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.

2019 – a year in review

My Year in Review

If you have been following my blog, you will have worked out by now that I like to keep myself occupied. This past year has been a positive one. In a previous post, at the end of 2017, I listed my Year in Review. I now look back over 2019, and while the list is shorter the year was just as fulfilling. The shorter list is a direct consequence of my daughter’s return to Australia and the subsequent increases in grandma time. I now have less “free” time. That free time has been filled with many pleasant hours spent building trains, telling stories and going on adventures.

The activity that has fallen off the list has been sustained writing. I have not advanced in any of the long-form writing projects I started back in 2017. They are not yet abandoned but very much on the back burner. I have found that I can put in the mental energy to write short blog posts and microfiction, but the characters from my longer stories don’t have enough time to wake up and let me know where they are up to.

So what did I do?

  • Continued with this blog, adding 127 posts.
  • And all the associated research, writing and photography that goes into those 127 posts.
  • I went to Hamilton Island for two weeks
  • I went to Scotland on my big adventure for five weeks
  • Put together a huge photo book from my Scottish adventure
  • I ran a “making a photobook” course at a local community college
  • I did an online Real Estate copywriting course with the Australian Writers Centre
  • I did a graphic design course through LinkedIn
  • I did two video making courses, one on documentaries and one on mobile content creation, through the Australian Radio, Film and Television School.
  • I participated in a silver jewellery making course
  • I got paid to work with a beginner photographer to show them a few ideas.
  • I had one of my photos in a “real” exhibition – Head On
  • I did two 5km, and one 10 km timed runs
  • A photography workshop at the Australian Museum
  • Celebrated my mum’s 80th birthday
  • Went to Cairns on a big school excursion
  • I entered six writing competitions and about seven photography competitions – still not a winner but participation is the goal.
  • Made and sold copies of a 2020 calendar
  • Perfected designs for tea cosies and doorstops
  • Completed 16 of the 60 things on my 60 for 60 list. (better get cracking on that one but see my post on the Year of Zero for an update on that)
  • Had a garage sale with friends
  • Renewed my first aid certification
  • A short online course on SEO.
  • Participated in a rescue competition with the NSW SES
  • I did three photography shoots for other people, including one with studio lighting. I think I can now start asking for money for this type of work.
  • I didn’t cry once!
  • And I still have a demanding full time “real” job
  • And I spent plenty of time with family.

Goals for 2020

I have set out my goals for 2020 already. They concentrate on my financial future so there will not be any travelling, paid for courses or big purchases. I will get my side hustle happening! (You are all my accountability partners!)

On the non-financial goal side of things I want to learn how to meditate correctly, complete at least 25 more of the modified 60 for 60 list, and reduce my impact on the world by wasting less and reusing more. I will continue to keep fit, look after my gut bugs, write, and take photos of what’s in front of me.

The big, overarching goal is to inspire some other old chooks like me to get out and have a go!

Be invincible, not invisible!

 

Is childhood anxiety on the rise?

A closeup shot of a leaf with dark and light green stripes

Childhood in the 1960s

Growing up in the 60s, I would describe my childhood as free range. By this I mean that while I was well cared for, I did not have much close supervision. This was not unusual for the times.  Provided we told our parents where we were going and what we were doing they just let us go and do it. We would stay outside all day, in all seasons. In wet weather, we would play inside and dress up our dolls and build whole new worlds.  We played under the house building mud pies in the dirt with little regard for the spiders that hung from the joists above our heads. We were happy and active.

I don’t remember our parents organising any of our activities. We worked it out for ourselves, although we had to ask for permission to watch TV or when we wanted a sleepover.

Water fall shot with a slow shutter.

We’d play on the street with all the neighbourhood kids. Someone would yell out “CAR” and we’d scamper aside and let the traffic pass and then continue with the game of cricket or soccer. Once again, I don’t remember any parents around to tell us to be careful or to watch out. There was a mix of ages from Will and Micky who were the oldest right down to pipsqueaks like me who were five years younger.

I obviously survived, although I did have a few near misses[1]. Once when my brother and I were playing at the beach and I got caught in a rip. Some fellow scooped me out of the surf and took me back to my mother who was sleeping on the sand. In her defence, we weren’t supposed to be swimming!

