I tried gratitude journaling for a month and I've never slept better
Putting a pen to paper might sound archaic, but I'm convinced you should try it.
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I spend a lot of time with sleep on my mind. After all, as the sleep writer at Reviewed, I use a new mattress every month, experiment with different meditation apps, and even cycled through about 15 pillows to determine which is best (it’s Coop Home Goods, if you were wondering).
My exploration of all things sleep is how I stumbled upon gratitude journaling—a practice wherein you reflect on what you’re grateful for (yes, on actual paper). I had to try it out. After all, simply expressing gratitude regularly is thought to make you feel happier, have more good emotions, and relish positive experiences, so I figured it would be a win-win, regardless of the effect on my sleep. For a month I wrote about what I was grateful for night after night, and let me tell you: It was a revelation.
Why you should consider gratitude journaling before bed
It’s hard to find a clear and precise definition of gratitude journaling, but the core idea is the same: You write down things you’re thankful for. I looked through a number of college and university websites for academic information on the practice. Some encourage you to write five things down on a daily basis, others say to make a list once a week. I determined that, as with all things sleep, it’s variable and personal.
A number of research studies have explored the connection between gratitude and sleep. In one, researchers divided 119 young women into three groups: the first maintained a daily gratitude journal, another journaled about their everyday life, and the remainder were not assigned an activity as a control. The women in the gratitude journaling group experienced a small but significant improvement in their self-reported sleep quality compared to the other two groups. Another study found that gratitude journaling at night may help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. An expert on gratitude theorizes that the benefits may be attributable to the practice helping relieve you from anxieties from the day. (It is definitely a mood-booster in my experience.)
Why it could benefit your physical health, too
The pros may not stop at better quality sleep. A study of heart failure patients found that routine gratitude journaling reduced inflammation biomarkers, which are molecular substances found in bodily fluids that can be indicative of certain diseases. As in the other studies, participants were split into two groups: half wrote about things they were grateful for each day, the others went about things as usual without direction. Patients who practiced gratitude journaling had less inflammation. Though the researchers concluded further investigation was needed, the study points to the possibility that gratitude journaling may even improve physical health.
How you can implement gratitude journaling
Since I started gratitude journaling, I’ve followed the same routine each night—another good habit for improving your sleep. I feed my cat, turn out the overhead light, plug in the string lights that hang above my window and offer a softer glow than my bedside lamp, get into bed, and crack open my journal.
I start by writing about my day: the funny conversation I had with my roommate, the stupid thing my cat did, what I cooked, or what I published at work (sleep-article inception will be a fun one tonight). Then I write the things I feel thankful for. I always start with the simple phrase “I’m grateful for” and go from there.
There are nights when I appreciate every little thing, and I go on for pages about them (one excerpt: “I’m grateful for overzealous grocery shopping when I’m hungry, because it’s always funny”). Other evenings I lack the motivation to write and it’s hard to put words on the page. One night I wrote a single sentence—“I’m grateful for steamed broccoli”—yet my spirits were still lifted.
Gratitude journaling isn’t one-size-fits-all. One research study found that people who journal just once per week are happier than those who do it on a daily basis. (I’ll stick with my nightly routine—it works for me.)
If it sounds hard to start, there are plenty of online resources to help. Berkeley’s Greater Good Center, which provides “science-based insights for a meaningful life,” suggests going for depth rather than breadth because “elaborating in detail about a particular thing for which you’re grateful carries more benefits than a superficial list of many things.”
What you need to start gratitude journaling
The best news: You probably already have everything you need to start gratitude journaling on hand. (We all have a blank journal or notebook that sits empty, awaiting words.)
That said, I’ve journaled on and off my whole life and have developed a proclivity for certain brands of notebooks and types of pens. I prefer journals that lie mostly flat when you crack them open, as it makes it easier to write on both pages and have an even surface. My current favorite is a classic Moleskine. I've been writing in one of its limited collection denim-covered notebooks, which I really like. Its cover has a texture that’s slightly coarser than everyday jeans yet is pleasing to the touch. Plus the front of mine says “Do not handle with care,” which I find rather amusing. I also like Leuchttrum’s notebooks, which come in a variety of bright colors. Both brands carry notebooks with a variety of page types, including dotted, lined, and blank, giving you more creativity on the page (Moleskine even has a half lined, half blank, option).
Of course, your notebook is only half of the equation. The other half is your writing implement. For years I used Pentel’s Energel Pens, which I still think are great but they no longer reign supreme when it comes to my nightly writing. Sometime last year I picked up a Rifle Paper Co. Roller Pen on a whim at Barnes and Noble—I figured it would be nice to have a quality pen. I like the weight of the pen itself and how the ink flows vividly onto the page. I enjoyed it so much that I bought another a couple months ago, as well as some compatible ink refills. I have to be mindful not to smudge the ink, but the ease of writing with it makes its slight fussiness worthwhile.
The bottom line on gratitude journaling
Of all the things I’ve done while covering sleep in the last year, nothing changed my sleep—and overall mood—as much as gratitude journaling. It took a week or so for me to see any effect, but after that the difference was practically palpable. I was happier as I dozed off, stayed asleep longer, and experienced fewer nightly interruptions. My daytime moods and overall outlook improved, too. It was as though I had donned permanent rose-colored glasses, and somehow everything became more positive. I think most people stand to benefit from making this simple practice part of their routine—and all you really need is a bit of paper, a pen or pencil, and the motivation to do it.