February 12, 2012

What Went Well

Researchers in positive psychology study well-being, positive emotion, and quality of life. Investigating happy and unhappy people, they found that one thing that can make us unhappy is spending a lot of time thinking about what's going wrong in our lives, and very little time thinking about what's going right. Analyzing negative events is adaptive because we learn from our mistakes and avoid repeating them, but an exclusive focus on problems isn't helpful and can lead to rumination and depression.

What should we do instead? Positive psychology researchers have developed short exercises sometimes referred to as "positive activity interventions;" one exercise that's been consistently demonstrated to improve mood involves learning to notice when things go well, and to think about and savour the experience. Here's what to do:
  1. Before you go to sleep each night, write down three things that went well that day.
  2. Don't just think about them, but actually write them down; that way you'll have a physical record.
  3. The events can be important (e.g., "I got a raise at work"), but don't have to be (e.g., "The bus pulled up just as I arrived at the bus stop this morning").
  4. For each item, answer the question, “Why did this happen?”  For example, if you got a raise, you might write “I worked hard this year and my boss noticed." If you were perfectly on time for the bus, you might write "I checked the schedule and made sure to leave the house on time."
    Research has demonstrated that people who stick with this exercise feel happier and less depressed after six months. I believe in positive psychology, so decided to try it for one month. It worked! I noticed that:
    • I remembered and reflected upon positive experiences that I wouldn't otherwise have remembered or counted as positive, e.g., I re-potted my plant, I made a good dinner, I received the book I ordered online, I was invited to a dinner party.
    • I started doing positive things on purpose so that I could put them on my list, e.g., going to the gym even if I didn't feel like it, taking care of an irritating but important errand, calling my mom to say hi, picking up a treat for dessert.
    • I started noticing positive things in real time, including lots of things that I wouldn't have noticed before or wouldn't have counted as positive, e.g., I got a seat on the metro during rush hour, I was able to switch the date on my plane ticket without paying a penalty, there was no line at the drugstore when I went to pick up my prescription.
    • I didn't always have an answer for "Why did this happen?" (e.g, why did I get a seat on the metro during rush hour?), but when I did (e.g., I was invited to a dinner party because my friends like my company, or I was able to change my plane ticket without paying the fee because I was patient and assertive with the customer service agent), it felt good. 

    This exercise gave me a boost of positive emotion every night before I went to sleep. If you try it, let me know how it goes!


    1. Hey Sarah,

      I did this when I was back in Montréal. I really liked it as an exercise. I'm pretty sure it helped in some way to make me feel better. I remember thinking at the time, even if it wasn't working, I was building this kickass log of achievements.

      Much recommended! Good tool!

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