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Why Gratitude Journals Are Good for Everyone

by Katie Moritz
January 22, 2018 | Health

One of my goals is to spend a few minutes before bedtime daily on a written reflection on the day. My life gets so busy that it's easy to rush past feelings—good or bad—in the interest of getting everything done. But it seems that making journaling a routine can actually change your brain chemistry and boost your feelings of goodwill. We can all use some of that.

Gratitude Journals pbs rewire
Source: Michigan State University

Gratitude journaling is the practice of writing down what you're grateful for—in its most basic form, once a week you'd write down five things that make you feel lucky. It's meant to help you not take the positives in your life for granted. But psychologists have studied gratitude journaling, and while it has been shown to boost happiness and help you sleep and feel better, there are methods to getting the most out of your journaling, according to University of California, Davis-based gratitude expert Robert Emmons.

One of those is to "reflect on what your life would be like without certain blessings, rather than just tallying up all those good things," Emmons told Berkeley's Greater Good Magazine. (Check out the rest of his tips here.)

There's a bit of mixed messaging from experts on how often you should be journaling—once a week? three times a week? daily?—to get the most bang for your buck, but a new study showed that women who wrote in a gratitude journal daily saw benefits in their thought processes after only three weeks. They were more altruistic, or selflessly concerned about the well-being of others, than when they started.

“When we are counting our blessings, this part of the brain is giving us this neural currency that makes us literally richer,” said lead researcher Christina Karns, the director of the University of Oregon psychology department's Emotions and Neuroplasticity Projectin an article published by the university. “Making use of this neural currency, giving is something that is done with a grateful heart, with a feeling of your own abundance for what others have done for you.”

Putting good into the world

Some of us are naturally more altruistic than others. We know that simply by walking down the street and interacting—or not—with the people we meet. But can anything be done to make someone feel warmer toward humanity if they don't already?

Gratitude Journals pbs rewire
Source: University of Oregon

Being grateful might be the ticket. Researchers from the University of Oregon asked a group of more than 30 young women to fill out questionnaires that identified how altruistic they were to begin with. Then the women sat through scenarios of money being donated to a food bank and being given to themselves while their brains were scanned with MRIs.

The women who scored higher on the altruism test had a higher reward response in their brains when the money was donated than when they received it themselves.

Half of these women would go on to write daily in an online gratitude journal. The other half would journal daily about other things. Afterward, the researchers re-tested and re-scanned the women.

Regardless of how high or low they scored on the altruism test the first time, the women who kept a gratitude journal for three weeks experienced a boost. Reward areas of their brains lit up even more when they saw the donation going to the food bank. All of them, even the ones who hadn't been too altruistic to begin with, felt more rewarded by the donation than by the money coming to them.

“It’s as if they became (more) generous toward others than themselves,” Karns said.

The women who had journaled about other stuff were less likely to feel this way.

To the researchers, the findings suggest that our brain's reward centers are flexible. We can learn to care more about other people, to feel truly happy when others are put before ourselves. And that's a boon to everyone.

“Our findings suggest that there’s more good out there when there is gratitude," Karns said.

Katie Moritz
Katie Moritz was Rewire's senior editor from 2016-2020. She is a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores and pho. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.
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