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How a Gratitude Journal and Positive Affirmations Can Change Your Life

How a Gratitude Journal and Positive Affirmations Can Change Your Life

Imagine going through the day to day life filled with all the usual responsibilities and challenges, you’d probably have plenty of resentment accumulated in your mind.

What if I tell you there’s one simple way to make you happier every day? Not possible you say?

It turns out there is indeed one simple practice that can make you happier even when your circumstances are still the same.

This practice I’m talking about is starting a gratitude journal.

This might sound silly to you but it’s really not.

Keep reading to see all the compelling evidence that shows how practicing gratitude can really change your life for the better.

Why gratitude matters to you

“Whenever there’s a grateful moment, I note it. I know for sure that appreciating whatever shows up for you in life changes your personal vibration. You radiate and generate more goodness for yourself when you’re aware of all you have and not focusing on your have-nots.” — Oprah

A gallup world poll has shown that 85% percent of people reported being disengaged at their jobs.[1] Many of them hate their jobs and especially their bosses.

To add to this, 1 in 6 Americans are on some form of psychiatric medication.[2] Antidepressants are the most common type followed by anti-anxiety medications.

There’s no denying it that people are unhappy.

You may be wondering how you can feel grateful especially when your situation might be legitimately bad. It may not be easy, but don’t lose hope because it’s definitely possible.

Here’s the good news:

Gratitude is a skill anyone can develop.

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All it takes is a bit of daily practice.

It’s the one thing that will help you become happier even if crappy circumstances you may be in haven’t changed yet.

Monk and interfaith scholar, David Steindl-Rast, says the following about gratitude in his TED Talk:

“Is it really the happy people that are grateful? We all know quite a number of people who have everything that it would take to be happy, and they are not happy, because they want something else or they want more of the same. And we all know people who have lots of misfortune, misfortune that we ourselves would not want to have, and they are deeply happy. They radiate happiness. You are surprised. Why? Because they are grateful. If you think it’s happiness that makes you grateful, think again. It’s gratefulness that makes you happy.”

How gratitude makes you happier

Neuroscience has shown the act of being thankful releases dopamine and serotonin in your brain.[3]

Dopamine is what makes you feel good and causes you to want more, so simply starting that practice of gratitude will help you develop a habit of doing so.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that activates the happiness center of your brain, which is similar to how antidepressants work. So you can basically consider gratitude as a natural antidepressant and some argue that it’s even better than the drugs.

Your brain cannot focus on positive and negative things at the same time. This is a key reason why practicing gratitude can help you shift your focus from being sad about the things you don’t have in your life to being glad for the things you do have.

Starting a gratitude journal

You can use anything to start logging things you are grateful for.

Whether it’s on a regular journal, a notebook, or just some scrap paper, anything can be used to simply take note of the things you are thankful for. The key is to just do it both intentionally and consistently.

Simple starting tips

  1. Keep your gratitude journal in a spot that you will see regularly each day. Your nightstand is a good spot where you will see it first thing when you wake up and last thing when you go down for bed. Personally, I like to keep mine in the bathroom counter so that I do it first thing when I’m getting ready to start my day.
  2. You don’t have to come up with the “right” answers. Start by keeping things simple and write anything that comes to mind. You can be thankful for things like a meal you just ate, a movie you just watched or a friend you spent time with.
  3. Develop consistency. Try to make it a habit to take some time regularly to slow down and just engage in reflecting about the things you are thankful for. Spending as little as five minutes a day has been shown to be effective. If you miss a day, it’s totally fine.

It’s important to write everything out because journaling has been shown to activate the right hemisphere of your brain, which is the part of the brain that processes emotions and feelings.

As you begin to keep track of things you are grateful for, you will begin to feel happier because of the fact that the right hemisphere of your brain is connecting with those feel good emotions associated with gratefulness.

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One of the world’s leading experts on the science of gratitude, Robert Emmons pointed to research showing that expressing your thoughts by writing them down has more advantages than if you just think the thoughts. It makes you more aware of them and can deepen the emotional impact it has on you.

