by Ayanna D. Neal

With COVID-19 uprooting our normal lives—interrupting businesses, canceling in person collegiate and school classes, closing bars, restaurants and shops, people staying at home and not interacting with family members and friends in person, and millions who are now unemployed because of this pandemic, many people feel that they don’t have much to be grateful for. Gratitude comes from the Latin word gratus, which means “thankful, pleasing.” This pandemic is like nothing we have ever experienced. Some things can be focused on to provide us with positivity and help get us through this difficult time. Many Americans are reporting high levels of emotional distress from the coronavirus pandemic. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation poll, more than half of Americans—56%—reported that worry and stress related to the outbreak led to at least one negative mental health effect. Those include trouble with eating or sleeping, drinking alcohol more, frequent headaches or stomachaches, shorter tempers and other health problems. Among frontline health care workers and their families, 64% reported worsened mental health, as did 65% of those who had lost income.”

Taking time out of the day to focus on positives or blessings in life can make for better health and happiness. A gratitude journal is the process of writing or recording and reflecting on things that you are grateful for regularly. By writing down what you are grateful for causes the brain to focus on positive things in your life. According to UCLA’s Mindfulness Awareness Research Center, regularly expressing gratitude “changes the molecular structure of the brain, and makes us healthier and happier.” In 2008, scientists first used functional MRI(fMRI) to study gratitude. In the study, the researchers measured the brain activity of participants experiencing different emotions and found that gratitude causes synchronized activation in multiple brain regions and lights up parts of the brain’s reward pathways and the hypothalamus. Gratitude can boost neurotransmitter serotonin and activate the brain stem to produce dopamine.”

Keeping a gratitude journal does not have to be anything complex. It can be as simple as writing what you’re grateful for on a sticky note or piece of paper or buying a notebook or journal and writing in it. Tips for keeping a gratitude journal include starting with things that are easy to focus on that you’re grateful for, like your family, health, nature and your home. Try to be creative and think of different things from one day to the next that you’re grateful for. Include specific places you’ve gone or specific people you may have interacted with, even if the interaction was via phone, Zoom or other videoconferencing application. On difficult days, really try to reflect and journal about something that you’re grateful for. Gratitude journaling on a difficult day helps eliminate negativity from the day and recalibrates the brain to focus on something positive. Focusing on something that we are grateful for on a difficult day helps to get us in a happy place and removes the focus from negativity. What we focus on in life is key to our happiness and quality of life. It is a good idea to journal at the same time of day so that you get into a habit of journaling. Journaling at night before bed can be beneficial to help focus your mind on positive things and relax. When you’re focused on positivity before bed, you’re less likely to suffer from not getting a good night’s sleep because your brain is spinning about things you’re worried about.

A gratitude journal has been found to increase positivity, help you sleep better, increase self-esteem, make you happier, reduce stress, increase business—because the happier you are the more productive you are, improve relationships, psychological and physical health. To be most successful make gratitude part of your life. Journal regularly. Whether it be every other day or once a week, commit to doing it but don’t do it too much. Evidence suggests that people adapt to positive events and could become numb to them. President John F. Kennedy in a 1963 Thanksgiving Proclamation said, “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.” Journaling things we are grateful for can literally change our lives and help us become our best selves.