I remember slicing my foot from toe to heel on a  rusty water tank we were using as a slippery dip. The most vivid part of this memory being the bloody little foot prints I left on the road as I limped home.

In kindergarten, I was walking home from school on a rainy day splashing in puddles when I got stuck in a big open drain with the water rising around me. And the nearest miss, when I was at my best friend’s cousins’ place swimming in their pool and one of the older kids bombed me. I had to be dragged to the surface after someone realised I hadn’t come up yet.

A bee forages for pollen on a bright yellow aloe flower

Modern parents are more involved but at what price?

More recently, parents and carers are more involved in directing the activities of their children. Dance lessons, after school tutoring, training for sports, pre-organised play dates. All structured time. I guess this is mostly because many parents and particularly, mums, work away of home and scheduling is necessary. You can no longer pop next door and know that someone will be home.

Is adolescent anxiety on the rise?

If you ask me if anxiety and depression and other mental illnesses have increased in the 26 years years I have been teaching I would give an emphatic YES.   Is my perception backed by evidence?  I notice it more and more but is that because as a school leader, I am more involved in that aspect of schooling? Today alone I spoke to three families about their anxious and school-refusing children.  The quick research I did in preparation for this post, indicates my perception can not be supported evidence.

Some articles say there has been no increase in the prevalence of anxiety disorders, while others refer to an “epidemic” and crisis of mental health issues. The problem is that data collection relating to childhood anxiety has only started in the last 10 – 15 years. We don’t have a clear picture on the anxiety levels of past generations because it wasn’t measured or reported  so we cannot accurately compare. We simply don’t know. We have no good base line data. Anxiety levels might be higher or they could even be lower.

Round ball like seeds pods against a bright blue sky

 

While my hunch is not supported by hard evidence, I have first hand observational data – even if the sample size is very small –  that some kids, especially girls around 14 – 16 can not be separated from their phones. I have had girls crying and begging to be suspended from school rather than hand in their phone after using it inappropriately in class time. Their fear of losing that point of contact is palpable. They quiver and become faint.

Is there a link between the use of smart phones and the apparent increase in anxiety?

Probably?

Has the shift in care practices made a difference to childhood happiness and health?

Maybe…

The practices of 50 years ago may be seen as neglectful these days.  At school we often discuss helicopter parents – those who hover constantly over their children and the more notorious lawn mower parents who sweep ahead and mow down any obstacles in their children’s path. Of course, all parents want their children to be safe and not be hurt, teased or bullied but has the pendulum swung too far? Are today’s parents stopping their children learning valuable lessons and denying them opportunities to  be resilient and self reliant? Are they creating anxious kids by accident?

I think so.

The Australian Government report into childhood anxiety does state the following:

It might be tempting to blame increased screen time [for anxiety] and access to information via the internet that didn’t exist in previous generations….

The presence of screens is not necessarily something that’s going to create anxiety. Social media, unfortunately, is a huge factor. Particularly in primary school.[2]

Further, parents of anxious children can exacerbate the issue by protecting their children too much. When I am dealing with anxious kids I usually find an anxious parent not too far behind.

If a child is worried about going on a school camp, for example, it can be tempting for parents to accommodate their wishes….[and let them stay at home]

‘What keeps anxiety going is avoidance,’ … ‘If you stay away from situations you’re nervous about, the child will never learn that she can handle it, and that actually camp can be fun.[3]

Once again it would seem like the middle ground is the place to be. We have to keep children safe, but not so safe they are scared to stretch their wings.

More information on childhood anxiety

There are some good articles available on the topic if you’d care to read more.

This one about teens and social media from Harvard is an easy and informative read.

https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/17/12/social-media-and-teen-anxiety

For a very in-depth look at the situation in Australia – have a look at this 2015 Australian Government report. (You will need to click on the link that is on that page to download the PDF)

http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/mental-pubs-m-child2

And the Young Minds Matter website – in particular, have a look at the Snapshot of Findings Video.

https://youngmindsmatter.telethonkids.org.au/


 

The images are meant to be calming, natural scenes to help keep you rested!

[1] My mum will kill me when she reads this! Of course, it’s from my stand point and with my version of events! Artistic licence DLT!

[2] http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/lifematters/childhood-anxiety-australia-report/7214886

[3] http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/lifematters/childhood-anxiety-australia-report/7214886