You can increase your long-term happiness by almost 10% with a simple, fun and free 5 minute exercise.1
Here’s the exercise: “Write down three things that went well each day and their causes every night for one week. In addition, provide a causal explanation for each good thing.”
That’s it. We spend tens of thousands of dollars on expensive electronics, homes, automobiles and vacations hoping for a 10% boost. There is a free alternative, and it works.
In a study of exercise’s effectiveness by Martin Seligman, participants were asked to follow those exact instructions for just one week.
After one week they were 2% happier than before, but in follow-up tests, their happiness kept on increasing, from 5% at one month, to 9% at six months. All this, even though they were only instructed to journal for one week. Participants enjoyed the exercise so much, that they just kept on doing it on their own.
I tried it for myself – I set a goal of doing it for just one week.
It’s addictively effective.
Because of hedonic adaptation, we get use to the good things in our life. It makes sense that we get tired of our old car and of our old wife. From an evolutionary perspective, it’s good to upgrade to a new model; it’s good to get more food, build bigger houses, and construct pointier weapons. But it sucks for our happiness.
Remember the last time you bought yourself a nice toy? It could be a game, a car, a TV, a piece of clothing … anything that you bought because you expected it to give you happiness. It probably made you happy, but for how long? More specifically, when did it make you happy?
Your material good made you happy when you were consciously thinking about it. Taking the example of a TV, the first few times you sat down to watch it, you actually thought about the features of the TV. You might have thought, “the quality is so much better than that old piece of junk I had” or, “I’m so glad I bought it, the size is great.” Whatever it was you thought, there was some form of appreciation. Appreciation creates happiness. It happened automatically.
And then it stopped. There was no more recognition – no more conscious thoughts. It become a part of your reality, undeserving of your mental time. With that change, you lost its happiness, forcing you to seek out the next toy.
We already have all the toys we need.
This exercise, called ‘Three Good Things”, fights that loss and counteracts adaption. By taking the time to consciously express gratitude, we remember that we already have in our lives things we should be grateful and happy for. Doing this exercise actually feels good.
A counter study published in April suggests that there is nothing special about the ‘Three Good Things’ exercise. It hypothesizes that any exercise which involves positive thoughts can increase happiness.2
It may not be scientifically clear why it works, but it is clear that is does, having been proven several times to increase long-term happiness. Unfortunately, the longest time period measured was six-months. Is it possible that happiness levels would have continued increasing?
Yes – it is. One the one hand, it’s possible that the exercise was getting more effective the more it was practiced. Generating gratitude is an undeveloped skill. Mastering it is much like loving-kindess meditation. At first you’re halfway decent, generating a slight bump of happiness. As you progress, that bump slowly transforms into a sustained rise.
On the other hand, happiness triggers positive feedback loops. My gratitude journal usually focuses on other people. Because I am generating gratitude for them, when I actually meet them in person I tend to be especially kind. They in turn are nicer to me, which then makes me even happier!
Give it a go – just set a goal to do it for one week. You won’t regret it, and it will definitely take less willpower than your other goals!
1. Seligman, M. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive Psychology Progress. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410-421. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.60.5.410
2. Mongrain, M., & Anselmo-Matthews, T. (2012). Do Positive Psychology Exercises Work? A Replication of Seligman et al. (). Journal Of Clinical Psychology, 68(4), 382-389. doi:10.1002/jclp.21839