Basic techniques

Jason Marsh of the Greater Good Magazine at UC Berkeley interviewed Emmons to ask for tips on how to get the most out of your gratitude journal[4] and here are some of the tips below.

  1. Don’t just go through the motions. It’s important to be intentional on why you are doing this exercise. Instead of doing this because someone is telling you to, think about what you are hoping to gain out of this exercise. Take the time to acknowledge you are doing this because cultivating more happiness in your life is important to you. “Motivation to become happier plays a role in the efficacy of journaling,” says Emmons.
  2. Go for depth over breadth. After you’ve developed a gratitude journaling habit, it will serve you well to become more specific with the things you are thankful for. Being able to express one thing you are deeply thankful for is so much more meaningful than being thankful for a bunch of general superficial things.
  3. Get personal. Taking time to focus on people you are grateful has more of an impact than focusing on things that you are grateful for.
  4. Try subtraction, not just addition. If you are having trouble coming up with things you are thankful for, one simple trick to spur up some gratitude is to start thinking about how your life would be if you didn’t have some of the things that you have now.
  5. Savor surprises. Keep track of pleasant or unexpected surprises as these are great things to reflect on when you have a chance. You may find reflecting on these moments can bring up stronger feelings of gratitude.

Emmons goes on to say that he recommends for people to view each item in their gratitude journals as a gift and that the whole process shouldn’t be an errand to do just to get it over with. Instead it should be something something you actively engage in to connect with the things you are genuinely thankful for.

“In other words, we tell them not to hurry through this exercise as if it were just another item on your to-do list. This way, gratitude journaling is really different from merely listing a bunch of pleasant things in one’s life.”

More advanced techniques

While having a gratitude journal proves to be helpful, it becomes most impactful when you don’t just keep it to yourself.

Unlike having a personal journal where it’s meant to be locked up in a secret space, a gratitude journal has the power not to just positively change you, but also the people around you.

Here are some advanced techniques you can use in your gratitude journaling in order to maximize it’s effectiveness:

1. Use your gratitude journal to provide topics for conversations

It’s easy to get into conversations that involve gossiping, negativity and pessimism because it’s actually our brain’s way of trying to make ourselves feel better. Unfortunately, these kinds of conversations tend to be unproductive and deflating.

Steering your conversations about things you are grateful for can uplift your own spirits as well as the people you are talking to.

What to do?

The next time you talk to someone, inject things you are grateful for into the conversation. Some ideas include pointing out how nice the weather is, how delicious your meal is, or how much you enjoyed spending time with your friend.

2. Tell those you love why you are grateful for them

You might be thankful for something your friends or your partner does for you, but gratitude will feel much more powerful when you are thankful for their character.

For example, you may be thankful that your partner takes out the trash, but you’re even more thankful because s/he only does it because s/he’s thoughtful enough to know that you hate doing it.

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It turns out being grateful for people in your life starts a generosity cycle. It makes you willing to do more for them and this likely leads to them responding with gratitude by doing more for you.

What to do?

Write specific things about someone’s character that you are grateful for and keep your journal handy. When you spend time with that person, take a moment to share what you wrote about him or her.

3. Use your gratitude journal to write thank you notes

The Journal of Happiness published a study where 219 men and women participants involved wrote three letters of gratitude over a three week period.[5] Results showed that writing letters of gratitude increased their happiness and life satisfaction with a decrease depressive symptoms.

Taking the time to write thank you notes is an extremely simple and easy way to both write out what you’re grateful for and give positive affirmations to someone else in the process.

I bought a bulk box of plain thank you cards and I keep it in the house to handwrite thank you notes whenever I have a chance and mail them out. It’s always led to positive experiences.

What to do?

Purchase a set of thank you cards or create your own. Once a week, look through your gratitude journal to find something you wrote about someone you’re grateful for and use what you logged to write out a thank you card and mail it out to him or her.

