How to Digitize, Automate and Scale… Gratitude

I started practicing gratitude after my company’s HR somewhat forced my hand. I was participating in a leadership development program and had a below-average score on optimism. I was assigned a “daily wins” exercise as part of a (mandatory) career development plan. This eventually evolved into a voluntary daily-ish gratitude practice in late 2019, just in time to get me to a slightly more optimistic state right before COVID hit.

I was writing in my gratitude journal last week and it hit me: has someone ever thought of making an app for this? Turns out, there are a ton of free and paid gratitude apps available!

I’ll admit I can be somewhat of an old-soul/laggard. Initially, the thought of not writing in my little yellow journal, with the friendly lemons on the front cover, made me feel sad. But after test-driving a few gratitude apps, I’m excited to switch it up and plan to do a little bit of paper and digital gratitude.

However before I go into my reviews of the apps, allow me to take a slight detour and address a few basics first.

What is Gratitude:

If you’re looking for a more formal definition than just “being thankful,” my favorite is from David Steindl-Rast. “Gratitude is the feeling of appreciation that comes when you recognize that something is valuable to you, which has nothing to do with its monetary worth.” My favorite indirect definition, and more of a call-to-action, is by Buddhist nun Pema Chodron: “Appreciate everything, even the ordinary. Especially the ordinary.” 

Why Practice Gratitude:

Gratitude has been widely studied with numerous physical and mental benefits confirmed. In fact, the benefits are so powerful that Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy from Duke University said if thankfulness were a drug, it would be the world’s best-selling product with health maintenance indication for every major organ system

The world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude, Robert Emmons from UC Davis, has been studying gratitude for more than two decades. In his studies, he often asks participants to keep a gratitude journal for just 3 weeks, and yet “the results have been overwhelming.” He has studied over 1000 individuals, from ages 8 to 80, and found that those who practice gratitude consistently report a host of health benefits as outlined here:

Physical, Psychological and Social Benefits of Gratitude:

  • Stronger immune systems
  • Less bothered by aches and pains
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Exercise more and take better care of their health
  • Sleep longer and feel more refreshed upon waking
  • Higher levels of positive emotions
  • More alert, alive, and awake
  • More joy and pleasure
  • More optimism and happiness
  • More helpful, generous, and compassionate
  • More forgiving
  • More outgoing
  • Feel less lonely and isolated.

Ok now that I hopefully have your attention, let’s explore some gratitude apps!

Best Free App: Gratitude

  • Avg User Rating: 4.9
  • # of Reviews in App Store: 12,715
  • Cost: Free (robust version) or premium option @ $29.99/year

Gratitude offers a ton of features in the free version, and you won’t have an actual need to upgrade. Here are a few highlights:

  • Unlimited journal entries
  • Add pictures to your entries
  • Nice prompts if you need some help getting started
  • Daily reminders
  • Receive daily quotes
  • Decent selection of free affirmations that can help you speak to yourself in a more kind way
  • 7-day, 14-day, 21-day challenge options to keep you motivated

They also have a unique Zen Digest feature that is like a curated Facebook-esque feed, but on gratitude and positivity. And ooh they came out swinging! The first quote on my Zen Digest was by Marcus Aurelius: “When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.” I think I’ll put that next to my bed.

Best App for Me: 365 Gratitude

  • Avg User Rating: 4.8
  • # of Reviews in Apple App Store: 1,516
  • Cost: $34.99/year (7 day free trial)

I think most people probably gravitate to this app because of the mood tracking and social media features. 365 Gratitude boasts of having the largest gratitude community in the world with over 500,000 members.

I was attracted to their more elaborate journal prompts, which are almost more like a daily devotional. There were a couple other premium features in the app that made me willing to shell out the $34.99 a year:

  • Good selection of 5-minute meditations organized by topic
  • Fun little animated e-cards that I can send to my parents
  • More educational content and courses than other platforms
  • Gamification of positive self-talk (with Joy the llama ha!)

Best No Frills Gratitude Apps: Grateful (iOS) and Presently (Android)

The appeal of these apps is in their simplicity. Both of the below apps are for gratitude journaling only. There’s no gamification, flashy features, or distractions. These can be good options if you find yourself overwhelmed by too many features and prefer something quick and easy.

 Grateful (iOS only)

  • Avg User Rating: 4.7
  • # of Reviews in Apple App Store: 2,626
  • Cost: $9.99/year

The app is really easy to use with a very simple layout. They have nice easy prompts such as “What made you smile today?” or you can write your own prompt. There is technically a free version of the app, but you’re only given a max of 15 entries and would have to keep deleting old ones. 

 Pleasantly (Android only)

  • Avg User Rating: 4.9
  • # of Reviews in Google Play: 25,228
  • Cost: Free

Pleasantly takes a similar approach to Grateful. The app is beautifully designed and very minimalist. You can pick a design template and color scheme for your journal, select your prompt and start counting your blessings. Their free version also includes options to export entries, share entries, set reminders and much more.

In summary, I’ve found that taking 5 minutes a day to focus on what is good and wonderful in my life has certainly made me more optimistic and brought me more joy. You won’t suddenly become as zen as a monk, but data suggests you will come out ahead with time. Try to be patient with yourself. Even as I was writing this, I gave my husband the stink eye probably like 5 times. “Babe, can’t you go do that somewhere else? I’m trying to blog on gratitude!!” Oh, the irony.

9 comments

  1. olivia_levy8 · ·

    I love this blog and was drawn to the title from the start. As a gratitude journal-er myself, I can totally relate to not being able to write in my sacred notebook making me feel sad and initially being turned off by going digital. After reading your blog, I am now more open to going with an integrated model as you suggested. More days then I wish I don’t get to journal or forget, so this digital app can help to serve in filling that gap. I also like the idea of being able to attach photos to my entries and think that could be a fun idea that would not really be possible in a physical notebook. Can’t say I am fully ready to digitize my Examen, but can definitely say that it is something I am opening to exploring more! Great job.

  2. This blog was great and something that I will now have to consider going forward. What really got me hooked was the health benefits of gratitude. I had no idea that making an active approach towards this could lead to so many positive outcomes. I think in my personal life I take time to think and be grateful for what I have but I have never considered actively writing these things down. I can understand how having these journals can be helpful when things are not going as good as they were in a previous time. The breakdown of the apps will be helpful as I think about working this into my daily life.

  3. Great post Courtney. I enjoyed the way in which you started practicing gratitude. I think with everything going on over the past year this is such a great practice. Thanks for the detailed review as it will make implementing this a lot easier.

  4. Divya Jha · ·

    I enjoyed reading your post, Courtney. In my childhood, I used to maintain a journal and while it contained a whole lot more than gratitude, all I wanted was to ensure it was private and accessible to me whenever I wanted it. I like that there are apps to address those needs
    (in addition to fun prompts and challenges) now. I knew maintaining a gratitude journal had many mental health benefits, but thanks for sharing some of the physical benefits too. Though I do think writing on paper is more cathartic and ‘real’ for me (maybe I’m more of an old soul/ laggard that way), it’s nice to see gratitude apps gaining popularity. With the overwhelming amount of such apps out there, your reviews will surely help us!

  5. lourdessanfeliu · ·

    This post has inspired me to download the Gratitude app and start journaling and hopefully improve my positivity. Thank you for the review on the most popular apps available and for stating all of the benefits that can come with this practice. I look forward to seeing how it works for me.

  6. alexcarey94 · ·

    This is a great way to keep on track. I love hearing about al these apps that allow you the data to live a happier and healthier life. I think this is a great way to stay on track and remind yourself to do this (through notifications) everyday in order to create a habit. I have not yet got one of these apps but am looking to after reading this… thanks for sharing!

  7. Jie Zhao · ·

    Awesome post, Courtney! And wow, I am amazed how much we can benefit not only mentally but also physically from just practicing gratitude. Definitely would love to be able to purchase a gratitude drug! This is also something I’ve thought about a lot, if more people could just appreciate what they have and show each other more kindness and appreciation, we’d be so much less stressed and much much happier. I don’t currently use a gratitude journal/app, but maybe it’s the act of writing it down or taking a picture is what I’m missing. Thanks for the post!

  8. First and foremost, great post. Gratitude is something that we all need a healthy reminder about. The Marcus Aurelius quote especially rings true these days with Covid. As far as the app landscape, I tend to gravitate towards Calm since it has a mix of different small meditations and maxims that can pull your head out of a negative or toxic emotional thought cycle. I liked how companies were getting more involved in making a gratitude practice as part of the workplace evaluation. A lot of times we are focused heavily on what’s left to do, or where we need to head/accomplish. When we get overextended in that mindset we have a tendency to move into the direction of feeling like we are behind or we lack. Gratitude helps center us and remind us of what we have accomplished, who values us, and what skills we possess.

  9. Great post! Although personally, I don’t like writing, I do see the value of “gratitude” after reading your post! Maybe I should try to use the digital journal app and start writing my journals now. Thanks for reviewing and introducing these apps to me, I will definitely download them and try them out.

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