Once a year North Americans sit down and consciously make an effort to be grateful. Usually my grateful thoughts end when I get distracted by the pile of gravy-smothered turkey and mashed potatoes in front of me.
Thanksgiving is a holiday specifically for being thankful, but I know I can practice gratitude more than once a year. And there are good reasons why I should. Psychologists have been studying the effects of gratitude on the human psyche for over a decade, and have found that when practiced regularly1, gratitude helps people feel happier, healthier, and better about life in general2.
Combining Gratitude Journaling with Travel
If practicing gratitude could increase my appreciation of life in general, would combining gratitude with travel focus my appreciation? To find out, I decided to keep a “gratitude journal” while traveling.
I figured practicing gratitude could make me feel (even) better about travel and – more importantly – it might even help me find ways to make my travel more meaningful.
Even if keeping a gratitude journal didn’t help me find ways to make travel more meaningful, I would still get the benefits of practicing gratitude.
Benefits of Gratitude
Being grateful is a “chosen attitude”, it doesn’t just happen. Studies have shown that people who make an effort to be grateful experience powerful benefits. As a traveler practicing gratitude, I’ve experienced some of these benefits myself.
- Gratitude muscles out negative emotions. Gratitude helps you recognize good things and blocks out disappointment.
At Machu Picchu I was disappointed when I didn’t get to the trailhead in time to climb the Temple of the Moon (they only let in a certain number of people). Instead, I climbed Montana Machu Picchu, which had a view of the Temple of the Moon from above. Being grateful for the unique view of the Temple soothed the sting of my disappointment.
- Focus on gratitude and you’re less likely to focus on complaining. It’s easy to get into a downward spiral of complaining.
I’ve been caught in the “who’s gone on the worst tour” conversation, and although it was shocking to hear the stories about unqualified guides and “private” tours of 50 people, I didn’t really enjoy it. I was much happier after I changed the subject by asking what everyone appreciated the most on their tour.
- Feeling grateful for what you have prevents jealousy. When you’re grateful for what you have, you’re less likely to compare yourself to everyone else.
Travelers love to talk about how many countries they’ve visited (my husband calls it “comparing travel dicks”). The longer the list, the more cred they have. It’s hard for me not to be jealous of people who have been to more countries than me, but by being grateful for what I have instead of focusing on what I don’t, jealousy doesn’t cross my mind.
Why Gratitude Journaling?
One of the most popular (and easiest) ways to practice being grateful is to keep a gratitude journal – heck it’s even recommended by Oprah 3so you know it’s good.
Traveling makes memories, and it’s easy for me to lose track if I don’t write them all down. Physically writing in a gratitude journal keeps my grateful memories from getting eclipsed by exciting ones.
Keeping a gratitude journal also triggers gratitude. For example, if I journaled about how grateful I was to drink fresh coconuts, I’d have that appreciation in mind the next time I bought a coconut from a street vendor.
How I did Gratitude Journaling while Housesitting
I hadn’t had a diary since I was in grade 6, and the only daily records I had filled out lately were project status reports. I’m not a touchy-feely person, and I was a bit uncomfortable writing down my feelings. Basically, keeping a gratitude journal was going to be a challenge.
I decided to keep a gratitude journal while visiting Mexico. I was housesitting there for over two months, which would give me plenty of time to journal my gratitude (when my flight left Canada in a dusting of snow, I was already grateful to be headed for the beach).
Some advice I read on the interweb recommended filling in my gratitude journal daily, before going to sleep. But other advice suggested that journaling once a week was more effective than daily4.
Well, I did both: I decided to write every day before bed for two weeks, then drop the frequency to writing in the journal once a week for a month. After a total of six weeks I would have enough gratitude entries to pinpoint what I appreciated about housesitting in Mexico (or so I hoped).
What I Used for a Journal
I travel light (carry-on only) and I didn’t want to put anything in my bag that I didn’t need. That’s why my journal wasn’t old school pen and paper. Oh no, I had my laptop with me and I decided that Excel was the best place to keep my journal.
Yes, I know it’s not a word processing program like (duh) Word, but it’s my go-to for scheduling and organizing. So no photos of a pretty journal covered with flowers and birds (although I was tempted to get a really nice journal on Etsy).
So…how did it go?
