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.

The How of Happiness

How to be happier?

A review and executive summary of the book by  Sonja Lyubomirsky

Are you unhappy? Do you know why?

If you blame your unhappiness on things like lack of money, a lousy job, the world’s worst boss/spouse/children you just might be barking up the wrong tree looking for your happy place.

If you think winning the lottery will make you happy, it will… for a while, but then you’ll probably just return to the same level of happiness you had before. You’ll become used to your new state of being, a phenomenon called hedonic adaptation.

Wealth, health and work etc. are, of course, not irrelevant, but have less influence over your happiness than you think they do.

I have been doing extensive research into happiness for a few years now.  In my opinion, it comes down to two things.

  1. Positive psychology
  2. Gut bugs

This post is about positive psychology. I have written about gut bugs elsewhere!

Positive psychology

Positive psychology has been defined as:

“[being] is the scientific study of what makes life most worth living” (Peterson, 2008).

The Positive Psychology Institute defines it as

Positive Psychology is the scientific study of human flourishing and an applied approach to optimal functioning. It has also been defined as the study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals, communities and organisations to thrive (Gable & Haidt, 2005, Sheldon & King, 2001).

The concept has been around for a while, and Martin Seligman is cited as the father (or perhaps grandfather by now) of positive psychology. His book Flourish is an excellent starting point. I have read it a few times to keep me on track and have the tenets of happiness in front of mind.

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This month I have read Sonja  Lyubomirsky’s The How Of Happiness: A new approach to getting the life you want.  (Penguin Books 2007) It’s not a new book either, but my goodness it’s a simple to read, based-in-science guide book that makes a whole bunch of sense! I loved it!

 

This post gives you some of the main points but get your own hard copy because you’ll want to write all over it!  You’ll be underlining the important bits, completing the short quizzes and answering her questions out loud as you read through it.

The basic idea is that you can make yourself happier. It takes some effort and determination and like most things in life, it is something you will actually have to DO on purpose. It won’t fall in your lap. It is something I have been working towards for the last 10 years in my road to recovery from divorce.

How much of your happiness is under your control?

The answer is very nearly 42! According to Sonja, 50% of your happiness is down to a “set point”, 10% is circumstance, and 40% is created by intentional activities on your part.  Your set point is determined by your genetics and your personality and stays pretty much the same throughout your life. Some people are just happier than others.

Circumstances account for a tiny 10% of happiness. A poor person can be just as happy as a rich person. Where you live doesn’t really matter that much. A bigger house, a better car, a different job will not matter much either!

Intentional Activities.jpg

However, you can control the remaining 40% of your own happiness by intentionally choosing to commit to some “happiness activities”. Lyubomirsky posits twelve categories of happiness activities. You don’t need to do all 12 to be happier. In fact, she suggests that you concentrate on  3 – 4 that will work best for you based on your set point, personality and interests. How do you know which ones to pick? There, is a questionnaire that will point you in the appropriate direction. After doing the questionnaire you can read the sections relevant to you.

This link will take you to a very brief summary of the happiness activities identified by Lyubomirsky and her researchers. Click through the arrows at the bottom of the page. It only scratches the surface and obviously does not give the depth of detail as in her book, but it will give you the road map and hopefully spark your interest.

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The link takes you to a Prezi site. Best viewed on a larger screen. You don’t need to sign in.

The last chapters give the “Five hows behind sustainable happiness” which are:

1. The upward spiral of positive emotion: one positive act will lead to another

2. Optimal timing and variety: mix it up and time it right to get maximum benefit and prevent hedonic adaptation.

3.  Social support

4. Motivation, effort and commitment: you are going to have to work at it and keep working at it.

5. Make it a habit!

 

My Happiness Activities Profile

After I did the questionnaire, the recommended happiness strategies for me were:

1. Committing to goals

2. Savouring life’s joys

3. Practising acts of kindness. (I have a post here about that)

4.  Taking care of body and Soul

None of these really surprised me. I feel like I already have the goals and taking care of body aspects under control.  I am going to make more of an effort for savouring, and while my physical health is good, I would like to learn how to meditate. So I’ll add these to the to-do list!

Negative emotions

Negative emotions should not be avoided at all costs. Negative emotions have their place. I am no way suggesting that you be 100% deliriously happy at all time. It is vital that you feel some struggle in your life and that there will be difficult times to face. You can’t and shouldn’t go around this world being ignorant of negative emotions that have a relevant and important role to play.

My philosophy is that you should tend towards a life, that, on the whole, is pleasant, fulfilling and purposeful. This is turn will be a life that is more likely to be a happy one.

Furthermore, happiness should not be confused with pleasure. Some things that make us happy are not pleasurable. For instance, running a marathon might not be pleasurable but leads to happiness because you achieved a goal.

Sonja also gives some advice to people suffering from depression, which you should read first if applicable.