision board to stay motivated.

What to write about in a gratitude journal

As long as you keep the focus on giving thanks, you have the freedom to write about anything and everything you’re grateful for. Aim to list at least three things each day. Beyond that, keep these tips in mind:

  1. Try to vary your list. You may really, really love your kids, but try to focus on a wide range of topics and people.
  2. Be as specific as possible. Instead of saying you’re thankful for your husband, explain that you’re thankful your husband unloaded the dishwasher while you took an important work call.
  3. Make it personal. Zero in on your community—the family, friends and co-workers who make up your daily life. You’ll get more out of a gratitude practice by focusing on people than things.
  4. Include the little details. A small, detailed record trumps a long, surface-level list, so expand in detail on why you’re grateful.
  5. Don’t forget about things no longer in your life. You might be just as grateful for that new job as you are about quitting a job you hated.

Ready to get writing? Here are a few topics to get you into a gratitude mindset:

  • Loved ones, including friends and family
  • Your job and what it provides
  • Pets
  • Beauty in nature
  • Your body and health
  • Modern conveniences
  • New opportunities, like learning something new, helping others or traveling
  • Food
  • Technology that makes your life easier
  • Humor
  • Good news stories

Need more ideas? Start with these reasons to be grateful or this list of the big and little things to be thankful for.

How often to use a gratitude journal

Daily gratitude journaling is ideal, says Lombardo. It takes consistent repetition to retrain our brains to be grateful.

Set a goal to reflect daily, but don’t get hung up on being perfect. If you miss a day (or a week), just start again when you’re ready. Remember, healthy habits don’t have to be a huge time commitment. Even five minutes is plenty of time.

Gratitude journal prompts

Having a hard time thinking of things you’re thankful for? Try these gratitude prompts to get those creative juices flowing:

  • What is the most beautiful thing you saw today?
  • What made you smile unexpectedly?
  • What is one thing that made you laugh out loud?
  • Who do you love?
  • Who did you talk to today that made you happy?
  • What is the most inspirational book or happiest movie you took in this week?
  • What is your favorite thing about your job?
  • What is one thing you love about your partner, parent or child?
  • What are you most looking forward to doing this week?

Where to write a gratitude journal

Gratitude journaling doesn’t have to be an overly formal process. You can jot notes on scrap paper if that’s what you have handy, though it’s more fun if you invest in a journal or app that you enjoy using. Check out the ideas below to find the perfect gratitude journal for your personal style.

The bullet journal

Rettacy Dotted Bullet Grid Journal 2 Packvia merchant

Rettacy’s dotted journals are perfect for people who want to do more than just write paragraphs of thanks. They allow for grids, lists, bullet points and pictures. These are the ultimate gratitude journals for creatives.

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The journal with prompts

The 5 Minute Gratitude Journal Give Thanks Practice Positivity Find Joyvia merchant

The 5-Minute Gratitude Journal gives you a new question each day to help you think of something you’re grateful for. This is the best option for people who want to keep their journal simple and to the point or who need a little help remembering the moments of joy in their day.

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The expanded gratitude journal

Gratitude Journal Invest Few Minutes A Day To Develop Thankfulness Mindfulness And Positivityvia merchant

Want to get a little more out of your gratitude practice? This journal expands on the basics of gratitude, adding positive affirmations, meditations and a place to jot your feelings each day.

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The daily calendar journal

2023 Instant Happy Notes Boxed Calendarvia merchant

This daily calendar gives you a happy quote to start your day, and on the back of each page, you can write three things that make you happy.

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The one-minute gratitude journal

The One Minute Gratitude Journalvia merchant

People who don’t feel like they can commit a lot of time will love this one-minute gratitude journal, which prompts you to list, sing, draw or act out something you’re grateful for.

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The hardcover journal

Persian Grove Journalvia merchant

Sometimes all you need is a simple blank journal to write in (especially if you’re doing a digital detox), and this one fits the bill. It also has a beautiful embossed cover and thick pages to keep all your grateful thoughts safe. Talk about heirloom worthy!

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The spiral notebook

Five Star Fat Lil Spiral Notebooks 6 Packvia merchant

Journals don’t need to be fancy. In fact, the best journals are often practical, available and easy to find and use. Any spiral notebook will do, but Five Star’s mini notebooks are small enough to fit in a purse, glove box or bag and come equipped with a durable plastic cover to help them last.

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The gratitude journal app

Evernote App Icon on a phone screenCourtesy Evernote

If you prefer to voice dictate (non-negotiable for some gratitude journalers) or type your gratitude on your phone or computer, the Evernote app is a good choice. It’ll sync across all your devices and comes with gratitude journaling templates.

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Charlotte Hilton Andersen
Charlotte is an award-winning journalist who covers etiquette, relationships, psychology, health and lifestyle. She has written more than 50 etiquette stories for Reader’s Digest, spearheading the site’s popular Polite Habits and Best Messages series. With a knack for capturing the essence of an interview subject, she also specializes in human-interest and “as told to” stories. In addition to Reader’s Digest and The Healthy, her work has been published in Shape, Cosmopolitan, Women's Health, O Magazine, Fitness, Redbook, Seventeen, What to Expect When You're Expecting and more.