Kim Shaffer, LCPC, Counseling Services

A Simple Exercise to Feel Happiness and Find Gratitude

Feelings of happiness and joy can lead to health and healing. When things are not going so great, it can be difficult to find moments of happiness, and even though they may be present, these moments can go unnoticed. Shawn Achor, in The Happiness Advantage (2010) notes researchers found that grateful people tend to be not only happier, but more energetic, emotionally intelligent, forgiving, less likely to be lonely, anxious, or depressed, sleep better, and feel more socially connected. Sounds great right? But for many, a gratitude practice can be difficult to master. What if I told you practicing gratitude doesn’t have to involve sitting down with a journal each night?

I began my gratitude practice a few years ago. But it didn’t start with a gratitude journal. I read Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being by Martin Seligman (2012). Dr. Seligman’s work is based on Positive Psychology, which focuses on how to amplify well-being rather than the traditional (or disease) model of relieving suffering. In this positive practice, instead of looking at what is wrong with an individual or a situation, the focus is placed on examining and identifying what is right or working well. The human tendency is to prepare for disasters, which leads us to focusing on negative events or feelings of worry and anxiety. In Flourish, Seligman describes a daily “What-Went-Well” exercise of finding and writing down three things that went well each day. Seligman’s research confirmed this exercise results in significant positive effects on life satisfaction and depression levels. 

You can test this exercise out with your family. At the supper table, discussions with kids often circulate around who did and said what on the school bus, how they were treated unfairly at school, how they have too much homework, and how all their clothes suck. Kids too are sometimes based on negative feelings of worry or fear about work deadlines or upcoming projects. Try implementing the what-went-well exercise regularly at the supper table, the resulting conversations, along with the spillover effects, to experience the positive effects.

Not only does it shift everyone’s mood, but you also learn more about your kids’ lives.
You may learn about a science experiment using paper airplanes, and how far the plane flew. Or how this school lesson led to an interesting discussion about aerodynamics and gravity. You may learn how passionate your daughter’s social studies teacher is about his teaching, and how he is related to a famous historical figure. Even if one member cannot find anything good what-so-ever, it is still beneficial (for the rest of the family) to sit quietly and listen!

As a bonus, I found my mind looking for what-went-well’s while out on a walk or at bedtime. It became a habit. An exercise described in Flourish, is as follows: At the end of each day, take a few moments to write down three things that went well that day; then write why they went well. The link to why they went well is often related to something you did to facilitate the positive experience. In the book, Seligman recommends doing this every day for one week. His studies indicated that even six months later, feelings of happiness were still increasing. For example: I enjoyed a wonderful supper with my family. Why? Because I took the time to prepare the food; I like to cook; and nourishing others makes me happy. I purchased a latte machine today. Why? Because I love a good coffee; I like the smell in the coffee shop; and treating myself makes me feel special. I created the time and space for it to happen.

After experiencing the benefits at home, I used this exercise with my clients.
Those clients who regularly practice the what-went-well exercise felt the benefits. They report how it helped boost their mood; some notice that they became more mindful. I noticed that if a client was feeling low, this exercise was often easier than finding gratitude. To start with, we didn’t do the why-it-went-well part. This simple exercise required them to think about their day not their feelings. Focusing outside yourself on tangible events is often easier than going inside and finding positive emotion.

I suggest you give this a try yourself, particularly if you experience depression or have difficulty finding gratitude. It can lead to feelings of happiness; and if you or your loved ones are having a bad day/week/month, it will make it easier to find gratitude; which can lead to more feelings of happiness. You may even want to start writing what-went-well’s or what you are grateful for in your journal each night!

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