(Meta note: I have several posts written in advance such that I should be able to recover my previous pace. Additionally I feel like I’ve been entering new insight territory by taking several ideas seriously that I hadn’t been before – so, I do realize I’ve said I’m “back” before and faded back to hiatus, but in this case I feel pretty comfortable with my claims. Enjoy!)
(Epistemic Status: Still testing, but slightly positive results)
I am sure most of you have heard the concept of a gratitude journal – however, for those unaware, the concept is that at the end of each day, you write down X things that you are grateful for. You don’t want to force it, you want to think about your day, and write about things that were genuinely good, that you appreciate having happened and are grateful for. Studies apparently show this has a pretty positive impact on happiness. Generally, however, when I read about things singing the praises of gratitude journals, there’s very little exploration of why these things would work. So, at the risk of pointing out something that is so obvious that it need not be mentioned, I believe I understand the secret, and it is salience.
When you write things down every night about things you were grateful for during the day, you are self signaling that opportunities to show gratitude are important to you. As you do this more frequently, you start noticing more opportunities to be thankful, because you’ve told your brain “hey, I want to remember these moments”. This goes for things other than gratitude, though – back in 2017, when I was very into the concept of rewriting my stories and how I was perceived by others, I got very, very good at noticing how I could “storify” my experiences – the process was even more empowered by the fact that I was getting social reward for telling stories well. Another experience I’ve related, the concept of the downcycle, is somewhat similar. I start focusing on what is bad about my experience, and this increases the salience of bad things about my experience. The deeper I get into the habit of doing that, the more likely I am to think that my general experience of the world is bad. Most of the world is filtered by what experience has told us to pay attention to. If taking risks has often paid off, and you realize that this is related to taking risks, you will find risks that might pay off more salient. That second step is very important – we can sometimes find things salient that aren’t directly related to the outcomes we were trying to reinforce – trauma in particular does this, creating avoidance associations in our salience fields that may close off vast fields of experience from us. You can have this go the other way, though that way also lies danger – an upcycle sometimes works like this, where success is tied to things that in retrospect were fairly arbitrary, and you notice more opportunities that involve the arbitrary thing you’ve anchored on. A recent example of this in my life is that I made a decision to “treat my anger problems seriously”, and suddenly had a lot of success with the problem. I anchored on “treating problems actually seriously solves them”, but this was somewhat arbitrary – there were other factors that lead to the successes I saw, but they weren’t as salient. Since “treating problems seriously” was what I started looking for more opportunities to explore, I started to lose traction on the concept because some problems were not solveable in that particular fashion.
Now, the question is, if salience is the key to how gratitude journals work, what are other things that are valuable to make more salient in your day to day life? A lot of that depends on what you value – if you value self improvement, it’s good to track opportunities you took to improve an aspect of your life. If you value learning, it can be valuable to track what you’ve learned that day. There’s a lot of things you can make salient if you know what experiences you want more of. In my own case, I keep several journals – a basic diary to keep track of what experiences I had each day, an achievement log to keep track of things that I value having done, that feel like accomplishments, a quest log, which I use to keep track of “ongoing quests” in my life and factional standings, and a gratitude journal (because I could do with more of noticing the good things in my world). I have only been using these for about a week, but I do feel like I’ve noticed things being shaped more like quests and noticing more opportunity to further the quests I’ve noted so far. I think currently the achievement log is the weakest in terms of increasing my perception of my achievements, but this might be confounded by having a bit of depression recently.
Overall, I want to experiment more with salience and salience journals, and see what spaces of experience could stand out more. I also want to figure out what non-intuitive categories of salience I could increase to expand my action space in relation to the world.
Discussion questions: What sorts of salience journals would you enjoy having? If you’ve done gratitude journals, was your experience of the world influenced by them? If you’ve kept diaries, does the stance you take in the diary carry over to the stance you approach life with?