Of all practices I’ve tried to make myself a happier, more self-aware, and more content person, no practice has been better for my mental health than daily gratitude journaling.
Today, I’m going to give you my personal template for creating a daily gratitude journal.
But first…a story about gratitude
My wife and I live in a row home in Philadelphia, PA.
Last week, our next door neighbors decided to do some remodeling, specifically removing the stucco from the facade of the home and replacing it with vinyl siding.
They didn’t give anyone on the block a heads up that they would be doing demolition and construction…
Just one morning a crew showed up with scaffolding, drills, saws, etc. and got to work.
The sound was cacophonous and deafening — I couldn’t hear myself think, even when using my noise cancelling headphones (see my Tools & Tech post to see what hardware and software I use on a daily basis to improve productivity).
The noise was a problem for me, as I was still recovering from a bit of burnout from the past 3-6 months.
But instead of getting annoyed and frustrated, I took a step back and allowed for some empathy and sympathy for my neighbors:
- There is never a good time to do demolition and construction to your home (i.e., you’re going to inconvenience someone)
- It’s likely just as disruptive for them (if not more) than it is for me
- They are likely replacing the stucco with vinyl siding because their home is leaking, causing the wood to rot and black mold to grow
- They are the ones footing the bill — so not only do they have to live with the inconvenience, but they have to pay for it as well
That simple act of empathy would not have happened five years ago.
Back then I would have been pissed as hell for how their actions and decisions were impacting me.
Instead of risking conflict with our neighbors (insensitive as they may be for not giving the people living near them a quick heads up), I chose to be humble, accepted my limitations, and then asked others for help.
The significant of that should not be overstated.
As a high performer, sometimes it’s hard to admit that you need help…even to loved ones.
I knew that my in-laws were were in Mexico, and as a result, their house on the beach was unoccupied.
I asked my wife if I could contact them and see if I could stay at their place for a few days.
She agreed, and thus the conversation started.
My in-laws are very generous people, and while it was a blow to my ego to ask for help, I found that they were willing to with open arms.
And not only did they let me stay at their house for awhile, but they also told me where they store their fine cheeses and high-quality wine (I don’t drink, but I appreciated the sentiment), and that I should go into their garden and pick their fresh tomatoes and peppers for myself to enjoy.
It’s a wonderful feeling of embrace when you realize that people do care about you, even if you have a tough exterior, a faux facade that hides what’s really underneath.
Peace and quiet
It’s the off-season at the beach, so it was incredibly quiet.
Before I left, as a surprise, I purchased a few expensive bottles of wine for my in-laws so they could add them to their collection — it was the least I could do to show my gratitude.
I strongly believe that events would not have unfolded this way (and therefore I would not have obtained the rest I needed) without the patience, empathy, and thankfulness I gained through years of daily gratitude journal practice.
What is a gratitude journal?
A gratitude is similar to a diary, but slightly more structured.
Typically you have a set of specific prompts, such as:
- What are three things that happened yesterday that I am grateful for?
- What are three things that I’m going to do to make today great?
- What did I learn yesterday?
You don’t have to write an essay in response to each prompt; a set of quick bullet points will suffice.
However, I will say that the more detail you provide, the higher level of gratitude you will feel (see my “Tips for gratitude journaling” section below).
What questions do you ask in your gratitude journal?
Every morning I ask myself the following five questions.
1. What are three amazing things that happened yesterday?
Here I list out three events that happened yesterday that made me happy.
For each event, I write 1-3 sentences, trying to be as specific as possible, and thereby maximizing the benefit I receive from the practice.
2. What could I have done to make yesterday better?
Again, list three events that took place or tasks you performed (or lack thereof) that could have made yesterday better.
Note that these are not grievances against people that have transgressed you.
Instead, this is an opportunity for you to flip the script.
For example, instead of being angry at the barista at the local coffee house for messing up your order, thereby causing your blood pressure to rise and your face to flush, followed by a snappy, rude retort to the barista about how your order was incorrect, what if you instead had sympathy for the poor girl?
You don’t know what she’s going through.
Everyone is fighting an internal war.
Perhaps have some damn sympathy instead.
3. What did I learn yesterday?
This is an important one.
Humans need to grow and work towards a goal to feel satisfied.
You learn something new about the world, the people around you, and yourself every day…even if you are unaware of it.
For this question I take 2-3 paragraphs, each consisting of 2-4 sentences, and journal about what I learned and discovered about myself and the world yesterday.
Doing so improves my self-awareness.
