What if you could increase your happiness by doing a simple five-minute daily exercise? And if all you needed was a piece of paper and pen or your laptop computer? And what if you could feel the benefits of this exercise within a week or two?
Research by Dr. Martin Seligman, the renowned psychologist known as the founder of Positive Psychology, has shown that focusing on and writing about some of the positive things going on in our lives can bolster our level of happiness in significant and long-lasting ways.
In Seligman’s study, after only one week participants were 2% happier than before beginning the exercise. This may not sound like much, but people’s happiness kept increasing over time, to 9% after six months, even though their writing assignment lasted for only one week. Pretty impressive returns on their investment.
The exercise is called Three Good Things (or Three Blessings), and it involves the following:
- Each day, write down three good things that happened to you
These can be anything you feel good about, enjoyed, or are grateful for.
These can be as “big” or “small” as you want, from graduating college to taking a stroll around your neighborhood with your dog.
Do write these down, or type them into a journal, rather than simply thinking about them.
2. Write down why you feel that each of these things went well
This may be due to some action on your part or on someone else’s. For example:
My coworker giving me an encouraging smile lifted my spirits for the rest of the day. He is such a nice guy – good to know that there are people at work who have my back.
Going to the gym energized and calmed me. I like taking good care of myself.
Having lunch with my best friend gave us the chance to catch up on each other’s lives and encourage each other. I’d forgotten how funny she is, too!
3. Repeat this exercise each day for a week
4. At the end of the week, review what you’ve written and note how you feel
Do you see any patterns in the good events you’ve listed? Maybe connecting with other people is high on your list of priorities. Or perhaps you value accomplishing a project that you had been procrastinating about. Or possibly having the time to relax and read or drink a leisurely cup of coffee rejuvenates you.
Why This Works:
While as a general rule we all want to be happy, we also naturally tend to focus on the negative rather than the positive around us, a phenomenon known as the negativity bias. Why would we do this?
It turns out that being alert for danger has an evolutionary advantage. Consider that in caveman days, scanning the horizon for predators increased our chances of survival, whereas basking in the sunlight might have resulted in our being attacked.
Obviously, even in our present day, there are situations in which you would want to be on your guard, physically, emotionally, and pragmatically. However, taken to an extreme, focusing on possible danger can dramatically impair the quality of our lives. If you’ve ever been around (or been) a person who constantly dwells on the worst that could happen (or that did happen), you are well-acquainted with the accompanying emotional black cloud.
Knowing that we have this negativity bias can be helpful. Once aware of our natural bend, we can accept that we will need to put in a concerted effort to recognize the positive.
We recognize how we may have contributed to these positive events – we are neither helpless nor pawns. We have agency.
What we focus on grows. What would you rather have more of in your life – problems or solutions?
“The optimist sees the rose and not its thorns; the pessimist stares at the thorns, oblivious to the rose.” (Kahlil Gibran)
When we celebrate what’s going right, we train our brains to behave more like optimists.
Writing about positive events in your life may initially feel uncomfortable, but give it a try, just for a week. You may find that you want to continue the exercise! Feel free to post comments about your experience.
Seligman, M.E.P., Steen, T.A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60:410-421.