Gratitude Journals Really Do Work—Especially For Athletes

by | May 6, 2023 | Mindset

We’ve written about the power of gratitude many times in the past. Pretty much every sports psychologist brings this concept up, and we know that the research bears it out. Writing a quick gratitude list every day really can change your brain (literally). Recently, I realized that my daily gratitude journal habit has done a ridiculous amount to change my brain—and I was almost annoyed at the results. I’ll explain…

I was having A Bad Day. I was having issues with my accountant and tax deadlines. I had work deadlines and a big project to prep for. I had a dentist appointment I’d been waiting a month for that was a 90 minute drive away. All of that was fine until I hit the dentist and got some sort-of-bad news. He couldn’t figure out what the problem was. In fact, there wasn’t really a problem, in his opinion. Six months of not being able to bite on one side, reduced to ‘nope, don’t see anything wrong.’ Fan-freaking-tastic. I admit, I may have shed a tear or two in the office, and I left feeling a serious sulk coming on. But by the time I got to the van and started driving to my next to-do list item (ahem, the accountant’s office), the voice in my head had already pointed out that a) at least I could afford to get to this dentist, both financially and time-wise; b) he theoretically had ruled out any scarier diagnosis; and c) at least I wasn’t in so much pain that I couldn’t eat at all. Boom—crisis and bad mood mostly averted. A few years ago, I would have been sobbing in the van, almost enjoying the cascade of negative emotions. Later that afternoon, another snag at the post office as I tried to do a simple task only to find there was a glitch in the computer—I stopped in mid-run, anticipating a quick win on my to-do list. But alas… Thinking, ‘Ahh, at least I have that good old-fashioned sulk and bad mood for the rest of my run,’ I headed back out into the chilly rain. Seriously, what could be more conducive to feeling sorry for one’s self than a run in the rain? But no. My brain piped up again: At least you didn’t wait in line long at the post office. You’re still out for your run in the afternoon, how lucky are you? At least it’s not sleeting. This wasn’t urgent, you can call and deal with it another day. And just like that, my bad mood was once again nipped in the bud.

Now, I admit that I wasn’t exactly a ball of cheer when I did get home and was chatting with Peter. But nor was I in a bad mood. I was more…. medium. I was aware that things weren’t going the smooth way I was hoping for, but at the same time, the world wasn’t ending either. And hey, I had a decent run!

So, why does gratitude work? Research has shown that gratitude consistently associates with many positive social, psychological, and health states, such as an increased likelihood of helping others, optimism, exercise, and reduced reports of physical symptoms.

It also makes you more patient, which is probably the major factor in why my bad mood was curtailed, since most of my bad day issues stemmed from ‘I want the answer NOW.’ “Showing that emotion can foster self-control and discovering a way to reduce impatience with a simple gratitude exercise opens up tremendous possibilities for reducing a wide range of societal ills from impulse buying and insufficient saving to obesity and smoking,” says Assistant Professor Ye Li from the University of California.

And it works for the whole family: Spouse getting annoyed with your training time? Or you’re trying to make him understand why you absolutely should vacation to Leadville in August and maaaaybe just slip out for a quick 100-mile ride while you’re there… A key ingredient to improving couples’ marriages might just be gratitude, according to new research. Researchers say they “found that feeling appreciated and believing that your spouse values you directly influences how you feel about your marriage, how committed you are to it, and your belief that it will last.”

So, there you have it. Gratitude works.

But what does this have to do with training? Other than the positive health implications that researchers have found, the reason I’m writing this is because I think that the ability to turn my mood around is also the reason I got out for that run in the first place. I’m pretty sure that me prior to being in the practice of writing down just a few things I’m grateful for every day would have gotten back from the dentist and —in keeping with my Very Bad Mood—stalked in, thrown myself into my office chair, and declared that I couldn’t possibly get my run in, that I had far too much to do. I would have then proceeded to do pretty shoddy work for a few hours, before grumpily going to bed and having a hard time sleeping. As it was, my coming out of the bad mood before it really got going meant that when I got home, I may not have been feeling amazing, I may have been feeling a little overwhelmed, but I knew that getting out for a run was going to recharge my batteries so I could do a bit more work before the day was over. Spoiler alert: It worked.

If you don’t currently have a gratitude journal of some type, give it a try: In the morning or before bed, just jot down 5 little things you’re grateful for. It won’t feel like anything is happening as you get started with this practice, but over time, it does shift something in your brain!


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