Simply jotting down your thoughts in a journal is proven to increase joy, curb worry, strengthen your relationships and help you reach your goals — in fact, research suggests a whopping 40% of our happiness is completely under our control through intentional acts, such as putting pen to paper. But while journaling can be as easy as jotting down how you’re feeling in that moment or simply listing one thing that you’re grateful for each day, many of us draw a blank when staring at that blank page. That’s why we asked top experts for quick and simple journal prompts for mental health that can get us thinking and feeling on a deeper level, that way we can really root out that worry and negativity and make room for more joy and hope.
Journaling benefits emotional health
“Journaling to increase joy is something you can do in just a few minutes daily,” enthuses therapist Ana Yudin, PsyD, author of the journaling workbook, A Season of Life: Daily Journaling Practice for Emotional Wellness. “It involves simple exercises such as writing gratitude lists, reflecting on your values and planning ahead for self-care.”
Journaling works by helping you focus on what brings you joy, and that amplifies the emotion; which in turn, helps you notice more and more positives every day. So says psychotherapist and avid journal-er Stephanie Moulton Sarkis, PhD, best-selling author of eight books including, Healing From Toxic Relationships: 10 Essential Steps to Recover from Gaslighting, Narcissism, and Emotional Abuse. “And on the other side of that coin, journaling about what’s bothering you or stressing you out helps you process difficult emotions and ‘externalize’ them on paper,” she adds, “so they’re no longer taking up space in your head.”
Journaling improves physical health
Reflective writing doesn’t just lift your mood and spirit — it also boosts your physical health. “By decreasing your stress levels, journaling is shown to trigger amazing benefits from lowering blood pressure to curbing migraines to soothing irritable bowel syndrome (IBS),” explains Sarkis. She adds that one of her favorite studies showed that when people with asthma and rheumatoid arthritis journaled for just 20 minutes a day for four months, their health improved significantly.
“Gratitude journaling alone — such as simply jotting down three things you’re thankful for every day — has been linked to better cardiovascular health, improved sleep and healthier nutritional decision-making,” confirms Yudin. In other words, by improving mindfulness and clarifying your goals, that little book on your bedside table can help you slim down and feel great about yourself. (Click through to learn about the Three Good Things journaling technique that beats burnout and how journaling can be used as a migraine self-care remedy.)
Ready to reap the many benefits of “journal therapy”? Read on for 30 journal prompts for mental health — you can try one or mix and match — proven to transform your pages into a soothing balm for your mind, body and spirit, all in mere minutes a day.
To feel more joy all day
Every morning, Sarkis jots down her intention for the day. “It can be anything from, ‘I want to feel calm,’ to ‘I’d like to call a friend,’ to ‘I want to talk to someone new.’” She adds that committing to a specific goal — as well as acknowledging the challenges that might get in the way — gives her something to look forward to and helps her pinpoint the small steps needed to get there. Her empowering a.m. scripts:
1. What can I look forward to today?
2. What has the potential to stress/worry me today, and how will I choose to respond to it?
3. How do I want to feel at the end of the day and what do I need to do (or not do) to make that a reality?
Research shows writing such intentions for the day boosts success by helping keep you focused on your goals and making you feel more accountable to the person who matters most: you. Sarkis has also found inspiration in a surprising advocate for using journal prompts for mental health — Arnold Schwarzenegger — who suggests jotting down the following to keep your day on track and in line with your values:
4. Here are the things worth my time…
5. Here are the things not worth my time…
You might fill in #5 with friends, family, sleep, exercise…more sleep. “While things not worth your time might be anything from ‘negative thinking’ to ‘people who don’t respect my boundaries,’” Sarkis observes. “These prompts remind you what matters most, so that you stay true to yourself.”
To gain clarity and find success
Keeping a journal can literally help you rewrite your life’s story and fill its pages with more joy and success. “The things we repeat to ourselves over and over become our life,” says Rebecca Kochenderfer, founder of Journaling.com, host of “The Power of Journaling” Podcast and author of Joy Journal: Make Joy a Daily Experience. “This simple exercise called ‘The 3 Questions of Journaling’ created by researcher and international lecturer Joe Dispenza, shines a light on our ‘doing,’ our thoughts and our feelings. You can use these prompts to gain more insight in any area of your life — health, money, love, career or relationships.” To do, just jot down:
1. What am I DOING that is working for me?
- What am I doing that is NOT working for me?
