Cognitive Journaling: A New Way to Boost Happiness

by Jacki Andre March 26, 2019

Cognitive Journaling: A New Way to Boost Happiness

It took me a long time, but I finally learned that happy people don’t necessarily live happy lives. I mean really, who can be happy 24/7? No matter our situation in life, we all need to deal with big stuff (worry, grief, illness) and little daily annoyances (the coworker who eats tuna in the office at 9:30 AM).

Sure, some people are innately sunny. But many seemingly-happy people have to work at staying positive. It goes beyond simply choosing joyful thoughts over painful ones. Wouldn’t it be lovely if it were that simple?

“Joy” is my personal buzzword and my life philosophy is all about seeking joy. Part of this is about recognizing joyful moments as they happen. That recognition is often rooted in gratitude. As I pointed out in a past blog, gratitude and joy are interconnected. There are little happy moments in the everyday, but unless you practice mindfulness and gratitude, you may miss them. Hitting a series of green lights when you’re running late, hearing a favorite song on the radio, or greeting a wiggly puppy are things you might take for granted unless you practice gratitude.

But I also get out there to pursue things that make me happy.  I love going to concerts, and especially being in the front row and interacting with artists. If that means lining up 6-8 hours early for general admission shows, sign me up! I take lots of short trips and I find joy in revisiting favorite places, discovering new gems, and connecting with friends. I choose to spend time with people who make me laugh and who make me feel good about myself. I unfollow Facebook friends who are often negative or who attract drama. I sometimes just sit and enjoy the company of my doggo, decompressing while I feel the rattle of his snoring chest against my feet. I create. I rest. I pay compliments and do random acts of kindness so that I can soak up the reflected joy of others. I do whatever I can to keep myself in the light.

Having a wellspring of joyful thoughts and memories to lean on is crucial to my happiness. Because as joyful as I may seem, I’m no stranger to dark thoughts spiraling out of control.

Most of us have been there. You have an experience that makes you feel “bad” in some way. When you mull over that bad feeling, it dredges up a bunch of other negative feelings or memories. It can be hard to fight your way out of that spiral.

For example, I recently had a goal to lose nine pounds before an event. I lost six. Once upon a time, I would have beat myself up for not trying harder. That would have been followed by a litany of all the other things I’ve failed at. I would have told myself that I was fat, ugly, and lazy. And then, of course, I would start pulling out all the old hurts related to that negative self-judgement, like the times I was stood up by dates and the fact that I don’t have a life partner. I would have continued spinning from there, feeling unvalued and examining my loneliness. Every bad thing that ever happened to me and every sad thought I ever had would have found a place in the swirling, whirling vortex.

When that tailspin happens, it can be difficult to crawl out of it and refocus on positive thoughts. Having a storehouse of happy memories isn’t enough. I see this all the time with my friends. Some of them have had really amazing life experiences that I actually envy. Still, they stay stuck in negative thought patterns. Keeping on the sunny side takes work. That’s where cognitive behavioral therapy--or cognitive journaling--comes in.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive journaling is a pretty new concept, developed by Dr. Richard Ragnarson. Ragnarson is currently finishing his residency in psychiatry. He has been a cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) patient himself. He used what he learned as a patient to develop this new journaling method. Ragnarson published an in-depth piece about cognitive journaling at Medium. If you’d like to give cognitive journaling a whirl, I encourage you to read Ragnarson’s own piece.

CBT is about learning how to challenge your negative thought patterns and come up with solutions. Psychology Today defines CBT as:

a form of psychotherapy that treats problems and boosts happiness by modifying dysfunctional emotions, behaviors, and thoughts. Unlike traditional Freudian psychoanalysis, which probes childhood wounds to get at the root causes of conflict, CBT focuses on solutions, encouraging patients to challenge distorted cognitions and change destructive patterns of behavior.

As Veronica Walsh points out in her blog, CBT is particularly valuable because it gives people tools they can use themselves. The goal is actually for each patient to become their own therapist. Through CBT, people learn how to recognize their own distorted thought patterns and how to move towards happier, healthier thoughts.

The Power of Writing Things Down

When you write in a personal journal, you generally reinforce your thought patterns. It’s well known that writing things down helps you retain and recall that information better. If you write about negative thoughts and experiences, it makes it easier for you to recall those things the next time you fall into a spiral. Unless you actively review your writing journal, looking for patterns and triggers, you might not recognize your unhealthy thought patterns. And without the tools needed to redirect your thoughts, simply recognizing patterns and triggers isn’t much help anyway.