4. Let gratitude help shift negative circumstances into positive ones

I met a woman named Penny in Thailand who ran an orphanage with children who were affected by the AIDS virus. She singlehandedly showed me the power of practicing gratefulness through her own life and it changed my life.

She was caring for all these sick children that were not her own, but there was also one huge obstacle:

She had cancer.

But she didn’t let that stop her.

Rather than viewing the illness as something that is ruining her life, she shared this with me.

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“It’s kind of like a death sentence when the doctor says to you ‘you’re HIV positive’ or ‘you have cancer’ and it gives me an ability to identify with these children that are HIV positive, so I’m grateful for cancer because of it, if nothing else.”

She is a living example of proof that we can find something to be thankful even in the most difficult situations. I keep this in mind especially when I am going through some of my own tough challenges.

What to do?

Think of a time in your life that was a really tough or sad experience. Take a moment to reflect in your journal to see if you can find something you are grateful for as a result of this experience.

Did the negative experience help you grow in any way? Or perhaps it helped you gain the ability to understand or comfort someone else who is going through the same experience?

Gratitude is the attitude

It is said that people feel happier during the Thanksgiving holidays because of all the serotonin producing tryptophan that exists in turkey, but that’s actually a myth. Turkey doesn’t contain significant amount of tryptophan for it to have such huge effect on your mood.

So why is it that people feel so much happier during this time?

The answer lies in the name of the holiday itself — Thanksgiving.

It’s because of something none other than gratefulness.

So before you go on and convince yourself that you don’t have much to be thankful for, try starting a gratitude journal.

You may find that yourself developing a skill that can be learned to actually make yourself more happier and fulfilled.

You will no longer find yourself limited and defined by your current situation, but instead you will be able to find joy regardless of your circumstances.

So why not give it a try today?

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Gallup: The World’s Broken Workplace
[2] Scientific American: 1 in 6 Americans Takes a Psychiatric Drug
[3] Wharton Health Care: The Neuroscience of Gratitude
[4] Greater Good Magazine: Tips for Keeping a Gratitude Journal
[5] Journal of Happiness: Letters of gratitude: Further evidence for author benefits.

More by this author

Eugene K. Choi

A life coach who helps people discover how to best utilize their passions and talents through a proven process.

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Last Updated on November 11, 2019

Can a Dysfunctional Family Become Functional?

Can a Dysfunctional Family Become Functional?

A dysfunctional family is more than disagreement or constant arguments. Anything from plain neglect, to abuse and even verbal and physical violence is the everyday experience of those who are part of a dysfunctional family.

You know how this looks:

  • Parents constantly comparing children.
  • Siblings in conflict because of tolerated bullying.
  • Domestic violence.
  • Adultery…
  • And many others.

For all the members, this will mean emotional pain and even trauma; which, in case it doesn’t get resolved, will have a detrimental effect on the individual’s personality and development.

Needless to say, the younger members are the most vulnerable, but that doesn’t mean the parents are out of danger, as most commonly the parents play the roles of abuser-codependent, and in some cases, both parts inflicting pain on one another.

Most like to think these problems stem from deep-seated issues, and that therefore it’s pretty much impossible to deal with them.

This is only true for families not willing to do what it takes, for if only a single member is determined and knows how to do it, the whole family can do a lot of progress.

In this article, I’ll break down for you the basic steps of fixing a dysfunctional family. Although it may seem hopeless, it is possible to turn things around.

If you have ever felt in this position, or if you know somebody who is, this article is for you.

How to fix a dysfunctional family

In a few words the solution for a dysfunctional family lies in dropping the ego, focusing on the solution, switching blame for responsibility and doing the work as a unity, for the good of the whole family.

And this will accomplish things you once only saw as a dream.

Dropping the ego? Switching blame for responsibility? Doing the work? What does all this mean?

It’s simple. In a nutshell, it’s that which will allow you to turn a dysfunctional family into a functional one.

Let’s take a look at how exactly this can be done. And near the end we will also talk about what you can do in a dysfunctional family with cynical traits.

Dysfunctional families where not only problems are well-known, but also nobody seems to want a fix or openly decide to perpetuate the harmful behaviors. Such as the case of abuse and physical violence.

There is also a solution for these, it’s just not what you are expecting…

Dysfunctional… Or just average?

Most families are dysfunctional, though at varying degrees of dysfunctionality.

The milder cases, are just marked by “typical” comically-shrouded bullying or lack of interest in other members’ development or wellbeing.

You can know a family is dysfunctional if their interactions are anything different than cooperation, solidarity, care and support. But let’s get more specific…

A dysfunctional family is one in which members directly or indirectly suffer emotional and/or physical harm inflicted by other members of their family. Most commonly, perpetrated by the parents.

Even harmful actions as “passive” as neglect, which is inflicted by inaction rather than action, signifies a dysfunction within the family.

Dysfunctional families have conflicts such as:

  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Lack of interest and time spent together
  • Sexism
  • Utilitarianism
  • Lack of empathy
  • Unequal or unfair treatment
  • Disrespect towards boundaries
  • Control Issues
  • Jealousy
  • Verbal and physical abuse
  • Violence and even sexual misconduct or abuse

You may think a dysfunctional family has very little or nothing to do with personal productivity, but you would be wrong in thinking this way…

If a person is not emotionally well, she will not be able to perform as desired, as the emotional harm that has been inflicted will hinder everyday performance in the way of inability to concentrate, lack of mental clarity and low levels of inspiration, motivation and discipline.

Having a functional family does exactly the opposite: It creates productive members with no emotional baggage.

How to turn it around

When you’re part of a dysfunctional family you know it. You can quickly identify in other members the behaviors and conflicts that create the dysfunction.

But just in case you’re having trouble telling functional from dysfunctional I will tell you the following:

One of the easiest ways you can recognize if you are in a dysfunctional family is to survey your won feelings.

We often overlook this, but have you stopped to ask yourself how you feel?

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As cheesy as it may sound it really sheds a lot of light on the subject.

What behaviors, actions and attitudes in your family you wish were better?

Do you think certain behaviors and actions from your family marked you in the past?

Sadly, we cannot go back to the past to correct it. But we can do a lot in the present…

Correction is possible

In order to fix a dysfunctional family, you must start by putting an end to the behaviors and actions that are affecting you.

Verbalize it.

All members of the dysfunctional family have one issue in common: They don’t put a stop to the harm.

Whenever you feel your boundaries being overstepped there is just one single word you have to remember: STOP.

This is the door to a better, more functional family, because after this, comes the fix.

But first you have to identify and make others know where exactly lies the problem.

So go ahead and fearlessly start with “Stop”, followed by your expression of dissatisfaction.

Putting it to work in real life

In real life it would be something like this:

“OK, stop! Every time you belittle me I feel you don’t care. I need attention and respect, and it is your responsibility as my family to provide them to me”

Or:

“Stop. When you compare me with my cousin it hurts, I feel like I don’t matter and that’s not ok. I ask you to stop doing it.

Or:

“Please stop. When you start yelling all respect is lost and it turns into a battle of who can do it louder. Don’t raise your voice and let’s work this out the way humans do”.

As you can see, here you start by putting a stop to the toxic behavior when it arises. And afterwards you verbalize why it’s wrong and what needs of you need to be fulfilled.

This is what you have to remember:

1-Stop.

2-Why it’s wrong?

3-What you need.

And this will also work well in case you need to do it for another family member.

It’s a family thing

A dysfunctional family cannot be fixed by one member alone.

Yes, a single member can initiate progress and be the leader of the change. But in order to completely become functional all members must contribute to the solution.

In other words, you will need cooperation…

So don’t be afraid of asking for it!

Approach your family member and ask to be listened.