2. What THOUGHTS am I having that are working for me?
- What thoughts am I having that are NOT working for me?
3. What FEELINGS am I having that are working for me?
- What feelings am I having that are NOT working for me?
To discover the deeper meaning of your day
Journals offer the unique opportunity to review your day like you’re playing a mental movie, and savor the experiences that brought you happiness, notes Sarkis. A few prompts she uses to help her take stock of the last 24 hours:
1. What’s something new I learned today?
2. What’s something productive I did today?
3. What’s something fun I did today?
4. What kinds of connections did I see?
5. What’s something I was thankful for?
Jotting down something fun is especially important, she says. “Don’t forget to be silly! It’s a vital part of life that we often forget about — writing it down helps you prioritize joy and laughter.” As for noting any “connections” you saw in the past day, Sarkis urges looking for “synchronicities,” little moments that might be more than coincidence. “For example, I was just making tea with a pot I got for my wedding, and the friend who gave it to me – whom I haven’t spoken to in years – called me the next day.” Leafing through these serendipities in your journal will help you appreciate the surprising twists of fate that make life so meaningful.
To feel your heart grow
“Keeping track of small moments of kindness every day makes me more attuned to them throughout the week,” observes Yudin. One of her favorite questions to answer:
“What’s one kind thing someone did for me in the past day?”
This simple prompt, “inspires more gratitude by forcing me to think about the kindness that has been shown to me,” she says. Acts of kindness need not be grand to have a profound effect. “For instance, a few weeks ago, the person next to me on a plane offered me a piece of candy. It was such a small gesture, and yet I kept repeating in my head, ‘That was such a kind thing to do! I’m definitely going to mention this in my journal when I debrief the day.’ Actively tracking the kindness in the world can restore your faith in humanity, and that’s something I feel a lot of us need these days.”
(Click through to learn more about How to Start a Gratitude Journal)
To reduce anxiety about the future
The journaling technique Yudin uses most often involves identifying the most realistic scenario for a future event that’s stressing her out. “This strategy can help with either de-catastrophizing anxiety or lessening too-high high expectations.” Her tension-taming journal prompts for mental health:
1. What’s the worst-case scenario? (Yudin suggests jotting down a few bullet points)
2. What’s the best-case scenario?
3. What’s the midpoint between the two?
These questions will make it easier to identify the most realistic eventuality between the two extremes, quelling stress and helping you problem-solve, Yudin explains. “I prepare for the worst-case scenario, hope for the best, but assume somewhere in the middle is what will happen — just getting it down on paper helps crystalize an action plan.”
To feel happier instantly
The pages in your journal are so powerful because they help you get to know yourself on a deeper level, enhancing your creativity, spirituality and mindfulness, observes Kochenderfer. A few simple springboards into self-care:
1. What’s something I appreciate about myself?
2. What sparks awe every day?
3. What’s one thing that brought me joy as a kid? (And how can I revisit it as an adult?)
4. What does my ideal morning look like?
5. When do I feel most spiritual?
To heal from difficult emotions
Just as your journal prompts for mental health can be a source of great joy, they can also help you process painful emotions like regret or anger, observes Yudin. “This might involve writing letters you’ll never send to people who hurt your feelings — addressing difficult emotions head-on in a journal helps you see what’s underneath them and begin to heal.” Consider these starting points to make the process a bit easier:
1. Which hurtful emotion keeps me awake at night?
2. What might be causing/underneath this feeling?
3. What’s one small thing I can do to show myself compassion?
4. What are 3 positive affirmations that will help me speak to myself more kindly?
5. Am I ready/willing to forgive someone who hurt me?
6. Do I feel comfortable asking for help? Why or why not?
7. Are my worries/fears realistic?
8. What’s one small thing I can do for myself right now to feel better?
Whether you look to a specific prompt for inspiration or choose to free write and purge all your emotions in a stream of consciousness, any way you choose to journal is the right way, promises Sarkis. “Don’t censor or judge yourself – just write and the words you need to process your emotions and find greater joy will come.”
For more benefits of and ideas for journaling: