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Gratitude journals: How to start

You’ve likely heard “gratitude journals” mentioned a lot. If a sponsor or companion hasn’t explained them to you, you might be wondering, “What’s that? Could I try one?”

I’ll explain how I’ve used them and the approaches to getting started. They are easy to create and have few guidelines, so even if you’re a perfectionist, you don’t need to get bogged down in rules.s

The fewer rules you place on your gratitude journal at first, the better. You want writing to feel as comfortable as possible, without the feeling of an English teacher looking over your shoulder.

Here are some steps for starting and writing a gratitude journal.

Buy a journal book that suits you.

There are a variety of journals for sale. You could, of course, save money and use a college-ruled book. Sometimes, however, a more expensive booklet motivates you to sit down and write.

College-ruled notebook

You could try a moleskin book. Your bookstore and Amazon may also have leather-bound books with designs on the cover. You could pick a design that brings more meaning to you.

Leather-bound journal with design

Write out the journal by hand (not a computer)

I’ve found that writing out the journal by hand makes it more relatable. I use an ink pen that glides fast so I can write more quickly.

Typing on a computer doesn’t feel as personable to me. It also doesn’t feel as natural when I look back over old entries. My handwriting reflects an authenticity that computer font doesn’t capture.

Writing by hand also distracts me more from whatever is on my mind when I sit down. It takes more concentration to put the words together. I usually attend a gratitude journal when a problem wraps my attention, and I’m seeking to put it in perspective with the journal.

Use a comfortable format.

Choosing the way to write the journal is up to you. Some methods help organize your thoughts which have been around a while.

Using a known format takes some of the guesswork out of how your journal should work. Having guide rails also helps you be more creative with your thoughts. We’ll describe some of these formats below.


Also called acrostics, listicles are a format where you choose a word, write it vertically on a page, and then develop a point of gratitude for each letter.

For example, say I choose the word “house”:

H uman connections

O utdoor activities

U nderstanding myself and others better

S eeing the good side of life more often

E ntertaining myself without booze and drugs

The word you choose doesn’t matter. Sometimes, the more random the word, the better because it forces you to think creatively about each point/letter.

If you’re having a hard time coming up with a word to use, choose one at random from the dictionary or the AA Big Book.


Freestyle is more like writing a plain journal entry with sentences and paragraphs. You’re just writing what comes to mind with a focus on points of gratitude.

For instance,

Today Jane and I got some coffee and caught up on our lives. She mentioned how much healthier my skin and hair looked, which I overlooked before. When we finished, she said she wanted to do it again soon. We didn’t argue, and I enjoyed the time we spent together.

Like the entry above shows, the writing shows no pessimism, and it’s apparent that the writer tried to stay on point with what went well rather than mire in self-pity or anger.

That’s not to say you can’t write about your anger or self-pity elsewhere in a journal. When you apply your focus to what’s good versus what went wrong, the gratitude journal does its job by putting you in a better frame of mind.


Making an alphabetical list is easy as well, though it could take longer than just one sitting. It is a lot like the listicle, but instead of a word, you would use all the alphabet letters, A-Z.

I hear this format mentioned a lot in meetings. Since it is longer and takes more time, it’s helpful when you’re mired in a problem and need to focus on something else.

Since there are so many letters and rare letters, you also have to get creative with points of gratitude.

A review of your day/building in step 10

Building a gratitude list as part of step 10 is another method. As you review your day, you can pick out situations you were grateful for.

You perform at the end of the day when you have more material to work with. You bring to light the things that went well during the day or in your favor.

fill out Known categories: health, family & friends, career, recovery process, etc

Next, you can use some pillar categories to start with and fill out the points under each one. For instance, some main types are health, shelter, friends and family, career, and sobriety.

Let’s say we start with health. Here’s an example of how we could fill that out.


  • Have the energy to get through the day
  • Sleep better than I usually did
  • Enjoy food more than I did and savor it more
  • Get enjoyment from exercise and being outdoors

Comparing yourself now to how you were in the past

We can compare ourselves now with how we were in the past. We use our past selves as the measuring stick for how far we’ve come.

Even a few weeks of sobriety can have drastic positive changes in our personality, mood, and life outlook if we’re honest with ourselves. So it shouldn’t be challenging to find attributes that have improved over a short time, let alone a year or two.

For instance, we could write,

  • I have built more friendships. I listen more to new people rather than complain about my own life, so I’ve noticed people want to befriend me.
  • I have less stress at work. I don’t procrastinate as much as I did just a few months ago. The boss is riding me less as a result.
  • I feel content more. I don’t waste my days as much angry at other people, and I’m more productive. I never had a moment of contentment last year.

Comparing your lot to others who are less fortunate

Another way that lots of people swear by is to compare yourself to others who don’t have it as good as you. This comparison could be a category of people, such as those suffering from chronic illness, or a single person, such as someone facing hardship.

I’ve personally never felt good with this method. It feels sinister to build myself up using another’s misfortune.

However, I’ve met many who feel less attached to the comparison group and use this method. They seem to put the focus on themselves rather than dwelling on the unfortunate group as much. So they have less personal involvement, which is perhaps more protective against the feelings of shame that I’ve felt with this way.

Looking back over your life/last year/last month for the highlights

Much like comparing yourself to your past life, another method is to take a specific slice of time and looking over how you’ve overcome it. This way is helpful if you’ve struggled with issues over a long span, such as getting your finances in order or rebuilding essential relationships.

Usually, when we are in the middle of those types of long-term struggles, it feels like it’s the only thing we care about, and we may think that they are so complex that they’ll never get solved.

Using them as our journal’s guideline within a slice of time, such as the past six months, we can pick out accomplishments we’ve made. For instance, if our finances were in bad shape at the start of the last six months, we can see improvements we’ve made since that time, such as building up savings or paying off some debt.

Even small efforts towards a big problem can make us feel accomplished, even if the problem isn’t entirely behind us.

When we sit down to put it in a gratitude journal, it also helps us take stock of our lives more than letting it ruminate in our minds. Taking the time out can show us where we are making progress. Usually, we’re so consumed up in getting the problem solved that we miss the substantial improvement.

Return to old entries to see what was built on and improved

When you’ve already been at the journal for a while, you’ll have some old entries to look back on. We can also use old 4th step or 10th step inventories if we’ve kept them.

The old entries can serve as jumping-off points for our new journal entry. Did any of our old bullet points improve? Can we build on them even more? Did they lead to any new topics of gratitude in the meantime?

For instance, if our old entry shows we were grateful to enjoy exercise again, did we improve our fitness over time? Are we getting more benefits from the additional exercise, such as running a 5k?

Make up your own!

As you master the practice of writing a gratitude journal, you should have a better understanding of their primary purpose and what they do for you in terms of your perspective, feelings, and goals.

At this stage, you should feel free to experiment and develop guidelines that work for you. The guides above aren’t meant to make you bored or become so routine that the journal loses practical meaning for you. They are suggestions only, not dogma.


With a few cheap materials, such as a notebook and a pen, we can quickly begin a gratitude journal. Gratitude journals are an easy way to lift our mood and remove us from any festering anxiety that currently bothers us.

We also have several formats available that we can follow as guidelines.

If you’ve not tried one, give it a shot! You may feel self-conscious at first, but keep in mind that the journal is yours alone, and nobody else has to see it.

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