Have you ever felt anxious and noticed yourself being extra vigilant, looking for any signs that something bad may be lurking nearby, on the lookout for all the things you might need to worry about?
This may seem like a good way to protect yourself from the things you’re anxious about, but it usually backfires. Since there is never any end to the list of “what ifs?” you can find to worry about, if you’re constantly looking out for things that could go wrong, you’ll usually find them, and this keeps you in a state of worry and anxiety.
Or have you ever been depressed, and found yourself focused on all of the negative things in your life, trying to figure out how they happened and how to solve them? Again, this sounds like a good way to fix what’s wrong in your life, but it often ends up making things worse. You keep finding more and more things to regret, more disappointments, more ways you don’t measure up to other people, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the negatives that keep adding up.
The more we’re on the lookout for something, the more likely we are to find it. But just as it is easy to find things to worry about or feel badly about when that’s what we’re focused on, it’s also easy to find some things to feel good about when that’s what we’re looking for and paying attention to.
We looked at one way to help shift your perspective by noticing positive things that happen throughout your day in a post about an exercise called Three Good Things or Three Blessings. The gratitude journal is a similar tool. To keep a gratitude journal, simply notice the things that happen throughout your day, no matter how small, for which you are grateful, and then write them down in a gratitude journal every evening at the end your day.
You can read more about gratitude in positive psychology and the benefits of keeping a gratitude journal in this interview with Robert Emmons, author of Thanks: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier.
Emmons cites research that finds:
First, the practice of gratitude can increase happiness levels by around 25%. Second, this is not hard to achieve—a few hours writing a gratitude journal over 3 weeks can create an effect that lasts 6 months if not more. Third, that cultivating gratitude brings other health effects, such as longer and better quality sleep time.
Exercises like Three Good Things and the gratitude journal do more than just allow us to reflect on the positive things that happen in our life. They help us shift our perspective from focusing on the problems and negative things we encounter throughout our day, to looking for and noticing the positive things that we experience every day.
As a result, once we start looking for things that are going well and that we are grateful for, we find more of them and notice them more often. And when we become more aware of the good things that are happening in our lives and the things we are grateful for, we experience less anxiety and depression, more positive emotions, and increase our happiness and well-being.