Gratitude journals, and the happiness of not having cancer.

One of the most common happiness recommendations is to keep a gratitude journal. Studies show that doing so raises people’s life satisfaction, improves health, increases energy, reduces troublesome thoughts, and promotes good sleep.

So, as part of this month of memento mori (“remember you must die”), I’ve started a gratitude journal (although, I must confess, it struck me as somewhat precious and artificial). Each night, I type up three things that I’m grateful for, or appreciate.

Looking back at two weeks of entries, I see that I never mention some of the most important factors for my happiness: a stable, democratic government; my health and the health of my family; the relative lack of dysfunction in my family; my secure financial situation; my love of my work and where I live; the proximity of good friends.

Reading my list from last night, for example, I see that I didn’t mention the clean bill of health (I assume) I received yesterday afternoon.

I went in for a routine medical test. My usual inclination is to postpone such things, but it was starting to nag at me that I was overdue—and there’s nothing like reading a stack of cancer memoirs to convince you to keep up with your check-ups.

So I went, and I have to go back in six months so they can double-check some results, but they don’t seem concerned at all. It gave me a chill to look at my report.

[ ] NORMAL/NEGATIVE: No evidence of cancer.
[X] PROBABLY BENIGN (not cancer): Recommend repeat test in 6 months.
[ ] ABNORMAL: there is a finding that requires further tests for a more thorough evaluation. You should contact your physician as soon as possible.

Did I feel happier as I left that office? Nope. I didn’t feel like going for the test, and I didn’t enjoy the process, but I didn’t dread it so much that I felt happy just to have it over. I felt about the same as usual.

But nevertheless, I’ve furthered my happiness by removing a source of unhappiness—the uneasiness of procrastination, of not doing something I know I ought to do.

And this is a great example of an important happiness principle: Manage down as well as up (is there a catchier phrase?). For happiness, it’s not enough to focus on being happier; I also need to remove sources of unhappiness. That, I did.

And there’s a way to extract happiness from this experience, as well.

In a famous story, Sherlock Holmes perceived a clue in the fact that a dog didn’t bark. My gratitude journal should remind me to feel happy about the problems that aren’t there. Yesterday was the day that I didn’t have cancer—a happy, happy, happy day.

I like checking out the blog 37 Days to get ideas for the happiness project. And its question of”What would you be doing today if you had only 37 days to live?” is particularly interesting me now, given my theme for August.

Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • Gretchen, a gratitude journal is a great idea. I started a journal of my own a few months ago, in the form of a private blog on my own computer. I’ve spent a lot of time writing in it the things that have bothered me, or things in my life that I feel I have botched, but far less time writing down what I have to be grateful for. So, while I have doubts that I can do it every day, I can certainly do more of it. Here’s the entry I’ll put in it tonight:
    * I am grateful that, although my father was diagnosed last year with early stage Alzheimer’s, he still recognizes every member of his family, can still care for himself, and can still carry on a perfectly cogent conversation on any topic that may arise.
    * I am grateful that I have two healthy, intelligent, talented sons with terrific futures in front of them.
    * I am grateful, not that my marriage to the boys’ mother ended, but that it ended without acrimony, and that we are still good friends who are devoted together to making certain both boys get the best start to their adult lives that we can give them.
    That felt good. Thanks, Gretchen.

  • Abe

    I’ve always found the question, what would you do if you only had X amount of days to live, relatively irrelevant. Chances are you’d spend it doing exactly what you’d spent the last X number of days doing. See, though it can be fun to imagine that we take the vacation to Costa Rica we always dreamed about, went on a cruise, spent every waking minute with our loved ones, spent a lot of time outdoors, and so on…when it comes right down to it, I think we’d all realize that our lives aren’t too shabby as they are. Most of us don’t have the money for that vacation, etc. I’ve never been able to come up with anything that I’d do differently if faced with such a choice.
    I’d suggest that those who feel like they’d do something different are those who aren’t adequately grateful for the life they currently lead. If you love the life you lead, you’d probably just look forward to the next X number of days living it.
    My life is nothing tremendous, or special, but I still like it. I wouldn’t assume to know that any more of X, Y, or Z would make it any better. Time is over-rated, as is duration of lifespan. Our lives come and go with shocking irregularities, challenges, surprises, pain, and joy. Yet all of us die having lived, period.

  • From my experience, a gratitude journal is a great thing – and it doesn’t really need to be a written journal. I tried a written journal for a couple of weeks, but it always felt artificial. Now, every day as part of my evening meditation I take some time to really become conscious of the things I am grateful for – and I intensify the emotion. Switching from writing down what I am grateful for to feeling gratefullness with my heart is a great thing. I learned a lot of that in Thailand, where many people have the habit of visiting temples and making merit. The first couple of times I went with them, I always asked them what to do and how to behave, and they answered you shall just pray with your heart, make gratitude for everything you experience a real heartfelt emotion. And this really made a big difference for me, from “a fake make-up gratitude” to a real, enriching experience.
    Greetings from Germany,
    Ramin Assemi
    Tamtookwan – Traditional Thai-Massage in Berlin

  • Dan Acland

    You mention studies that show gratitude increases self-reported life satisfaction. I’m trying to locate such studies for my graduate research. (And my personal interest, since I do a daily gratitude practice myself.) Do you have any citations or sources I could use?

  • In May of 2000, my mom was diagnosed with Brain Cancer.  On March 23, 2004 on her 59th birthday, she passed away.
    I was blessed to be a part of her care alongside my father.  Our best moments were ones filled with laughter and usually those moments were funny because they were linked to the absurdity of her new life – a life with cancer.  
    To honor my mom, I am trying to collect stories from cancer patients, survivors, and loved ones, that are humorous and uplifting.  My dream is to have the stories compiled into a book of short stories.  I believe my mom would have loved reading narratives that were filled with humor and silliness.  It would have been a pleasant reminder that our stories live on forever – so we, not cancer, have the last laugh.
    I am posting this to ask for support and help.  If there are any words of advice or guidance any one can provide, that would be greatly appreciated.  Thank you very much.