The Science Behind Gratitude Journaling

Gratitude journaling has been a big hit in the self-development and wellness community for a while now. Health professionals jumped on the bandwagon more recently. They started to explore how we could apply gratitude to different populations to improve their health and well-being.

Does gratitude journaling show health benefits when examined through the critical lenses of science?

The short answer is yes. Among the positive psychology interventions, gratitude interventions are the most established (1). Researchers are finding numerous perks of gratitude journaling, including physical, personal and social benefits.

Read on to find out more about the latest research on this practice. It might help you understand why so many people are raving about the importance of not just saying thanks, but also writing it down.

The Neuroscience of Gratitude Journaling

The science of gratitude journalingWhen we practice gratitude, we have to pause and capture it; for instance, write it down, take a photo of it, share it with someone. At that moment, the brain releases serotonin and dopamine, two chemicals we've probably all heard about. They are the neurotransmitters responsible for happiness. There is another thing that happens when we get flushed with a feeling of gratitude; our stress hormones get regulated, which reduces anxiety and depression (2).
However, there is more to gratitude journaling than basic chemistry. Some psychologists believe that our brain is conditioned to notice the negative more than the positive. Our negativity bias is frequently mentioned in studies of human motivation, judgment, and decision-making (3).

It’s somewhat logical that we were evolutionarily hardwired to be more alert to the dangerous, risky, threatening impulses from the environment. Ultimately, our survival depended on it.

Nowadays, however, we needn’t fear the saber-toothed tiger or a similar beast anymore. Therefore, we can start to train ourselves to notice the positive things, too, which happens during gratitude practice. When we exercise gratitude, we are jumpstarting the necessary behavior and neurocognitive changes.

The brain has a fantastic capacity to transform and adapt, which is known as neuroplasticity (4). When we repeatedly send positive impulses along the neural pathways, we are changing the structure of the brain, strengthening these pathways. As we practice gratitude regularly, the brain learns, "Aha! This is what the person wants me to do." We are building new neural connections to the brain’s “bliss center”, located in the right anterior superior temporal cortex (5).

With time, it gets much easier to transmit the positive impulses since the structure and conductibility of the brain change.

To sum it up, gratitude journaling gears us up for a totally fresh perspective of the world by enabling the brain to re-focus its attention on the positive.

Gratitude Journaling in Mental Health

Scientific studies of gratitude journaling started at the beginning of the 21st century. Since then, the experiments have become more rigorous, gaining academic attention.

Anxiety and JournalingA French study published in 2019 in the journal Depression and Anxiety looked at the effectiveness of gratitude journaling in a group of suicidal patients who were experiencing a crisis (6). Two hundred and one patients were randomly divided between the intervention and control group. The experiment lasted for 7 days, during which the participants either used a gratitude diary (intervention) or a food diary (control). The researchers, led by Dr. Deborah Ducasse, were interested to know whether the participants’ psychological pain was going to change during the intervention.

The outcome measures included depression, anxiety, optimism, hopelessness, and suicidal ideation. They found that patients who were enrolled in the gratitude journaling group improved more than those writing a food journal. The authors concluded that a gratitude diary could be used as an adjunct therapy for suicidal patients. They suggested it as a potentially novel strategy during an acute mental health crisis.

Gratitude journaling can, of course, also be beneficial in less severe circumstances. Brenda O’Connell, Deirdre O’Shea, and Stephen Gallagher from the University of Limerick in Ireland studied journaling in a group of adults, mostly students (7). In their study, one of the groups was encouraged to complete the reflective-behavioral gratitude journal, while the other two completed the comparable reflective-only gratitude journal and control journal.

The reflective-only group was given instructions to reflect back on their day, every day for three weeks, and think of the people they had met and interacted with and were grateful for. They were asked to write down some positive social interactions over the day or friendships/relationships they were grateful for. In addition to that, the reflective-behavioral group was also encouraged to express their gratitude to a person of their choice face-to-face or through e-mail, Facebook, a kind note at the end of each week. The control journal group was instructed to write down what has happened to them during the day.

