Why Gratitude Journals Haven’t Worked For Me
And what has actually helped form me into a grateful person, plus ideas for Advent
Maybe soon, I’ll be better at writing thoughtful intros to my little essays. But today is not that day. So let me begin by telling what you’re going to read. I’m going to tell you why gratitude journals haven’t made me a grateful, healthier, more godly person. Then, I’m going to tell you what has worked for me.
There’s a lot of good articles on the science of gratitude. And if keeping a gratitude journal works for you, please keep on! The data and anecdotal experiences of many speak to the value of writing down what you’re grateful for.
However, if like me, gratitude lists/journals have left you feeling restless and frustrated, feeling divided and disconnected instead of whole, let me share with you what I’ve learned about why the practice of keeping a gratitude list might not work for everyone.
A gratitude list can be a way to remove oneself from a situation, so that we can get THROUGH the situation.
A friend helped me put words to this experience. In certain times of life, we don’t have a time to say “X really hurts and I don’t know how to fix it.” So, instead we say: “It’s fine. I’m surviving things and it could be worse.” We distance ourselves emotionally from the pain of a situation to move through it until we are in a safe, stable space to process the hard, hurt, pain or trauma.
A gratitude practice can be a tool to help us power through a situation, focusing on the things that are working and helping us push through until there is space and resources to heal and process. That’s a good thing. But there might also be a time to step back from a gratitude practice if you find yourself in a place where you have the capacity to process the hard, and a gratitude practice is creating emotional distance from the pain and hurt.
Some folks have baggage with gratitude lists. The advice to start gratitude list or an admonishment to “be grateful” can be unhelpful when you’re walking through a dark season or simply having a hard time. If someone offered that advice at an inopportune time (even if well-meaning), it can create some emotional, personal baggage around the practice of intentional gratitude. Then, you might feel guilty that you’re not grateful for the good things instead of sitting with the fullness of human experience, which includes the intermingling of joy and pain.
A gratitude practice might feed idolatry. To know, me is to know I’m a person who loves my creature comforts—a cozy blanket and a good book with perfect lighting, a cuppa tea in a bone china cup, craft beer on the front porch as the sunsets, etc. Gratitude lists teach us to look for those good things, and receive them as the gifts that they are. That can be really healthy if you’re someone not used to noticing the little gifts of life and/or taking them for granted. There’s a difference between giving thanks for, celebrating, enjoying and even healthfully seeking out creaturely comforts, and letting that attention to daily gifts as forming an idol of comfort. In my life, gratitude lists have been a mechanism for taking good gifts and making them ultimate.
Gratitude lists can muzzle us. I’ll let Kate Bowler take this one.
Gratitude lists might train us to put the bad and good of our lives in opposition to one another, instead of holding them in tension.
In college, a friend pointed that that often when expressing something a challenging circumstance or season of suffering, we’re taught to say “This is hard BUT God is good.” He shared that he was learning to say “This is hard and God remains good.” This subtle language changes shifts the relationships between what is hard/bad and what is good. And that framework has been helpful for me to consider when considering gratitude practices.
I often see gratitude practices (especially on social media) as a big but. I have X hard thing happening, BUT I have Y.
Someone will hint at a source of pain or heartbreaking situation, but then wrap it up with “it’s ok” because of another good thing. That’s an economy that God never asks us to join in, one where we attempt to measure the good of our lives against the bad and hard. Because yes, while the little gifts are absolutely how God might provide for and sustain us and we should receive them as gifts, God does not ask us to pretend as though they compare, make up for, stand against the grief, evil, darkness, or even just the hard, of our world and in our lives.
When we use a gratitude practice as a way to downplay and minimize the very real and hard things of our lives, they can easily move us to a place us spiritual and emotional unhealth that will have repercussions in our hearts, bodies and minds, and in our relationships.
Cue: Blatant transition to my next point
The point of of all of this isn’t that gratitude lists are bad, but that we need to ask why we’re actually keeping a gratitude list. There are lots of good reasons to keep a gratitude journal, but they’re not moral. We’re not a better or worse person based on whether we keep a gratitude journal. No where in God’s Word are we commanded to keep gratitude lists.
And yet, we are called to be grateful and give thanks. So if a gratitude journal is helping you become a grateful person, or if it’s something that’s benefiting you personally, keep it up.
But if gratitude journals are a barrier to cultivating thanksgiving, there are other ways to shape our hearts and minds in the practice of gratitude, to become a grateful person instead of simply being grateful.
Here’s what’s working for me.
Like I wrote a few weeks ago, so much of why our Thankful Turkey worked in cultivating genuine, heartfelt gratitude, was that as I was explaining to my daughter what thankfulness was, I retraining myself to think about thanksgiving. I simplified gratitude and stripping it down to it’s essence.
