Daily gratitude practices have been linked to higher rates of self-care and mindfulness. Gratitude writing prompts can also reduce mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression.
But what happens when you’re not feeling especially grateful or your gratitude practice feels tired or just a little bit basic? Can practicing gratitude actually make things worse or lead to toxic positivity?
Find out when to use gratitude, how to get the most out of your gratitude practice, and learn how to create your own gratitude journal prompts.
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What is gratitude?
Gratitude is the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.
We can have gratitude for ourselves, others, events, things, God, Goddess, spirituality, nihilism, clean water, double-decker tacos, and two-ply toilet paper (just to name a few). We can be grateful for the good things in our lives as well as the bad.
Gratitude journal prompts can help us remember all these things.
I used to think it was easier to be grateful for the Big Things (milestones, family members, financial stability, good healthcare, and housing) than the Little Things (ladybugs, the smell of the coffee bean aisle at the grocery store, smiles from strangers, and good hair days).
But after living through COVID for a year, I’m a little exhausted from writing, I’m grateful for my health, for the umpteenth-million time in my gratitude journal.
Gratitude practices are habits we create to remember to take time to feel consciously grateful for stuff.
This is important because our minds work pretty ass-backward sometimes. Instead of remembering the good stuff, we humans have a negativity bias that makes us more susceptible to focusing on the negative rather than the positive aspects of life.
Gratitude practices are habits we create to remember to take time to feel consciously grateful for stuff. This is important because our minds work pretty ass-backward sometimes.
Gratitude journal prompts can be super simple.
Take your morning or evening commute. Try to think of details from your most recent commutes. Not just one detail — but several details. It’s not easy, especially if you don’t particularly enjoy your commute.
Researchers have discovered that we’re more likely to remember the worst part of something (especially when doing stuff we don’t want to do) instead of the entire event itself. What’s worse is that we often compile all similar events (say seven days of commutes) into one memory.
And we’re often remembering the most pain-stricken moment (say when someone cut you off and almost took out your front bumper) of those 14 commutes; our brains associate the entire span of one week of commutes with that one painful moment of almost losing your bumper (and probably your sh*t).
But what is the likelihood that absofreakinlutely nothing good happened during those 14 commutes? If your commute is 45 minutes each way, that equates to 10.5 hours of commuting each week. Did absolutely nothing positive happen during that time?
Gratitude simply allows you to consciously remember the good stuff so the negative stuff doesn’t take over our lives completely.
Best Time to Practice Gratitude: Morning or Night?
Your best time to practice gratitude depends on your own personal preferences. Your gratitude prompts will differ throughout the day.
Some people need a boost of gratitude to get out of bed in the morning; others practice gratitude at night to quiet the chatter of their minds and banish anxiety before bedtime.
What I would suggest is to create an intentional gratitude practice, meaning don’t just do your gratitude willy-nilly whenever you feel like it. Instead, intentionally choose a time that works best for you — and try to stick to it.
Just don’t get militant about it. If your gratitude practice isn’t making you feel better, it may be time to stop and reassess.
Gratitude can also be a healthy part of a mindful morning routine.
What If I’m Just Not Feeling Gratitude?
Gratitude journal prompts aren’t meant to make you forget about your problems or feel all the cozy feels when you’re just. not.
It’s meant to be used as a tool to break a pattern of rumination or to let go of unhelpful negative funks. Nowhere is there a gratitude bible that states you should use gratitude to avoid feeling negative feelings or Big Feelings.
We were given a full spectrum of feelings for a reason. If we don’t actually feel them, we can’t process them — and we definitely can’t let them go.
In the immortal words of Sadness in Pixar’s Inside Out, “Crying helps me slow down and obsess over the weight of life’s problems.”
We can’t let go of sh*t (and we shouldn’t) until we actually deal with it.
Overly-positive, don’t-feel-your-feelings, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps thinking is called toxic positivity. It’s when we avoid feeling Big Emotions in favor of trying to feel the good feels 100% of the time (or we avoid Dealing With Our Sh*t).
We can’t let go of sh*t (and we shouldn’t) until we actually deal with it.
On the flip side, wallowing in the pain of the world never got anyone anywhere either. In fact, wallowing is a somewhat selfish action (one that I do often BTW) that isn’t super productive.
“Sit in your pain,” I always say. “Don’t swim in it.”
Gratitude journal prompts are also great when you simply need a break from Big Emotions. Like that part in the Matrix when the resistance is informed that the robots are coming and they’re all pretty sure they’re gonna die the next day so they have a big giant Wachowski-Sisters-style orgy.
If you’re not feeling gratitude, skip it. Instead, try savoring. It allows you to get in touch with whatever you’re currently feeling and help you notice those feelings. All so you can process them and let them go.
Creating Your Own Gratitude Journal Prompts
Gratitude journaling is one of the easiest ways to practice daily gratitude. By making a habit of gratitude, you can create positive changes in your thought patterns.
We humans think more than 6,000 thoughts a day, and most of them are negative. By journaling to express gratitude, we are able to rewire our neuronal pathways to start automatically thinking more positively and remembering the positive things that happen throughout our days.
If you want a few free gratitude journal prompts, you can get a free gratitude journal by signing up for my email list. Or, you can make your own journaling prompts and templates. When you create your own prompts, you can tailor your gratitude practice to your own life.
It’s often easier to be grateful about the Big Things than the Little Things, so you may want to start there.
“Sit in your pain, don’t swim in it.”
Gratitude Journal Prompts
1. What Big Things are you grateful for? Family, housing security, food security, health, and job all fall into this category.
These are things we are universally grateful for but don’t always take the time to feel good about.
2. What are you grateful for right now?
Take a look around. Currently, I’m sitting in my house feeling grateful for the carved solid-wood TV stand I bought at Target a few months ago and the pretty tin ceiling my landlord refurbished last year.
Our brains are hardwired to get used to stuff over time. Your car probably doesn’t elicit as much excitement today as it did the day you bought it. But remembering life before you bought your car (had to walk to work, old car’s heating was busted, etc.) can help you get that new-car feeling all over again.
3. What are your favorite things? Favorite foods? Favorite movies? Favorite songs?
Take a moment to list them and a few additional moments to go deeper and discover what you love about them. Maybe you love tacos because they remind you of that trip you took to SoCal. Just like the things we abhor, the things we love are usually tied to memories that can unlock the door to more thankfulness and happiness.
4. What are a few acts of kindness that brought you joy in the past few weeks? Did someone pay for your coffee at Starbucks? Did someone smile at you outside the grocery store? Did another driver let you cut in front of her?
If you’re struggling to think of a few acts of kindness, you can always get the same good vibes by making a list of kind things you can do for others. Studies show that the giver of a gift always feels more joy, elation, and happiness than the receiver anyway.
As you discover the things you’re grateful for, you can start adding more of those things into your life.
For example, you may hate your morning commute but felt grateful for an upbeat song that played on the radio during your commute home last night. You may want to increase your likelihood of gratitude for your next commute by making a playlist of your favorite songs.
Making a gratitude list is simply making a list of your favorite things. It’s easy to forget about these things (or to incorporate them into our days) if we’re just mindlessly slugging along through our daily routines.
Want a free printable gratitude journal? Get your free copy by signing up for my email list!