I started my gratitude journal not expecting any major life changes. I already had a daily habit of thinking back on the best thing that happened (read about it in my post My Favourite Thing that Happened Today), and I figured that keeping a gratitude journal while traveling was kind of the same thing.
Challenges of Gratitude Journaling while Traveling
Whether traveling or not, keeping a gratitude journal would have been a challenge for me. I don’t mean to whine, but travel made it especially challenging at times.
Staying objective. I tried to be honest about my feelings, and not let whatever happened right before I wrote in my journal influence my entry. Traveling doesn’t always bring out the best in me, and if I was cranky before bed it was difficult to come up with something I was grateful for (shocking, I know).
Remembering the entire day. You wouldn’t think that when you’re 35 you’d have trouble remembering what you did all day. Sometimes I just didn’t remember what had happened. Early dementia? Or just another day walking along the beach, swinging in a hammock, and cleaning the pool (ho-hum)? My husband suggests dementia.
Remembering to write in the journal. I don’t know about you, but my travel usually includes busy days and nights. That made it easy to forget to write my journal entries, and harder still to take time to think about them. Writing in the daily journal was easy to turn into a habit, the weekly journal was harder. Whether daily or weekly, my head was sometimes on my pillow before gratitude crossed my mind.
(Confession: I wrote in the weekly journal almost every week. I forgot sometimes, because I didn’t set myself a reminder. Sometimes it was off by a day or two.)
Things I Learned by Writing in my Journal
Keeping a gratitude journal while traveling taught me about my gratitude attitude (is that a thing?), and about journaling in general.
The amount of gratitude I felt varied day by day. Some entries in my gratitude journal were paragraphs, some only a few words. When I first arrived in Mexico everything was new and exciting, and my entries were detailed. As the novelty wore off it was harder to feel grateful, and the entries got shorter. Exciting day: long entry. Relaxing day: short entry.
I didn’t need to think of something different for every day. I started out trying to think of a different entry for every day, but then I realized that’s not the point. A gratitude journal is not the same as a travel journal (even if I do write in it while on vacation). Nobody’s going to read my gratitude journal for its interesting plot, so it was OK to be grateful for the same things two days in a row. Honesty was the most important.
Daily journaling is different than weekly journaling. The daily journal filled up with entries faster, but the quality of the entries wasn’t necessarily the highest (see the previous point). The quality of the weekly journal was better, because I took time to think about the week and what I was grateful for. But with the challenge of remembering an entire week, I probably missed things in the weekly journal.
I could be pretty shallow about what I was grateful for. Not every entry was about how I was grateful for my family back in Canada, for living on the beach in Mexico, for seeing beautiful sunrises over palm trees, and stuff like that. In one of my entries I was grateful for “not jumping into a swarm of wasps” (in other words I was grateful to not be a total dumbass).
How Gratitude Journaling Helped Me Appreciate Travel More
Writing in a gratitude journal while visiting Mexico created a record of my gratitude, focused on travel. Being able to look back through my journal gave me a chance to see the experiences that made my life better.
According to six weeks of keeping a gratitude journal, these are the things I was most frequently grateful for:
- The weather: warm and sunny
- My health: not getting sick, being able to exercise
- Food: not having dietary restrictions, the abundance and quality of food
- Nature: the ocean, rainbows, the sun (nature does make travel better, read about it on Vacation with Nature in Mind – Your Body will Thank You)
These are the four things I should focus on when I travel. I know they’re going to have a personal impact on me because they filled me with gratitude. And the more travel has a personal impact on me, the more meaningful it will feel.
What did I get from all this?
Keeping a gratitude journal had its challenges, but it helped me figure out which moments in travel were meaningful for me.
Being mindful – appreciating the moment – was easier when I kept a gratitude journal because it focused my thoughts. I was in the habit of journaling about gratitude, so it stayed at the top of my mind.
Now that I know how to find gratitude, I can plan for it in my future. The better I can recognize the types of things that made me feel gratitude, the more I can seek them out.
Now it’s Your Turn
Don’t wait until Thanksgiving to practice gratitude. Next time you go on vacation, try keeping a gratitude journal. Take a small notebook with you, or use your phone to record one thing every day that you’re grateful for.
When you get home, read through and see what kinds of things made an impression on you.
The things that make you feel grateful are the things that will make travel meaningful to you.
Read Doing a Gratitude Challenge on Vacation for more ideas on how to make gratitude a part of your travel.