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.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I am anti-social…

The COVID bubble begins to burst!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-social or anything, but perversely I am sad that the restrictions for COVID19 are being lifted. I have been enjoying my State-sanctioned semi-solitude. I had a perfect mix of interactions with others and being allowed to retreat all worked out.

It’s a selfish stand, I know because I wasn’t all that disadvantaged by them.   I kept working through the whole time, was able to get out and exercise and had a steady stream of activities to keep me occupied. I was not affected by the great toilet paper shortage or scarcity of other items due to some uncanny coincidental forward planning. I didn’t have kids to home school.  I didn’t get sick. I had already planned a low key year. I did miss seeing my grandson and daughter, and that’s about it. One other big regret was not being able to attend my good friend’s funeral at the end of April.

At work, I was able to be proactive and not reactive. Every item on my daily to-do list was crossed off, and I left at a reasonable time. I didn’t have students to discipline. The parents I did talk to were appreciative and not berating me for dealing with their children.

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Plenty of iso-baking happened at my place!

Don’t get me wrong I’m not anti-social but with most of the teachers working from home, the constant stream of interruptions to solve other peoples’ problems dwindled to next to nothing. They return en masse this Monday, bringing their problems with them. (11/5/20)

A  rumbling low-level of anxiety is beginning to penetrate my calm as the invitations to “catch up now that we can” are starting. It’s not that I went out partying every weekend anyway but having to stay at home, HAVING to be cocooned because I was told to, gave me a legitimate reason to stay quiet and at peace.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s not that I don’t want to see people, but this time to be slow, deliberate and self-sufficient was tantalisingly comforting. The bluer than blue skies have already started to brown over as more and more people are going about their business.

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Bluer than blue!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-social, but I have discovered that I am also not pro-social either. When I am with people, I feel on guard. Will I say something stupid? Will I accidentally offend someone? Does my hair look alright? What will they think of me? The internal monologue never ends. Sometimes it’s so noisy I forget to listen to the person in front of me. That voice has been so quiet these last two months. I guess it proves that even though I am friendly, loud, bossy, speak in front of a large crowd etc I am in essence a socially awkward introvert.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-social, but I could live in this bubble forever… I think…  As long as the bubble had a door. It might be different if I didn’t have the option to leave when I wanted.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I am antisocial, but I might re-gig my world a little so I can keep the calm for longer. Please don’t be offended.

 

….and Mum! Don’t worry, I am OK!! 🙂

 

To-do list or ta-da list?

A to-do list is helpful, right?

Have you got a really long to-do list of all the things you should be doing in this Age of Corona? Now you are not commuting every day because you’re working from home or your place of work has closed down, you’ve got heaps more time! Right? You might have more time because you are not going out to the movies or drinks with friends and EVERYTHING in your calendar has been cancelled? Right? You should be using this time productively, right?

Empty Calendar
No events! The P&C meeting was cancelled too!

Is this to-do list making you feel guilty as you sit in front of the TV and watch one more episode of the latest binge-worthy show? Just one more and THEN I‘ll go to bed! Promise!

I started off ISO with this big to-do list. It ran to three A5 pages. I wrote it before the lockdown started in an effort to avoid getting to the end of this and thinking “oh darn that’s right! I should have done….XYZ.” XYZ being whatever the really important thing that I could have been doing but didn’t get done! I also have to keep in mind my overarching year-long plan – the Year of Zero.

The list became a yoke across my shoulders. A burden to bear. One that didn’t allow for the contingencies and emergencies of daily life. It didn’t allow for the weather. It didn’t allow for my mood.

From to-do to ta-da!

So I put that list aside for reference and created a new one. I have simplified and broadened it considerably. Now my list has only four things on it. It is flexible, adaptable and infinitely adjustable.

Here is my daily to-do list:

  1. Learn something.
  2. Create something.
  3. Organise something.
  4. Move everything! (as in exercise)

So for instance today,

  1. What did I learn? I watched a lecture about sustainability and learnt that if we returned to a 1970’s level of consumption (of goods and energy), we could work 80% less.  The 1970s wasn’t too bad, we just didn’t have as much STUFF. The lecture does not suggest we return to 1970s technology (or fashion!) just the level of stuff we accumulate. It’s the first of 12 in a series from The Great Courses which I accessed for free through Kanopy. Kanopy is a video streaming service which I get for free with my library membership. Lots of public libraries offer it. Check to see if yours does.
  2. What did I create? Well, this post for my Sunday Post series for a start! I also finished off some of the tea cosies I started the other day.
  3. What did I organise? I am working on a document called “Death Admin” which has information for my family if/when I die. This was triggered by a podcast  (The Pineapple Project) I listened to recently.  I am getting together the information and documents I need for that.
  4. Did I move? Yes! Before breakfast, I did a 30-minute online exercise class which has been provided by my (closed) gym. Later today I will do a Zoom session with my sister, the personal trainer. While I was watching the lecture in Point 1 above I stood up and stepped from side to side and did squats and all sorts of in-place moves so I wasn’t sitting on my bum for another 30 minutes!

My to-do list is now a ta-da list! I can shrink or expand the items to suit the day, the mood and the life that gets in the way!

Smoke and mirrors maybe, but it’s making a difference to how I feel!