Cultivating Gratitude

In my coaching business, one of the tools I frequently assign as homework for clients trying to get “unstuck” and to shift their energy is a Gratitude Journal. It made sense to me that if I could get clients to notice more of what was going right instead of where they were getting stopped, little bits of happiness would start to seep into their lives. And I saw it work. One client, Rob, had been unemployed for a year and a half and was beyond discouraged. I suggested the Gratitude Journal. He wrote in it every day for three weeks. Some days he could think of one or two things. Other days were better. By the end of our coaching engagement, I could see a tiny shift, a glimmer of optimism. And he did finally land a job. So, what is a Gratitude Journal? In his latest book, Flourish, positive psychologist Martin Seligman lays out a model for happiness and well-being. In his model are five pillars forming the acronym PERMA:
  • Positive Emotion (happiness)
  • Engagement
  • Relationships
  • Meaning
  • Accomplishment
Seligman recommends two exercises to increase your well-being and happiness. The Gratitude Journal (or What-Went-Well exercise) Set aside 10 minutes each night before you go to bed and write down three things that went well and why. For my clients, I set the bar a bit higher and tell them to write down five things. The things listed don’t have to be huge, but they do need to be written down and not just thought about as you drift off to sleep. Seligman advocates thinking about the “why,” although for my clients I’m just trying to get them to start noticing the good in life so I will sometimes skip that part. The Gratitude Visit This second exercise was developed by one of his graduate students. You think of someone still alive who did or said something that changed your life for the better. You write a letter (about 300 words) expressing your gratitude and the impact the person had on your life. Once written, you call and arrange a visit. Then you read the entire letter to the person. Imagine the impact for both of you! According to Seligman’s research, the large increases in happiness continue for a month after the visit. Another researcher from that school down the road (the University of Michigan), Dr. Kim Cameron describes actual health benefits from focusing on gratitude. Dr. Cameron is a professor at the University of Michigan’s Business School and Higher Education department. He is a co-founder of The Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship and was a keynote speaker at the 2010 Next Great Companies conference. I was thrilled to hear scientific studies that backed up my intuition that cultivating gratitude had positive effects. Dr. Cameron told us that after just seven days of keeping a gratitude journal, you can get a physiological effect —more antibodies in your system. Another study reviewing years of journals of nuns showed an increase in life span for those nuns who focused on the good things that happened. In a 2003 study on gratitude journals, the researchers found all kinds of benefits: fewer colds and headaches, higher states of alertness and energy, better sleep quality and higher GPAs. And this is done without ignoring or denying the negative aspects of life. So, in this month of thankfulness, get yourself a pretty journal, place it by your bed and start counting your blessings every night. And then send me an email ( or and tell me what you’ve noticed. I would love to hear your success story from keeping a gratitude journal. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Tags: Business coach, gratitude


Susan Combs

Susan Combs, MBA and Professional Certified Coach, works with coaching clients to create fresh starts, enhance their leadership skills and increase their confidence. She is an authorized licensee of the Fit Leader's Program. Susan provides one-on-one coaching, DiSC team-building training and manages corporate mentor programs. She lives in Lansing with her son, Max, and their golden retriever puppy. Visit or for more information.

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