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Are you noticing the good things in life?

Updated: Jun 15, 2021

How what we pay attention to affects our happiness. Introducing Positive Psychology's What-Went-Well activity.

What does it mean to be a Happy Person?

If I had to define this, I would probably start with the emotions you feel. Feeling happy is an obvious one, but thankfully there's more than one positive adjective in my English vocabulary.

I would add being able to live each day experiencing feelings like joy, contentment, warmth, gratitude and purposefulness. These are other very relevant positive emotions, just like being happy is.

Yet we can't experience Positive Emotions all the time right? If that was what it took to be a happy person, then drug addicts would be the happiest people on earth. This, we know is far from true.

We all must invariably experience Negative Emotions in our day-to-day experience. We may feel frustration from dealing with a difficult colleague at work, anxiousness from an upcoming project deadline, or disappointment from a missed career opportunity.

These are entirely natural responses to events in our lives and they are good for us too. It helps us to prepare for something important that's coming up, and also make us learn from our previous mistakes. Negative emotions are totally okay, as long as they don't start to harm and control your life.

At that, we also choose to voluntarily feel a negative emotion, like sadness. It's the reason why we tune in to a sad song, to relive nostalgia over a bittersweet time in our lives, or even watch a depressing Korean drama. It's all part of feeling human.

What's the most important thing in defining a Happy Person though, is whether he or she spends most of their time experiencing Positive Emotions rather than Negative Emotions.

"The secret of happiness is to count your blessings while others are adding up their troubles.” William Penn

What affects whether we feel more happy or sad more often? Here's the answer, it's what you pay attention to.

Your attention is like a flashlight that your mind uses. It chooses where to focus your thoughts on inwardly, while outwardly what to look out for in your environment and where you should be concentrating your energy to.

It's the key ingredient to whether we feel more positive or negative emotions each day. Let me illustrate this with an example.

Let's recreate a bad day.

We all know that lousy feeling of having a bad day. Sometimes it only takes a little incident to make the rest of our day look bad. This time, let's pretend you woke up to receiving a dozen messages from work alerting you to a terrible mistake you made. You've made an error on a presentation, but it's been shared to all your stakeholders!

Panic creeps up on you! What do you do! You think about what's going to happen when you go into work. Will you be laid off? You become anxious. You start to sweat and goosebumps creep up your skin.

Negative emotions actually carry with them a biological and chemical trigger, issuing a Fight or Flight response when something bad happens. This is why you keep reflecting back on the mistake, turning it over and over again in your mind trying to figure out where it went wrong.

This is also why you keep thinking about the incident even after a few hours have passed. Even if, in the end, nothing bad was of consequence. You still can't help but ruminate about it.

With our attention focused on the experience, the negative feelings linked to that incident like disappointment and guilt continues to linger. Somehow or another, these lousy feelings spread and start to colour the rest of your day pessimistically.

And if you can't take our attention away from that incident, then the result is simple. You are going to stay unhappy.

Since we are on the topic of happiness, let's turn our attention away from negative emotions. If you wanted to learn more about negative emotions, you can always visit the Therapy section of this blog.

For now, imagine this.

What happens if you actively focused attention on the Positive experiences of each day?

My university colleagues and I published research in this area. In a simple experiment, we made a bunch of university students ( or what we call psychology lab rats) play a reaction time computer game.

For one group of students playing the game, we subliminally exposed them to a few milliseconds of Positive words like ‘ warmth’ and ‘ comfort’ each time they had to make an action on the game.

For another group of students, a.k.a. the control group, they were exposed to rather neutral words like ‘ chair’ and ‘ paper’ instead.

Quite incredibly, the group of students who played the positive version of the game measured significantly higher on positive emotions later on. This was compared to measurements taken a few days before the game.

On the other hand, there was absolutely no emotional change in the control group at all.

Though the impact was temporary, it goes to show how much of what you feel is connected to what you focus on.

Strange yes? That exposure, and a subliminal one at that, could change people’s mood like that. This is especially since they were not even conscious of the experimental manipulation. Yet, this is just one of the many research studies that have now pointed to a causal link between our attention and how mood states.

Research certainly has taken off in this area and even extended beyond the laboratory setting. There is now a bulk of psychology practices focused on much more conscious and effortful activities that have a longer lasting impact.

You can introduce more Positive Emotions in your life by effortfully paying conscious attention to the positive experiences each day.

It's about building habits and practices that teach your mind how to pay attention to the positive experiences in our lives.

Many days, it's easy for us to get caught up in the things that go wrong, the negatives, and feel like we're caught in a bad day. At the same time, we've adapted to the good things in our lives and taken them for granted.

As a result, we often overlook the positives in our lives - be it a kind gesture from a colleague, the simple pleasures of going out for a jog under the sun, or the precious time we spend with our loved ones. We miss these opportunities for happiness.

By focusing on these positive experiences more consciously, the by-product of this, as you can guess, is the experience of more Positive Emotions. Over time, this becomes a powerful emotion buffer, helping us to continue to pay attention to the good things in life, even on a really shitty day.

Here's one of the more powerful activities Positive Psychology has to offer in this regard.

The What-Went-Well (or Three Good Things) Activity.

Martin Seligman, well accredited as one of the founders of Positive Psychology, shares this activity in his book Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being.

In Seligman's research, he found that participants who completed this exercise for a week had markedly lowered depression three months and six months later.

Moreover, the participants who weren't lazy bums and kept up the habit beyond the first week experienced even longer effects on Happiness.

The activity is simple and goes like this:

Each day, write down three good things that went well today and why they went well.

You can write them down like a diary entry, and it doesn't matter whether it's on paper, your computer or phone. Just make sure to keep a record of each day.

The three things don't have to be earthshaking in importance.

You don't have to solve world peace and write an award-winning novel each day. It really can include things as simple as having your favourite food for lunch, to perhaps more important things such as giving a well received presentation.

Next to each positive event, answer the question "Why did this happen?".

Here are some of my examples for today:

  1. "I enjoyed a wonderful dinner with my wife. I made her Japanese unagi for dinner which she was ecstatic about and we had a great conversation during dinner."

  2. "I had a refreshing swim during lunch. The sun was shining and the weather was good and I feel healthier and happier after the swim."

  3. "I feel accomplished getting a lot of writing done today. I made the time to focus on writing which I really enjoy doing, instead of getting caught up with less meaningful things."

Writing such entries about why even the smallest positive events happen might seem totally awkward at first. Even I felt so too. However, like all new habits, it takes practice to get used to it. Do keep it up for at least a week, and by the end of your first week, it will get easier. Trust me.

If you're skeptical, think about it this way. When you list three positive things that happened in your day, you're taking the time to tune into the good bits of your life. It also counterbalances against our attentional biases to focus on the negative things.

It's a habit that can change the overall emotional tone of your life, teaching you the wisdom of gratitude and to take note and be more mindful of the positive events in your life that might otherwise go unnoticed.

Stay committed and make it a daily habit if you can, because according to Seligman and his research:

"The odds are that you will be less depressed, happier, and addicted to this exercise six months from now".

Thanks so much for reading Kaya Toast for the Soul. I hope you've found this article useful. If you'd like more of such activities to keep your happiness levels up, check out some related articles below!

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