Why Does Gratitude Journaling Work?

What exactly happens to your brain when you intentionally list things you’re grateful for?

It was 2012. She had it all – fame, billions of dollars, the adoration of millions of fans and deeply meaningful work that had already created a legacy.

And yet, there was a void, a sense of panic that she hadn’t felt in years and didn’t expect to feel at this stage in her career.

After 25 years of being a household name and redefining possibility for multiple generations of women of color, Oprah was stepping down from the Oprah Winfrey show.

And instead of satisfaction, she felt… empty.


“I wondered why I no longer felt the joy of simple moments,” Oprah wrote in an article in O Magazine. “Since 1996 I had accumulated more wealth, more responsibility, more possessions; everything, it seemed, had grown exponentially—except my happiness.

“How had I, with all my options and opportunities, become one of those people who never have time to feel delight? I was stretched in so many directions, I wasn’t feeling much of anything. Too busy doing.”

What exactly happens to your brain when you intentionally list things you’re grateful for? 

Why Does Gratitude Journaling Work? | Geeta Nadkarni Blog

If it can happen even to Oprah, what chance do the rest of us stand?

When reflecting upon what had made her lose her joy, Oprah came to a surprising conclusion.

“For years I’ve been advocating the power and pleasure of being grateful. I kept a gratitude journal for a full decade without fail—and urged you all to do the same,” she wrote.

“Then life got busy. My schedule overwhelmed me. I still opened my journal some nights, but my ritual of writing down five things I was grateful for every day started slipping away.”

The result? A gradual loss of connection to everything she had worked so hard to build and overcome.

Of course, the real test was whether resuming her journaling habit would restore equilibrium.

“My life is still crazy busy.” she continued in the November 2012 edition of O magazine. “Today, though, I’m continuously grateful for having the stamina to keep going at this pace. The difference is, I’m back to journaling – electronically – and whenever there’s a grateful moment, I note it.

“I know for sure that appreciating whatever shows up for you in life changes your personal vibration. You radiate and generate more goodness for yourself when you’re aware of all you have and not focusing on your have-nots.”

The research backs up Oprah’s experience.

In one of the funniest TEDTalks ever recorded, positive psychologist, Shawn Achor, talks about the power of gratitude to rewire your brain and literally change your reality (by changing your perspective on it).

The premise (that he expands on in his book The Happiness Advantage) is that happiness is a skill. And just like any skill, both practice and time have a much greater impact on the outcome than inherent talent (or in this case, a genetically predetermined happiness set point).

The equation looks something like this:

Talent (or set point) + practice (eg: gratitude journaling) x time = skill (happiness/ contentment)

If you’ve never experimented with a daily gratitude practice, Shawn Achor recommends the six-step process outlined below. You don’t have to do all 6 steps every single day but as many as you can get to, ideally daily.

He believes that if a pessimist followed the 6 steps diligently for 21 days, they’d rewire their brain for optimism and therefore greater life satisfaction.

  1. 3 Gratitudes: Write down three things you’re grateful for that occurred over the last 24 hours. They don’t have to be a big deal – even noticing your cat’s soft coat or a delicious sandwich count.

  2. Double down: Pick one positive experience from the past 24 hours and set a timer for 2 minutes. Spend the time writing down every detail you can recall about that experience. The act of intentional recall signals your brain to label it as meaningful and deepens the imprint it makes. #neuroplasticity

  3. The Fun 15: Do 15 minutes of a fun activity that gets your heart rate up. This could mean a wild disco session in your living room or a simple walk around the block. Achor’s research indicates that the effects of daily cardio can be as effective as taking an antidepressant.

  4. Meditate: Every day take two minutes to stop whatever you’re doing and concentrate on your breathing. One of my favourite on-the-go meditations is to tune in and try to listen to my heartbeat – not to change it but just to feel it – no matter what is happening around me. Obviously don’t do this while driving!

  5. Commit a conscious act of kindness: Every morning, send a short email or text praising or appreciating someone you know. Habits are build not by repetition but by emotion; washing your brain in feel good neurotransmitters helps become addicted to feeling good by making others feel good, which changes how you feel about yourself and the power you have in your life.

  6. Get Social: Spend time with family and friends. Our social connections are one of the best predictors for success and health, and even life expectancy.*

    * I got curious if the health benefits of socializing apply as much to introverts as they do to folks on the other end of the spectrum and there doesn’t seem to be much research done on the topic. I did find this article that has some good suggestions towards the end around scheduling activities that are conducive to introspection or quiet companionship. For example, book clubs, running clubs, watching a movie together or a knitting/ sewing/ woodworking circle.

Most people start with just writing down 3 things they’re grateful for – indeed that’s Oprah’s base practice. If you want to rewire your brain faster (or if the basics have started to feel rote, like brushing your teeth, try adding on the other aspects detailed above.

One thing’s for sure – your life will be richer if you start each day appreciating someone in it.

Share this post

On the blog

Related Posts