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We sometimes feel our needs are “not that important” or we simply believe they won’t listen. But thinking like this would be like being defeated at an unfought battle.

You will be amazed by how much people listen when you voice your needs, especially if it implies showing yourself open, vulnerable and in need.

It’s not a free-for-all battle

In order to get your family to cooperate, first you must fix your individual relationships with every member of the family. Remember: Relationships are always between two people, and two people only.

No matter how complex, the quality of a multi-member relationship (like a family) will always depend on the quality of the individual relationships.

Once you have straightened the relationship with every member of the dysfunctional family you will be able to better communicate with other members and help in the betterment of their individual relationship.

And this is where we will talk about the fix itself. The one I mentioned in the introduction…

The method

1. Drop the ego

Wherever there is conflict there is ego.

You cannot fix a relationship where there is ego, because the ego will want to win. Always. Yours and the other person.

Ego craves control and satisfaction, and in many cases, to establish dominance.

What does this have to do with a dysfunctional family? Everything. Ego will interfere with every plan you have to fix it.

It will make people suborn and defensive. And it will also make them drop responsibility. This is why, the first step is to drop the ego.

After you make sure you are not going to allow your ego to interfere you must work to make the other person do the same. How? By speaking from the heart…

Tell the other person how important all this is to you.

Tell the other person that it’s not a matter of arguing, but just working things out together.

Point out how it is not possible for you to do it alone.

And ask for sincere attention without any desire of opposition, because what you are doing is by no means in the hopes of harming the other person, but just to better the relationship and stop the damage being dealt to you.

You will have to point out the mistakes you need corrected, that’s for sure. And that leads me to the next point…

2. Not blame, but responsibility

When talking about others’ mistakes we often use an accusatory tone. And that’s natural, it’s what things should be like if ego was not present.

But since we are all creatures of ego, this immediately brings the shields up. And then unsheathes the swords…

When we blame others they automatically enter a defensive state, and this only leads to a failed negotiation.

What you need to do is to shift from blame to responsibility. And even that will have to be done carefully!

Instead of telling them off or demanding change or complaining, calmly point what the problem with their behavior is.

As much as this feels contradictory, also make them feel understood. You know how difficult it is to accept a mistake, so just make them feel it’s no big fuzz… which does not mean it’s ok, but it takes tension off.

You will do something like this:

“Hello dad. Can I talk with you for a minute? I really need to tell you something.

I have been feeling pretty sad lately and I know this is something you do care about.

You see, whenever I talk about my accomplishments you mention something else that makes my achievement pale in comparison.

I know you don’t do this intentionally and I know you might have not realized this until now, but I want to let you know this really brings me down.

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It would mean a lot to me if you could stop doing it, and it would help better our relationship, because this has already forced me to distance myself from you. And I don’t want that, I want a good, healthy relationship with you”

What happened here?

We started off with making it something important, something that needs both time and attention. Then we openly show ourselves vulnerable, just as we are.

We also mention why he should listen, and shove our feelings there again, because they are important.

We describe the issue with no attachment and with no hostile intention. It’s just a description.

And then we take the blame off. Just before we assign responsibility without actually saying it.

You are not blaming him directly, but you are pointing out the inevitable fact that his actions are causing a dysfunctionality. He is now responsible for changing.

This is what “switching blame for responsibility” means. What comes next? Doing the work!

3. Doing the work

What would any of this mean if, in the end, nothing changes? Exactly, nothing!

This is why you must follow up with every change that needs to be done.

Do so in a manner that is not hostile. Bring it up in a casual manner, and emphasizing how you both reached an agreement and how that is important to the family.

If the person doesn’t follow up don’t hesitate to bring it up again, and tell them you feel disappointed that your honest try at it was not listened.

It may even be a subject in itself, and therefore the need for another conversation.

“When you go back to old habits it shows that you didn’t really care about what I said. But back in real life you just reinforce how much contempt you show towards me and my feelings.

I talk with you because I care. Because although it would be easier for me to just distance myself from you I rather do my part in nurturing this relationship.

