Take Care: Practicing gratitude through journaling  

Steve Wengel, MD, assistant vice chancellor for campus wellness

“Take Care” is a series of wellness-themed educational articles that run occasionally in UNMC Today. The articles are intended to remind us of the need to make self-care a priority.

When is the last time you wrote down things you are grateful for? Never, I bet, for many of us.

But have you heard about the positive effects for your brain to keeping a gratitude journal?

Robert Emmons, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of California-Davis, is considered the leading authority on gratitude. He has done considerable research on the positive health effects of keeping a gratitude journal. 

In his research, he’s discovered that those who make a regular practice of thinking about things they are grateful for are happier and more tolerant to stress. Gratitude journaling helps us focus on the current moment, which sounds a lot like mindfulness to me – another important piece of the wellness puzzle. It also helps counter negative emotions, such as envy and resentment. It can even lead to positive physical health benefits that include lower blood pressure and a more effective immune system.  

So how can you get started? I suggest you get a journal you can use just for this purpose. Once or twice a week, sit down with your journal and write three to five things that you are grateful for. I challenge myself not to repeat the same items when I do this; that way it makes my brain look for positive new things that have happened to me, which is the point after all. 

A tip: try to be as specific as you can. As an example, Dr. Emmons wrote in one of his books that instead of just expressing gratitude for his wife’s support, he wrote that his wife had made him about 2,400 lunches in their 17-year marriage. That’s specific.

I personally do my gratitude journalling once a week on the weekend. I look back over the week and identify at least three things that happened in that past week that I am grateful for. I’ll be honest – some weeks it’s harder than others, even though I do feel I am richly blessed in so many ways. But like all human beings, I can get caught up in the negatives of life. In fact, one neuroscientist put it this way: The human brain is like Velcro for negative events and Teflon for positive events. I can relate to that. 

But taking a few minutes to look for the positives helps. I highly recommend it.  


  1. Ken Zoucha says:

    Thank you for this simple, yet effective suggestion Dr. Wengel. For me, this attitude of gratitude also fosters a sense of humility; an understanding that I don’t have all the answers, that without other people I look to for help, life would not be as full as it is. It also reminds me that wellness involves many little things over time that add up. Again, thank you for your wisdom and effort to bring wellness to our campus.

  2. Marlene Novotny says:

    I love this idea! Thank you

  3. Bud Shaw says:

    The poet, Ross Gay published a best selling book titled The Book of Delights: Essays (published by Algonquin Books in Feb, 2019) in which he wrote daily for a year about something that gave him “delight”. He has spoken about how much he benefitted personally from reduced stress from both being far more self-aware and from the writing. He also admits that some days he just couldn’t find delight, yet he was always able to write about something of value to him.

  4. Celeste Akers says:

    Thanks for the inspiration about fostering “an attitude of gratitude”! I think that those of us who work in psychiatry and other areas of health care are asked to remedy so many concerns on a daily basis and see patients go through such difficult situations, that it can unknowingly shift our life outlooks towards a more ‘negative world view’. It’s great to keep in mind that consistently focusing on gratitude offers a way to combat that negative filter from developing and, in turn, reduce compassion fatigue or burnout.

Comments are closed.