4. What are three things I’m grateful for?
List out three people, things, or events in your life that bring you joy, and without them, the world would be a less enjoyable place for you personally.
The goal here is to be specific in what you are grateful for.
- Perhaps you’re grateful for your wife cooking you your favorite meal after a terrible day at work
- Maybe you’re grateful from the loving, unbridled joy of a hug from your small child
- Or — and this one takes work — you’re grateful for the terrible events that have transpired that have molded you into a better person
Learning to be grateful for the suffering in life, and the associated positive outcomes that can come from painful trials, is the ultimate goal of not only gratitude journaling, but life in general.
5. What are three things I will do to make today great?
These don’t have to be large, grandiose tasks.
In fact, mine are often small and achievable, but still incredibly profound when improving my outlook on the day.
For example, I may write:
“Today I’m going to hug my wife, look her in the eyes, and tell her how much I love her, and emphatically express that she truly makes my life better, just by her being part of it.”
Such a comment takes three seconds to utter but can have a lifetime of impact.
BONUS: Daily affirmation
Write down a single thought, idea, or intention.
Make it a positive one, such as:
- I’m making the choice to be happy today
- I will be kind to myself and all others I encounter today, regardless of the circumstances
- I’m doing my best (but only write this one if you are truly trying your hardest)
Remember, what you think will become your reality — a daily affirmation can adjust your course in life.
What software should I use for gratitude journaling? Can I use pen and paper?
My gratitude journal lives in Notion; however, you could perform the practice using:
- A simple plaintext file on your computer
- A Word or Google Document file
- An Evernote note
- A Day One journal entry
- A pen and notebook (if you go this route, invest in a nice bound notebook — doing so will incentivize you to utilize your beautiful journal)
That said, the actual medium in which you do your gratitude journaling is irrelevant.
Instead, you need to focus on making gratitude journaling a daily practice, so choose whichever medium is most convenient for you.
When should I do my gratitude journaling?
I recommend first thing in the morning, ideally within the first 30 minutes of waking up.
Personally, I like to get out of bed, stretch, make myself a cup of coffee, pet the dog and rub her belly, and then sit down in front of my laptop or iPad to do my daily gratitude journaling.
My wife, on the other hand, wakes up and immediately reaches into her nightstand drawer to grab a pen and her notebook to do her gratitude journaling.
Really strive to do your gratitude journaling first thing in the morning.
It will set the tone for the rest of the day.
Tips for gratitude journaling
Here are a few tips for creating your own gratitude journal:
- Be specific as possible. This one is critical. Don’t just say “I’m grateful that the sun was shining yesterday”. Go into more detail about how the sun shining made you feel and how it improved your quality of life: “I’m grateful for the sunny day yesterday. I spent a few hours outside, and the sun warmed my skin. I kept that warmth with me for the rest of the day and shared it all those that I encountered.” Again, you don’t need to write an essay, but try to be as specific as possible within a 1-3 sentences.
- Focus on people, not things. When possible, focus your attention on the people who have positively impacted you during your day. Doing so will help you feel more gratitude and connection to your friends and family.
- Subtract, don’t add. Don’t just add up all the good things in your life. Try imagining what your life would be without your spouse, kids, dog, cat, parents, etc. This simple practice also fosters connection with your loved ones.
- There are no guarantees in life. Just because you’re here today doesn’t mean you’ll be here tomorrow. Don’t take small things for granted.
- Enjoy surprises. This is a fun one because my wife hates surprises. But unexpected, positive events can be tremendous sources of joy. Savor them.
- Don’t worry if you are doing a “good” job or not. There is no winner for the “best” gratitude journal. This journal is only for you; no one else ever has to read it.
- Practice daily. You don’t get in shape after one trip to the gym, nor do you get healthy by taking your vitamins once. Instead, it takes careful, deliberate practice to notice an improvement.
If you’re new to gratitude journaling, make it a goal that you’ll journal daily for 30 days.
Make sure you set a daily calendar reminder for it as well so you don’t forget!
After 30 days, reflect on the practice…and I think you’ll see an improvement in your mental health and outlook on life.
How can I access your gratitude journal template?
I’ve put together Google Doc and Notion templates that you can use for your gratitude journal practice.
These templates are 100% free, and they are simple, easy, and effective to use.
I highly recommend you start with these templates, and then further revise/customize as you become more familiar with the gratitude journaling practice — there is no one-size-fits-all solution, but I can tell you that these templates work for me (and they will be a good starting point for you, as well).
Enter your email address in the form below to access my gratitude journal templates.