But there is just so much I can do, if you refuse to do your part I can do nothing else.”

You need very clear and positive communication in order to make this work.

Love is all you need

You must remember that in order for a dysfunctional family to become functional, all the work needs to stem from love.

That is the single one requirement for all this to work: Love.

And what happens if it simply is not there?

What happens if, nobody is willing to do what it takes?

What happens if a member of the family refuses to change and is happy with the harm he or she is dealing?

There is only one thing you can do:

To break away.

Let’s be honest, people, especially adults, are very difficult to change.

There is a Jewish proverb that I love, which sums it up like this:

“We spend the rest of our lives trying to unlearn what we learned before we were 7”

If you find it very hard to change the very traits that make your family dysfunctional or if it’s simply impossible, you still have a card up your sleeve…

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Although nobody likes to beak away from family members, we must remember we have a responsibility with ourselves as individuals, before any relationship with anyone.

You have the responsibility of making yourself happy and free. Because you matter as an individual, regardless of any relationships you have, be it family, friendship or romantic.

Putting distance

So in case you are dealing with a family member who is simply unwilling to change take both physical and emotional distance.

What do I mean?

Learn, first, to take their damage in a detached manner.

Don’t let it hurt you further. Instead take a deep breath and distance yourself emotionally.

Don’t be attached to feelings such as “Why doesn’t she love me?” or “What did I do to deserve this?” or “If he wasn’t like that my life would be perfect”.

Simply refuse to keep participating in the emotional downward spiral and accept, even if it’s painful” that there is nothing you can do. Accept that even without that relationship you are whole, you are worthy of love and respect.

They are their responsibility and you are yours. So decide what is best for you.

Realize it only comes down to two possibilities:

I keep the relationship and therefore accept the abuse. Or…

I choose my peace of mind.

And don’t let your mind fool you. We often think that since we all are imperfect, we must take the good and the bad behaviors of people. And we are especially forgiving towards our family…

Well, guess what? We are also responsible adults who are aware and must own to their acts. Never excuse abuse or violence or transgression towards you or anybody else.

Choose your happiness and if possible, also distance yourself physically, as it will increase your peace of mind tenfold.

How to prevent it

There are two key concepts you must bear in mind in order to prevent the dysfunctionality of a family:

  • To be completely aware of one’s own mistakes and not allow them to impact others and…
  • To make sure our SO’s are also on the same channel before creating a family (i.e. having children)

Dysfunctional families are the product of irresponsible paternity, for the decades-long unresolved emotional conflict ends up surfacing in the family inevitably, and it will for sure harm those who least deserve it: Innocent children.

You may notice we went from talking about family, to talking about individual relationships, to talking about you. We went from “them” to “us” to “me”.

Why? Because in the end you have the power to fix a dysfunctional family. To correct the mistakes you have in yours and to prevent dysfunctionalities if you don’t have a family but plan to create one.

Priorities and clear thought

You may be part of a dysfunctional family, but that does not mean you are powerless or that you have to suffer the consequences.

You learned today how it’s all a matter of priorities and thinking clearly.

You learned that, if love exists, everything is possible. You learned that even when there is no love and no fix for your dysfunctional family, there are still things you can do. It’s a matter of choosing your peace, because you deserve it.

Everything will be better if you apply this knowledge. If you talk to that problematic family member. If you help them see the harm they are doing. If you make sure they do change and treat you the way you need to be treated…

If you choose yourself over that toxic family member. If you refuse to justify the harm that others can do to yourself. If you realize the most important relationship you have is with yourself.

And lastly, that you also have to be aware of your actions and be open to criticism. Because we might be unknowingly harming others. And that would be us creating a dysfunctionality. Don’t allow it to happen.

Dysfunctional families are not impossible to fix. It just takes love, cooperation and responsibility.

But if you tried and those elements are not present, just choose yourself instead.

Featured photo credit: Xavier Mouton Photographie via unsplash.com

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