I was teaching my daughter to attentively look at her life, and practice seeing it the way God sees it. We observed the good alongside the bad. And our gratitude practice was simply about paying attention to our lives, letting our gaze linger on some of the good, naming it as good, and receiving it with thanks to God.
We were cultivating the habit of paying attention.
Two quotes linger in my mind on this topic.
The first comes from one of my favorite writers, Father Robert Farrar Capon.
“I shall give the summation of my case for paying attention. Man's real work is to look at the things of the world and to love them for what they are. That is, after all, what God does, and man was not made in God's image for nothing.”
I also love these words of Mary Oliver.
“Sometimes, I need only to stand wherever I am to be blessed.”
I think we can overcomplicate the practice of gratitude and thanksgiving; sometimes we build idols out of good things in an attempt minimize pain and distract ourselves from important questions of God and faith with a happy list.
So, I’ve started simply paying attention and noticing the life God is giving me day by day, moment by moment.
Aundi Kolber writes that “forcing or shaming ourselves into gratitude can be extremely triggering (especially for trauma survivors). Instead, as you are able- see if you can utilize curiosity to invite gratitude to the table alongside your full humanity.”
It’s only when I stopped trying to be grateful, and instead simply received the life God gave me in the fullness of its beauty, frustration, sorrow, laughter, monotony that I started to become a truly grateful person.
My Instagram feed is full of resources to observe advent and celebrate Christmas. Maybe yours is the same. I’ll share more of the thought process behind my choices in a few weeks. But here’s a list of what we’re NOT doing along with a list of what we are doing.
What we are NOT doing:
A daily Advent calendar
A daily Advent Bible reading
A long December bucket list of all the fun things.
Family Christmas activities outside of our home
The list above and the list below aren’t mutually exclusive, but I think it’s a really good practice to write down what you are NOT doing. It’s an act of humility, helps us define our limits and gives focus to what matters to us in our season; it also hedges against the allure of the idol of more and busyness, pushing us to pause how our activity is shaping us and making us. Absolutely none of the above things are bad, and I’m really hopeful some of those things will be on our list as my kids grow older and our household routines and rhythms shift. But that’s not this year.
So with that said, here are some things we’re doing to observe Advent and celebrate Christmas in our home.
Perusing and reading a lot of Christmas books.
I stored away almost all of our other books, and put out the Christmas books we own (I try to add a book or two to our personal library… here’s this year’s selection). I also checked out a TON of books from our library. I used Read Aloud Revival’s Christmas Picture Book list and every book we’ve read so far has been win.
Playing Christmas music
I like to have a playlist/album for the morning filled with songs we sing at church, a relaxing playlist for the afternoon, and a fun playlist for the evening while I’m cleaning up (not sure what this will be yet).
Singing the same song at nap time/every night.
It will probably be the first verse of “Joy to the World” or the first verse of '“Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.”
Having Christmas coloring pages on hand for Phoebe.
I bought this printable. The plan is to print it as a blueprint at Staples, and then color it together and talk about what we’re coloring.
Checking off a very small bucket list of festive activities we’ll do if/when an opportunity.
We’re hoping to 1.) Go look at Christmas lights at the local outdoor mall, 2.) Bake cookies (either from scratch or refrigerated Pillsbury dough) + 3.) Do a Christmas craft. But if none of those happen, no biggie.
Lighting Advent candles over the weekend and reading an Advent candle poem + John 3:16-17.
This will take about five minutes, and I’m guessing this will happen over Saturday breakfast, Saturday post-nap snack, or Sunday lunch.
Learn an Advent poem and John 3:16-17 over meals.
We do singing and poems over meals, so we’ll just do this as we remember. I’m planning to print our poem and Bible verse on cards to have on the table.
Mary and Joseph Journey
I’m not against Elf on the Shelf at all. If it works for you, awesome! But I wanted something a little different, and this is a fun alternative.
Doing Little Way Chapel’s 12 Days of Christmas. While a daily Advent calendar/devotional does not work for us for several reasons, I think I can swing the 12 Days of Christmas! So looking forward to giving this a go starting Christmas Day. We also might add “Magi on the Fly” and my work is planning an Epiphany party so that will be a fun way to close out the Christmas season.
Typing this out, the list looks long, but most of these activities are things we do on a daily/weekly basis that we’re just Holiday-ifying. And we have space to do these things because of all the things we are NOT doing. So take or leave what is interesting/helpful, and I’ll share more about my thought process behind these choices soon.
Whatever the Thanksgiving holiday looks like for you, I hope you’ll have a chance to eat something delicious with joy, be with those you love, and rest. Here’s a favorite few lines from Every Moment Holy’s “A Liturgy for the Preparation of an Artisan Meal.”
"Let us make a meal to remind our pilgrim guests that life will not always be so burdened,
that their days of exile will end,
and that they will feast at last,
joyfully in the city of their hope, at the table of their God-King...
at the dawning of a golden age,
untouched by sorrows.”