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by Lucy McCarraher & Annabel Shaw


Three Good Things - Happiness Habit No.6

Research has shown that about 50% of our happiness is a result of genetics and about 10% can be accounted for by circumstances.That leaves 40% which is a direct result of our behaviour and ways of thinking that can be influenced*

That’s a significant amount of our happiness that we can do something about. The question, of course, is how to go about improving our happiness levels, and more importantly, improving them so that they last, and become a part of our overall outlook and experience of life.

Dr Martin Seligman, leading light of Positive Psychology, and his research team have scientifically tested some hundred “interventions” claiming to improve happiness. They found that recalling Three Good Things that happened that day increased happiness and decreased depressive symptoms for six months after the single week of testing. If participants actively continued the exercise on their own and beyond the prescribed one-week period, it appeared to keep raising happiness month by month after the first week.

Habit 6 in our Happiness Habits Experiment asks you to write down each evening, three things that went well that day; and reasons – preferably to do with you – why they went well. As you write them down, recall and relive the positive feelings you had as they were happening. If it works for you, keep doing it every day beyond the initial seven – or as often as you remember. If you get into the habit of writing Three Good Things twice a week for the rest of the year, you’ll have clocked up nearly Three Hundred Good Things that have happened to you.

Initial responses from participants in our experiment who adopted this habit have reported positively although many also commented that they found it a chore to have to write the three good things down. Whilst research has shown that writing increases the effectiveness of this habit, if you find it a chore then simply think of three good things that have happened during the day. I do this as I get ready to go to bed and find it also helps with getting to sleep.

So why does the habit of Three Good Things work?

There is a lot more research now on the way in which even fleeting thoughts and feelings can leave their mark on your brain and affect how you experience life. The more positive the thoughts and feelings you have, the happier you will become. Unfortunately, it appears that our brains preferentially register, store and recall unpleasant experiences over positive experiences; even when positive experiences outnumber the negative. And this in turn can, and does, lead to unhappiness. One way to override this is to foster positive experiences by paying special attention to the good things that happen to us, or that we see happen around us.

You need to actively search out for and notice the good things, particularly the little things that we often take for granted: the way children seem to laugh and play whenever they have the chance, the way the postman always says hello when you bump into him, the warmth of the sun - to name a few that I just noticed. It’s the little things that matter - we aren’t talking about big events. 

And when you alight upon a pleasant experience then it’s important to savour it. The longer that something is held in awareness and the more emotionally stimulating it is, the stronger the trace in memory. So if something good happens, however small, let the positive feeling it brings wash over you and then store it for later use.

Paying special attention to the good in your life is not about denying the hard things or putting a superficial gloss on things. It’s about recognising the need for balance. Given our brains preference for paying attention to negative experiences, positive experiences need all the help they can get.

'Happiness is round, sadness is square'  
 from the spanish 'Tristeza nao tem fim, felicidade sim', suggesting that
Happiness rolls away, but sadness stays

*Lyubomirsky,Sonya. The How of Happiness (New York: Penguin Press, 2007)

Posted by Annabel

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