The ABC Model of Cognition

Like CBT, the aim of cognitive journaling is to teach you how to recognize distorted thought patterns and move away from negative thoughts. In order to do that, both CBT and Ragnarson’s cognitive journaling use the “ABC model of cognition” as a framework. This model contends that each life experience (cognitive event) is composed of a combination of three things:

  1. An activating event (A). Any event that triggers thought and/or emotions.
  2. Our belief (B). Thoughts, feelings, and judgements that we make about the event.
  3. The consequences (C). The outcome of A + B.

Ragnarson stresses that every cognitive event happens in the ABC order. However, many times we apply our belief without even realizing that we do so. That makes it seem as though the consequences are the direct result of the activating event. To use my previous example, of losing six pounds instead of nine, the sequence appears to be:

I didn’t make my goal weight → I feel disappointed in myself

But, in fact, there is a step (B). My disappointment happens because of my beliefs--the judgments I make about myself and the emotions I feel when I don’t lose as much weight as I hoped.

The spiraling happens because I allow the consequence of feeling disappointed in myself to become another activating event. And so the whole sequence replays itself as:

Feeling disappointed in myself → Triggers other emotions such as self-loathing → My negative thoughts begin to spiral

Challenging Beliefs is the Path to Happiness

CBT and cognitive journalling are all about recognizing negative thought patterns and learning how to redirect those thoughts. But Ragnarson explains that when people experience negative emotions as part of the consequences, the impulse is to address the activating event or the consequences. Neither is effective.

Again using my weight loss as an example, the obvious solution would have been to change the activating event. If I had tried harder and lost all nine pounds, the negative spiral of emotions never would have happened. However, we can’t control our environment or the people around us. Many activating events are quite simply out of our control.

Second, I could try to address the consequences, the negative emotions that I’m feeling. Pop wisdom offers simplistic advice such as “Choose joy” or “Think happy, be happy.” It’s not that easy. Our emotions aren’t stove dials that we can twist and turn to choose what we feel. As the ABC model of cognition shows, our emotions are direct consequences of our thoughts. So, in order to change the emotions that we feel during cognitive events, we have to work on changing our beliefs.

For me, this is where my wellspring of happy thoughts and memories comes into play. It’s important to note that I am not simply choosing joy over negativity in (C) . Instead I’m using positive life experiences to counter my own negative beliefs and judgments in (B).

So, for example, if I don’t catch myself before the thoughts begin to spiral, and I get to the point where I’m berating myself for being fat and ugly, I can remind myself of the times I attended different formal events and was told by Canadian rock/pop icons Corey Hart and Jim Cuddy that I looked beautiful. If I get to the point where I’m feeling lonely, I can pull up memories of fantastic times with friends who love me. If I’m feeling worthless, I can remember the gratitude expressed to me for a random act of kindness.

Delving into Cognitive Journaling

Ragnarson goes into great detail to provide practical instructions for cognitive journaling.The nutshell version is:

  1. Keep three principles in mind as you jot things down in your lined journal: falsifiability, non-judgment, and detail.
  2. Start by writing down the consequences (C)  that you want to reflect on.
  3. Describe the activating event (A) that caused the consequences (C).
  4. Challenge the belief. If you want to change your belief, which is key to moving towards a more joyful life, Ragnarson explains that you need to challenge it by “evaluating its validity, doubting it, and finding a better alternative.”
  5. Write down good alternative beliefs. Writing these down in your personal journal is powerful, going back to the idea that we can recall information better if we write it down. The next time your belief starts to lead to a negative emotion/consequence, you will be able to recall a positive alternative belief to use in its place.

CBT is a form of psychotherapy, and like any other psychotherapy, it’s most effective when led by a licensed therapist. That said, cognitive journaling certainly has value. It can help you understand your negative thought patterns and place you on a path to a more joyful life.

What do you think, cool cats? Are you going to give it a whirl? If so, I'd love to hear from you in the comments below.

Photo by David Iskander on Unsplash

Jacki Andre
Jacki Andre

Jacki Andre has been journaling for over 30 years and still has her jam-packed Judy Blume Diary to prove it. Somewhere along the way, she started writing for reals, and is now a published author and Huffington Post blogger. In her spare time, Jacki supports dog rescue, advocates for disability rights, and educates other drivers via hand gestures about the importance of using turn signals. She keeps in shape by chasing joy (and her ‘80s teen idols) in earnest.


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