Attitude of Gratitude–Thankfulness Promotes Health and Happiness


Last week at the teleseminar hosted by the National Association of Memoir Writers, Jason Marsh, one of the directors of The Greater Good Science Foundation spoke with me about the power of art and social connections to help the healing process. Thanksgiving is one of our “official” gratitude holidays—while also being the “eating holiday.” There has been an astounding amount of research about how writing and writing a “gratitude journal helps to heal and create an ongoing sense of greater happiness and satisfaction in life. Happiness—we all want that, don’t we? Below is an article by Jason about the research and suggestions for what you can do to improve your life.

Happy Gratitude Day—Thanksgiving!

Keeping a Gratitude Journal—Jason Marsh

Researchers have identified the great social, psychological, and physical health benefits that come from giving thanks and zeroed in on some concrete practices that help us reap those benefits. Perhaps the most popular practice is to keep a “gratitude journal.” As we’ve reported many times over the years, studies have traced a range of impressive benefits to the simple act of writing down the things for which we’re grateful—benefits including better sleep, fewer symptoms of illness, and more happiness among adults and kids alike. We’ve even got our own “community gratitude journal” on Greater Good.

The basic practice is straightforward. In many of the studies, people are simply instructed to record five things they experienced in the past week for which they’re grateful. The entries are supposed to be brief—just a single sentence—and they range from the mundane (“waking up this morning”) to the sublime (“the generosity of friends”) to the timeless (“the Rolling Stones”).

But when you dig into the research, you find that gratitude journals don’t always work—some studies show incredible benefits, others not so much. To understand why, I took a closer look at the research and consulted with Robert Emmons, arguably the world’s leading expert on the science of gratitude and an author of some of the seminal studies of gratitude journals.

Emmons, a professor at the University of California, Davis, shared these research-based tips for reaping the greatest psychological rewards from your gratitude journal.

  • Don’t just go through the motions. Research by psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky and others suggests that journaling is more effective if you first make the conscious decision to become happier and more grateful. “Motivation to become happier plays a role in the efficacy of journaling,” says Emmons.
  • Go for depth over breadth. Elaborating in detail about a particular thing for which you’re grateful carries more benefits than a superficial list of many things.
  • Get personal. Focusing on people to whom you are grateful has more of an impact than focusing on things for which you are grateful.
  • Try subtraction, not just addition. One effective way of stimulating gratitude is to reflect on what your life would be like without certain blessings, rather than just tallying up all those good things.
  • Savor surprises. Try to record events that were unexpected or surprising, as these tend to elicit stronger levels of gratitude.
  • Don’t overdo it. 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.”

In looking over this list, what strikes me is how keeping a gratitude journal—or perhaps the entire experience of gratitude—is really about forcing ourselves to pay attention to the good things in life we’d otherwise take for granted. Perhaps that’s why the benefits seem to diminish when you start writing more than once per week, and why surprises induce stronger feelings of gratitude: It’s easy to get numb to the regular sources of goodness in our lives.

Indeed, Emmons told me that when people start keeping a gratitude journal, he recommends that they see each item they list in their journal as a gift—in fact, he suggests that they “make the conscious effort to associate it with the word ‘gift.’” Here are the exact instructions he gives participants in his studies:

Be aware of your feelings and how you “relish” and “savor” this gift in your imagination. Take the time to be especially aware of the depth of your gratitude.
“In other words,” he says, “we tell them not to hurry through this exercise as if it were just another item on your to-do list. This way, gratitude journaling is really different from merely listing a bunch of pleasant things in one’s life.”

So why might this particular practice do such good for our minds and bodies? Emmons points to research showing that translating thoughts into concrete language—whether oral or written—has advantages over just thinking the thoughts: It makes us more aware of them, deepening their emotional impact.
“Writing helps to organize thoughts, facilitate integration, and helps you accept your own experiences and put them in context,” he says. “In essence, it allows you to see the meaning of events going on around you and create meaning in your own life.”

It has become common for therapists to recommend writing about unpleasant, even traumatic events. Similarly, says Emmons, gratitude journals may help us “bring a new and redemptive frame of reference to a difficult life situation.”
Though he does have suggestions for how to keep a gratitude journal, Emmons also stresses that “there is no one right way to do it.” There’s no evidence that journaling at the start of the day is any more effective than journaling before you go to bed, for instance. And aesthetics really don’t matter.
“You don’t need to buy a fancy personal journal to record your entries in, or worry about spelling or grammar,” says Emmons. “The important thing is to establish the habit of paying attention to gratitude-inspiring events.”

 Today in the New York Times, an article reviews the findings of Emmons and other researchers. Check it out! Start your Gratitude Journal today.

Memoir Writing—The Art of Compassion, Healing, and Forgiveness


Those of you who have been writing memoir know that it’s not just as simple as sitting down and letting words pour forth out of your fingers. It is a journey—I’ve written about that before—and it’s a challenge emotionally. We run into all kinds of memories on that journey, and we need some help along the way to keep us from sinking into the darker memories and to help us heal and forgive–a positive side benefit of writing your story. In order to find greater peace and happiness, we have to write down what went wrong first so we can see it with a new perspective, as a story.

I draw upon my therapy background to help guide my students into the calmer waters of memoir writing, while also supporting them in the excavating the darker caves of their memories.

I’m pleased this week to be speaking with Jason Marsh, one of the directors of The Greater Good Science Foundation about How Art Can Heal—The Power of Compassionate Connections.

He has this to say about the importance of art in creating a good quality of life.

“A recent wave of studies is suggesting that art can play an important role. This research suggests that creating art–through writing and other methods–brings many of the same therapeutic benefits as maintaining close relationships. What’s more, studies have found that art can boost important qualities–including greater empathy–among people who consume art, not just those who create it.”

Jason is co-editor of the book The Compassionate Instinct: The Science of Human Goodness, an inspiriting collection of 33 articles collected from the Greater Good online magazine.

In an article the “Compassionate Instinct” Dacher Keltner says that scientific research confirms we are biologically wired to feel good if we help to alleviate another’s suffering. Kristin Neff writes on the blog a great article about the importance of self-compassion. This becomes an important tool for writers. Guess what is one of the greatest impediments to writing a memoir: yes, the Inner Critic, that nagging, negative voice that stops you from writing your true thoughts, even though you are alone at your computer. Your negative voice aims its sights way down the road toward publication instead of staying right where you are: in the first draft of your manuscript.

I love this quote from Kristin’s book The Science of Self-Compassion:

“As I’ve defined it, self-compassion entails three core components. First, it requires self-kindness, that we be gentle and understanding with ourselves rather than harshly critical and judgmental.

 Second, it requires recognition of our common humanity, feeling connected with others in the experience of life rather than feeling isolated and alienated by our suffering.

 Third, it requires mindfulness—that we hold our experience in balanced awareness, rather than ignoring our pain or exaggerating it. We must achieve and combine these three essential elements in order to be truly self-compassionate.”


These links on the Greater Good Science Foundation site offer some great articles about happiness, compassion, raising children to be healthy and happy, and the power of mindfulness and meditation to create new positive parts of the brain. Our brain is always growing and changing, which supports the research on how writing helps to heal.

Please join us at the National Association of Memoir Writer special membership Teleseminar to find out what Jason has to say about how to create and draw upon compassion as you create your art, and the ways this can benefit your life.