The analysis of the results showed that those who completed the reflective-behavioral gratitude intervention experienced a significant increase in their emotional balance and a decrease in depressive symptoms compared to the two control groups.
Journaling for mental healthThe positive effects of gratitude journaling were also observed at 1-month follow up, in both gratitude-only and gratitude-behavioral group. The findings suggest that journaling interventions that combine the elements of reflection and behavior could be particularly beneficial to people’s mental health. However, when researchers checked on their participants after three months, the improvements were no longer there.

Expert tip: Ongoing practice of gratitude journaling is required if you want to reap the long-term benefits.

Gratitude Journaling in Physical Rehabilitation

While mental health benefits of gratitude journaling perhaps seem more obvious, our physical health can improve as well. An interesting study was conducted by researchers from the University of California, San Diego, and involved experts from three departments; Department of Psychiatry, Department of Family Medicine and Public Health, and Department of Medicine (8). The study, led by Dr. Laura Redwine, investigated objective physical health measures in patients with heart failure who were using gratitude journaling. The doctors measured the patients’ heart rate variability (HRV) and inflammatory biomarkers at different stages of the experiment. The results of an 8-week trial showed significant changes in the journaling group compared to treatment as usual.

Gratitude intervention reduced inflammatory biomarker index score over time (F = 9.7, p = .004, η2 = 0.21), and increased parasympathetic HRV responses during the gratitude journaling task (F = 4.2, p = .036, η2 = 0.15).” In other words, the study indicated that gratitude journaling might reduce inflammation in heart failure patients and improve their survival rates.

Diary interventions have also been studied in cancer patients. In an article, titled “Dear Diary…...”: Exploring the experience of gratitude among oncology patients the authors asked eight cancer patients to maintain a gratitude journal for one month (9). Following the intervention, they interviewed the patients, asking them about their experience of illness and life in relation to the journaling exercise. The study found several benefits of gratitude journaling, including experiencing happiness, providing time for reflection, and distracting the person from the pain.

The participants also reported that, while they were following the journaling practice, their sleep improved, and their anxiety reduced. Gratitude interventions could, therefore, be considered in different oncology settings.

Positive feelings of gratitude, which get triggered when we write about the things we are thankful for, can also improve our motivation.  For instance, it can be easier to adopt a healthier lifestyle when we practice gratefulness. Research shows that when we feel grateful, we are more likely to exercise (10). Importantly, the motivation we are building is not based on external rewards, but our inner drives.

Diary Interventions for Children

Regular practice of gratitude has been shown to initiate an upward spiral toward greater emotional and social well-being; not just in adults, but also in children. A longitudinal study among adolescents suggested that gratitude practice can enhance a young person’s chances to flourish and contribute to more prosocial behavior (11).

Professor Robert Emmons, one of the first researchers of gratitude journaling, suggests that parents, teachers, and professionals who work with young people encourage children and adolescents to express gratitude regularly. Writing a journal or gratitude letters can be a good way to nurture this ability in our communities, from an early age.

This was confirmed in a study of primary school pupils. The children were given diaries and told to write down two or three things that they were thankful for at school every day. Participants in the control group were also given diaries with the instruction to write down two or three things that happened in school that day, without mentioning the concept of gratefulness.

After four weeks, the children who used a gratitude diary demonstrated increases in school belonging, which was defined as “a commitment to school and a belief that school is important” (12). Perhaps interestingly, gratitude diary showed clearer benefits for boys.

Expert tip: Gratitude journaling might be an excellent way to promote children’s well-being and school satisfaction.

Take-Home Message

There is growing evidence that gratitude journaling can improve markers of physical, mental and social health, for individuals and communities. However, for long-term positive effects, you need to commit to a regular practice.

As a start, you can write down three things that you're grateful for in your life, three people that you're thankful to in your life, and three things that they've done or how they've supported you that you're grateful for. See for yourself how that feels and whether it makes a difference to your health and well-being.

Article Sources

  • Parks, A. C., & Schueller, S. M. (Eds.). (2014). The Wiley-Blackwell handbook of positive psychological interventions. New York: Wiley Blackwell
  • Kerb, A. (2015). The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time. New Harbinger Publications
Scott Megit