How to Know If Writing Gratitude Journals (or Failure Résumés) Is Right for You

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There's no "wrong" way to journal. Whether you employ the bulleted format or put pen to paper to track your fitness gains, kudos to you for making time for your thoughts. Lately, two styles of journaling (that appear to be polar opposites) have gained in popularity among those who relentlessly record the minutiae of their daily lives. On one hand, we have gratitude journals, in which you jot down everything that makes you feel #blessed. On the other, "failure résumés," in which you recount every time you stumble.

Considering the significant differences, I started to wonder which method actually works better for your mental health. Neeraj Gandotra, MD, the chief medical officer at Delphi Behavioral Health, believes that both styles can be effective tools to improve your mental health, but learning when and how to use them is key. "Both get down to the issue of gaining insight for yourself," he told me over the phone. "This is the point that I think is most important: The purpose of both exercises is to gain insight, because you cannot make any changes in your life unless you actually understand what's going on." Below, Gandotra breaks down the function of each so you can break out that brand-new notebook (and glitter pens!) and get to it.

Gratitude journal or failure résumé? Here's how to find out which is best for you.

gratitude practice
Photo: Getty Images/Peathegee Inc

When to spell out everything you feel blessed for in your gratitude journal

How to practice gratitude: Just in case you've been off Instagram for the past few years, let's break down the basics of gratitude journaling. "Basically, it's a diary in which someone will inventory at some interval—either daily or weekly—the things they're grateful for," says Dr. Gandotra. He adds that doing so consistently acts as a counterbalance to the pitfalls that occur in everyday life. Over time, the practice has been found to help people deal process stress better and improve their quality of sleep, among other benefits. And the best part is that it doesn't come with a rulebook. All you do is list off the things that bring a smile to your face, like a family member or a really epic spin class.

When this method works best: Writing down your many victories is one of those more-is-more cases, says the expert. He recommends doing it as much as you can.

When to write a little self-criticism in the form of failure résumé

How the failure résumé works: This format first garnered attention because of Johannes Haushofer, PhD, an assistant professor at Princeton. Dr. Haushofer released his very own "failure CV," sparking many retweets, reports Harvard Business Review. (Haushofer got the idea from Melanie Stephan of the University of Edinburgh.) In line after line, the very accomplished academic paid tribute to his failures, including the fellowship he didn't get at Harvard (so relatable), papers he never published, and—best of all—this: "2016: This darn CV of Failures has received way more attention than my entire body of academic work," he writes.

The idea behind confronting your failures is nothing new. Dr. Gandotra points out that reflecting on lackluster parts of life has been a cornerstone in the mental health field for a long time. "If you want to change someone's behavior, they first have to have insight as to why that behavior may not being conducive to their goals," he explains. "Failures actually help us identify more than sometimes even our successes when it comes to those insights. But we have to be able to turn that mirror around and examine that within ourselves."

The same rules apply when it comes to you taking stock at home in your cozy journaling nook. But keep in mind that if putting the year's trials into words causes you emotional distress, it may be something you want to tackle with a friend or a mental health expert instead.

When this method works best: A failure résumé is more of annual exercise, argues Dr. Gandotra. "You should do that inventory probably at least once a year so you can see if you're satisfied from your trajectory," he says.

ICYWW: Here's how to train yourself to see the bright side and what to do if negative thoughts have hijacked your head.

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