Gratitude Journaling: The Suitable Solution for Stressed Scholars

Just for Fun,How-To

College is a stressful time! Young adults are thrown into a new environment, often many miles from their home and are required to become functionally independent. With the pressures of academic success, the milieu of social challenges, and the financial burden of college life, college is often the time when people first experience mental health distress.

Depression is a major issue among U.S. college students. A survey by the World Health Organization in 2018 found that major depression had a lifetime prevalence of 28.7 % among first-year American college students (Auerbach 2018).

There are numerous potential options for mental health treatment, including counseling, therapy, and psychiatric prescriptions; however, these options are often inaccessible to students due to affordability. Further, many students do not consider themselves to be distressed, but simply want to remove the excess baggage gained from college life so they can become more productive and happier individuals.

Luckily there is an option that is affordable, independent, and science-backed — journaling!

The term journal refers to a form of personal writing that expresses perceptions, experiences, dreams, and creativity from the perspective of the self. The word comes from the French root word “jour,” meaning day, and it is often used to depict a form of habitual daily writing and reflection (Haertl 2008).

Positive affect journaling (PAJ), also known as gratitude journaling, is one of the most common forms of journaling used within clinical settings. With this form of journaling, one must regularly identify positive aspects of their life that can be attributed to an external source or actions outside of their control (Weiner 1985). With short 15 minutes sessions, only 3 times a week, PAJ was “associated with decreased mental distress and increased well-being relative to baseline” in general medical patients after 12 weeks (Smyth 2018).

Similar benefits have been displayed within college students. A study on first-year undergraduate students found students “who engaged in 3 weeks of daily reflective gratitude journaling showed significant gains in gratitude, adjustment to college life, satisfaction with life and positive affect” (Isik 2017).

So how do you get Started?

First, you must choose whether to type or handwrite your journals. Typing is faster, and thus allows journalists’ thoughts to almost flow onto the page. Writing by hand is slower, and thus forces journalists to slow down their thoughts. By hand is often considered the better option, and an informal study indicated that handwritten journals are more insightful and further explores thoughts and attitudes. Besides, it can be fun to pick out what will package your positive prose.

Prompts for gratitude journaling can be found throughout the internet: examples include “What are you thankful for; What did someone else do for you?” (Smyth 2018). While the specific prompts do not matter, according to the American Psychological Association, “the most effective entries will include specific details about the person(s), event(s), or thing(s) for which you are grateful.” Additionally, one must make sure that they are journaling consistently with a set period for journaling sessions.

It is important to note that gratitude journaling is not a fix-all for mental health issues. If you or someone you know is in crisis, contact the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or dial 911 in case of emergency. Additional mental health information and resources can be found here.

Written by Dylan Hughes – Writing Center Tutor – Class of 2023


Auerbach, R. P., Mortier, P., Bruffaerts, R., Alonso, J., Benjet, C., Cuijpers, P., Demyttenaere, K., Ebert, D. D., Green, J. G., Hasking, P., Murray, E., Nock, M. K., Pinder-Amaker, S., Sampson, N. A., Stein, D. J., Vilagut, G., Zaslavsky, A. M., Kessler, R. C., & WHO WMH-ICS Collaborators. (2018). WHO World Mental Health Surveys International College Student Project: Prevalence and distribution of mental disorders. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 127(7), 623–638.

Haertl, Kristine. Haertl, K. H. (2008). Journaling as an Assessment Tool in Mental Health Occupational Therapy. 2008.

Işık, Şerife, and Bengü Ergüner-Tekinalp. “The Effects of Gratitude Journaling on Turkish First Year College Students’ College Adjustment, Life Satisfaction and Positive Affect.” International Journal for the Advancement of Counselling, vol. 39, no. 2, June 2017, pp. 164–75,

Smyth, Joshua M et al. “Online Positive Affect Journaling in the Improvement of Mental Distress and Well-Being in General Medical Patients With Elevated Anxiety Symptoms: A Preliminary Randomized Controlled Trial.” JMIR mental health vol. 5,4 e11290. 10 Dec. 2018, doi:10.2196/11290

Weiner, B. (1985). An attributional theory of achievement motivation and emotion. Psychological Review, 92, 548–573.