A Simple Exercise to Feel Happiness and Find Gratitude

A Simple Exercise to Feel Happiness and Find Gratitude
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Woman visiting Montmartre, Paris
Woman visiting Montmartre, Paris

In a recent post, I talked about how feelings of happiness and joy can lead to health and healing. Some questions I received related to how one can find happiness and feel it more often. 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 focussing 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.

I tested this exercise out with my family.

At the supper table, discussions with my kids often circulated 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. As I reflected upon my thoughts during all this, I noticed that they too were sometimes based on negative feelings of worry or fear about work deadlines or upcoming projects. Although the context was different, my thoughts weren't that far off from my kids', especially from a physiological or energetic perspective. After implementing the what-went-well exercise regularly at the supper table, the resulting conversations, along with the spillover effects, were positive.

Not only did it shift everyone's mood, I learned more about my kids' lives.

I learned about the science experiment using paper airplanes, and how far Luke's plane flew. This school lesson led to an interesting discussion about aerodynamics and gravity. I learned how passionate Claire's social studies teacher is about his teaching, and how he is related to a famous historical figure. Even Mountain Man liked the exercise, noting it took his focus off the stressors of work (and how great his lunch and the drive home were!). Now there were times when one of my kids claimed they could not find anything good what-so-ever. This was still beneficial (for the rest of us anyway) as they sat quietly and listened!

As an added bonus, I found my mind looking for what-went-well's while out on a walk or at bedtime. It became a habit.

The exercise as 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 everyday 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; nourishing others makes me happy; I feel happy and content when I am with my family.
I enjoyed the latté I purchased today. Why? Because I love a good coffee; I like the smell in the coffee shop; treating myself makes me feel special; it was nice to run errands with a yummy coffee; because I love myself (too much?!).
I felt so good after my meditation. Why? I feel good in the peaceful stillness; 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 practiced the what-went-well exercise felt the benefits. They reported how it helped boost their mood; some noticed they became more mindful. I noticed that if a client was feeling really 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!

I have Gratitude Challenge you are welcome to join over here. We publicly (via Facebook or Instagram) or privately shared three things we were grateful for (or what-went-well) each day during the month of December. The feedback has been amazing! Reading other people's posts on gratitude will instantly boost your mood. We have extended the challenge indefinitely. You can join anytime!

Want some help with this? I can help you see through the fog and find the good.

Love and light,
Exuberant Lives

Sue Crites MSc, NCP
Holistic Healer and Nutritionist

This blog was originally published at Exuberant Lives.

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