Do Gratitude Diaries Work?

Do gratitude diaries work? I am going to start by putting it out there right now!  In my opinion, it’s a resounding YES!

A gratitude diary or a three good things journal really helped me get out of a slump post-divorce. Actually, post-post-divorce.  That period of time when the euphoria of actually being out of a toxic relationship and into the world as a free and independent person has worn off and the realisation that you are a free person and you have to work out who you are and how you’ll navigate the world without that other person even if they were toxic.

I came across the idea in Martin Seligman’s Flourish. I was sceptical so did some light research and discovered it was a persistent theme in the realm of positive psychology. There are many proponents of the idea. There are apps that help you record your statements of gratitude. You can buy lovely diaries and notebooks. Or like me, you can use one of the many notebooks you already have lying around because you have a tiny stationery fetish!

Essentially a Gratitude Diary (or three good things) is simply a way of recording the positive aspects of your daily life.  At a set time, usually just before you go to bed, you write down or record in some other way; at least three good things or things that you are grateful for that have happened that day.

From personal experience, I know that when you are in the depths of depression or sadness the three good things are hard to come by. It might be as trivial as I found matching socks; I enjoyed a cup of tea or more importantly, I drank my whole cup of tea before it went cold! As you get into it and persist, the snippets of goodness are easier to write, in fact, you begin to store them up during the day and rush to write them down. They may not be profound, you may have not saved the world but a little switch in your brain has flipped from sad to happier. You begin to notice the good things. Coupled with a deliberate focus of random acts of kindness it is very powerful.

Is it all hocus pocus and a phony treatment? It would seem not!

In a metastudy published in 2011 which compared traditional treatments to things like the gratitude diary, Layous et al * found a number of interesting conclusions

 

  • Medication and therapy don’t always cut the mustard

Medication for the treatment of depression can be a bit hit and miss. Not everyone who has depressive illnesses seeks treatment. Treatments such as psychotherapy can be VERY costly, especially in places where there is no universal health system and therefore simply not available to many sectors of our society.  On top of that, these treatments have been shown to be effective in only 60 – 70% of cases. Of these, 80% of the response to medication can be accounted for by placebo effects.

  • It takes a long time to get results: 

It can take up to 4 – 8 weeks for the antidepressants to kick in. People are in therapy for years! That’s a long time waiting to get happy or even a little bit happier.

  • The side effects can be brutal. 

Side effects of the medication include a reduction in libido, weight gain, insomnia and moon face (caused by retention of fluids) to name a few. These things are unlikely to make you feel any better!

  • A pharmacological approach does not teach you any new tricks to help you on a behavioural level. 

What was causing you to be depressed in the first place? Cognitive approaches help people stay away from negative thought patterns. This is something medication does not do. On the other hand, “positive activity interventions” (PAIs) can help people flourish and allow them to move them beyond “not feeling depressed to a point of flourishing”. One of the reasons for this is that the person feels in control. They did it, not the drugs.

Positive Activity Interventions

PAI’s include activities such as writing letters of gratitude, counting one’s blessings, practising optimism and performing acts of kindness. Gratitude diaries fit into the counting one’s blessing category.

The benefits of PAIs are:

  1. They are cheap!
  2. They are easy to do.
  3. They’re self-administered and give the person a sense of agency and empowerment over their own treatment.
  4. They work just as effectively as traditional treatments. The magnitude of effect for PAIs was determined to be 0.30 and for psychotherapy, it was 0.31.
  5. Their effects are long-lasting. A gratitude diary can lead to an improvement in mood and well-being for up to 6 months after completion.
  6. They work quickly, with decreases in depressive symptoms in less than a week. In a limited study, after only 15 days, depression scores were reduced by 16.7 points and 94% of participants felt some relief.

The PAI’s are thought to work by changing the neural and reward pathways in the brain. The study also suggested that PAIs are not likely to be as effective in cases of severe depression or those who had a very strong bias against these sorts of treatment. If you think it won’t work, it won’t! This is no different to the placebo affect for drug therapy.

So if you are open to the idea, and want something to work cheaply and quickly you might want to try a  gratitude diary and other PAIs. I have reviewed Sonja Lyubomirsky’s book The How of Happiness in a previous post which gives examples of many other PAI’s.

You might want to read both the post and her book.

This approach certainly worked for me and in times when I feel a bit low I go back to it for a few days to truly count my blessings!


This post obviously does not constitute proper medical advice. If you are depressed and thinking of hurting yourself please reach out for help NOW. Call a suicide support agency in your country or state. In Australia, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

* Layous,K; Chancellor, J; Lyubomirsky, S; Wang, L; Doraiswamy M. Delivering Happiness: Translating Positive Psychology Intervention Research for Treating Major and Minor Depressive Disorders. The Journal Of Alternative and Complementary Medicine Vol 17, 8 (2011) pp1 – 9.

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