Thankful: Can you mess up gratitude?

Did you know, that the very first experiments studying the effects of gratitude were done on gratitude journaling?

Robert Emmons, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Positive Psychology, assigned participants with one of three tasks – each of which created a distinct condition – in his first study of gratitude.

“We decided to encourage some participants to indirectly feel gratitude, encourage others to be indirectly negative and complaining, and create a third, neutral group to measure the others by,” Emmons explained.

For ten weeks the participants kept a weekly journal and described:

  • five things they were grateful for that had occurred in the past week (gratitude condition),
  • five hassles they were displeased about that had occurred in the past week (hassles condition), or
  • five random things that had occurred in the past week (control condition).

The results blew the research team away: after ten weeks the participants in the gratitude condition group felt better about their lives as a whole and were more optimistic than the other groups.

The gratitude condition participants were a full 25% happier than the others.

They also spent more time exercising – on average almost 1,5 hours per week – and reported fewer health complaints than the other groups.

Since then, study after study has shown that the simple act of gratitude journaling improves your health, helps you sleep better, increases your prosocial motivation (essentially your desire to help others), makes you feel more optimistic about the future, and even makes you cope better with stress and setbacks in life.

There’s no right or wrong way to write a gratitude journal.

But I am gonna let you in on how to get the most bang for your buck with these tips:


One study found that participants who wrote down things they were grateful for once a week gained more benefit from the practice than participants who did the same three times a week.

The researchers suggested that counting one’s blessings several times a week led to habituation and boredom.

So, don’t be as stale as that last slice of bread in the bag.

Switch it up and think of DIFFERENT things you’re grateful for than what you’ve already written about. And if it still starts feeling like a chore, take a break, mix it up or cut back on how often you do it.

Don’t waste your life writing a gratitude journal that doesn’t actually do anything for you!


“I’m grateful that my mom wants what’s best for me,” – m’kaaaay, sure.

But how about: “I’m grateful that my mom worked really hard to raise me as a single parent, gave me many opportunities to try different hobbies, and that she only wants what’s best for me”?

Now, that’s how you do it!

Being specific helps you to 1) avoid gratitude fatigue, and 2) encourages you to appreciate the giver’s efforts and recognise more detail.

So, instead of pushing out a long list of things you’re grateful for, try making a shorter list but be generous with the details.

Write five sentences about one thing instead of one sentence about five things.


When you receive a gift, stop and consider how the giver tried to bring that goodness into your life with intention.

If the receiver thinks the giver is providing a favour intentionally for the receiver’s benefit, the receiver is more likely to experience gratitude, says Emmons.


Focusing on what you’re grateful for in or about others tends to elicit more gratitude than just focusing on things.

Bonus side-effect: it automatically improves the quality of your relationships.


Research shows that (all other factors being equal) unexpected events that surprise you elicit stronger emotional reactions than anticipated events.

And this goes both for the negative and the positive surprises.

When you’re hunting for things to be grateful for, looking for unanticipated, surprising and novel circumstances or events will elicit stronger levels of gratitude.


Sometimes genuinely feeling grateful for something can be difficult.

For instance, if the balance in your bank account is dwindling and you know there’s still a ways to go before payday, finding gratitude for the money you do have can be overshadowed by the panic that it’s not enough.

If you find that your statement of gratitude is ringing hollow, try to think of what you are grateful for within that same context.

So, maybe you’re not grateful that your salary isn’t as big as you’d like it to be, but you can be grateful for the things that it does enable you to pay for – rent, food, utilities, clothes etc.

And if nothing else, you can be grateful that you’ve got a salary, to begin with!

This leads me to the next point…


Focusing on how things could be better is the road to negativity. And we don’t want that.

One study showed that imagining how things could have been better, made people view themselves as unlucky and evoked feelings of envy.

On the other hand, imagining how things could have been worse made people see themselves as lucky.

And it made them more grateful for what they already had in life.

So, if you’re struggling to find your gratitude, thinking of how things could be worse can really help to put a smile on your face – from the bed that you sleep in, to the people who stick with you through thick and thin and even the toothbrush you clean your teeth with.


What would your life be like without specific people in it? What if a loved one died? What if you had no running water, no bed, or no cups to drink from?

What if you could work from anywhere? What if you applied and got your dream job? What if you went back to school?

Take something from your life and try to look at it from a different perspective.

You might surprise yourself with what you uncover!


Research shows that seeing the good things in your life makes you more grateful for them.

Your health, your skills, your family, your physical features, your strengths – find all the gifts you’ve been given in life.

And write them down.


  • Pick one tip from above and use that perspective to write down what you’re grateful for.
  • What positive change in your personality has happened in the last year?
  • List 5 of your favourite foods.