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Gratitude Journal Has Stopped Working For You? Try Subtracting Your Many Blessings

by | Jan. 21, 2020

Makes You Think

A few years ago, I was inspired to start keeping a gratitude journal. I had been regularly keeping a journal anyway, but I decided to make gratitude a deliberate part of that daily journal entry. Everyday, I would take a moment and list a few things I was thankful for. I would ask myself the question:

"What am I grateful for?"

Then I would count my blessings and list things like, "I'm grateful for my wife and kids, I'm grateful for the beautiful home and community I live in, etc."  Thinking on gratitude first thing in the morning brought a smile to my face and started the day on a positive note. It helped... for about three weeks.

Then I found I was basically parroting the same things. It turned into a chore that I didn't really enjoy. It simply became a checklist to do, and I didn't seem to really benefit much from the exercise. I decided maybe I just needed to have a more structured way to think about gratitude. So I changed the question I asked each day to this:

I am grateful for_____ because_____ ; I show this by_____.

That really helped… for a few more weeks. But then the chore mentality set back in, and it grew boring and tiresome. Don't get me wrong, I really am grateful for many things. But writing a journal entry each day about gratitude wasn't one of them.

Why did trying to deliberately practice gratitude each day quickly become boring and rote?

My gratitude journal had become a guilt journal. It wasn't helping. So I quit. I quit counting my blessings each morning as a part of my efforts at gratitude.

Do a quick search on the Internet for gratitude journal, and you'll find all kinds of people praising how wonderful it has been to regularly think and write about gratitude. Was there something wrong with me? Could I not even do gratitude right? 

I really do value gratitude—I know it matters. The extolled virtues of gratitude include improving physical and mental health, improving relationships, and generally making you a happier, more resilient person.1

In Doctrine and Covenants 78:19 we are taught, "And he who receiveth all things with thankfulness shall be made glorious; and the things of this earth shall be added unto him, even an hundred fold, yea, more." 

I remember a 2010 BYU Devotional given by Sharon Samuelson in which she shared the story of two Dutch women, Corrie and Betsie ten Boom, who—while imprisoned for harboring Jewish refugees during World War II—found ways to be grateful for all things. 

In her book The Hiding Place, Corrie explains how gratitude was the force that allowed her to survive.

These two sisters found peace by reading from the Bible every day. Their constant worry was that their Bible would be seized by the guards and their great source of hope and comfort would be taken away. 

Their cell was so infested with fleas that the sisters could not move without instantly being covered with the bugs. One night Betsie suggested that they give thanks to God for their blessings—even the fleas. Corrie half-heartedly bowed her head, wondering what could be good about fleas. As the weeks passed, the blessing of the fleas became apparent: because of the infestation the prison guards didn’t dare step inside. Their precious Bible, and its daily source of inspiration, remained safe. 

If these woman could feel gratitude for fleas, should it really be that difficult for me to take a few minutes to find and feel gratitude for my blessings? Why were my efforts to "count my blessings" continuing to fall flat? My gratitude turned guilt continued to fester.

Recently I came across some research that helped explain the challenges I faced with counting my blessings. 

Psychologists have researched the effectiveness of gratitude journals and the results are mixed. For some people, writing down what they’re thankful for does indeed make them happier. But psychologists also found that for many people (like myself), gratitude journals have no effect on their happiness.

In one experiment, researchers formed two randomly selected groups of people. They asked one group to write a narrative on a positive event about how they met their significant other (“I’m grateful I met my wife…”). They asked the other group to write a narrative imagining a counterfactual world where they never met their significant other (“What if I had never met my wife?”).

The result?

The folks who were writing about the ways they might not have ended up with their partner reported more happiness with their relationship than the folks who simply wrote about how they met their partner.2

Researchers have called this the George Bailey effect, in homage to the classic movie It’s a Wonderful Life. In the movie, Bailey is on the verge of committing suicide on Christmas Eve when a guardian angel arrives to rescue him. Rather than asking Bailey to count his blessings, the angel does the opposite. He takes Bailey on a tour of a counterfactual world—a world in which Bailey hadn’t been born. This tour shows Bailey all the people he has touched and makes him realize how precious his current life is.

This movie captures a powerful psychological dynamic: Subtraction of positive events counteracts our tendency to take them for granted. 

I tried to create the George Bailey effect in my own life. For example, instead of expressing gratitude for my wife, I thought about all the ways we could have never met.3

I thought about the ways that my life would be dramatically worse if I hadn’t met my wife—the companionship, the family, the joys, the laughter, and the adventures I would lack. I then compared that alternate universe to my current reality and how my life is infinitely better because we crossed paths.

This approach has worked for even those "flea" events in my life—those hard periods or difficult times. What if I hadn't gone through those? I would have missed out of some of the really profound character building moments of my life. I certainly wouldn't be the person I am today.

This exercise made me realize—in a far more powerful way than before—how fortunate I am for the people and events in my life.

Now I often take a little different perspective on gratitude. Instead of counting my blessings, I find that subtracting my blessings works great, too.

I cannot confirm nor deny that while singing Hymn #241 you might hear me change a word or two…

When upon life’s billows you are tempest-tossed,

When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,

Subtract your many blessings; subtract them one by one,

And it will surprise you what the Lord has done.

When I subtract my blessings, I instantly feel gratitude that sets me in a proper perspective for the many gifts I've been given; I instantly feel grateful for the rich blessings that abound in and around me.  

If you struggle with gratitude, try the George Bailey effect in your life. Instead of counting your blessings, try subtracting them. The results may surprise you. 


Citations:

1. For the researched benefits of gratitude see: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/is_gratitude_good_for_your_health

https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/giving-thanks-can-make-you-happier

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/what-mentally-strong-people-dont-do/201504/7-scientifically-proven-benefits-gratitude

2. For the "George Bailey Effect" see

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2746912/

http://people.virginia.edu/~tdw/koo,algoe,wilson%26gilbert.jpsp.2008.pdf

Other similar studies include:

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0956797610382123

https://www.psychologicalscience.org/news/were-only-human/poignancy-and-loyalty-the-midnight-ride-effect.html

See also, Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change by Dr. Timothy D. Wilson

3. Try this with a significant relationship or event in your life: Here's a how-to guide:

https://ggia.berkeley.edu/practice/mental_subtraction_relationships

https://ggia.berkeley.edu/practice/mental_subtraction_positive_events


Tim has been accused of being a spy (and other undercover personas) due to his simple name… "Tim Smith." While he can't confirm nor deny such accusations, he does admit to living a double life. You might catch Tim out in Utah's backcountry canyoneering, skiing, running, biking, nearly dying and attempting to keep up with his wife and five kids who do all that, too. The rest of the time, he's brain decoding, existential questioning, spiritual practicing, and business growth hacking. He's been spotted team leading at OnYourMarketing.com/tim or you can try to catch him online using the alias @timpreneur.

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