The easiest way to greater happiness

  •             Back when I wrote Undoing Depression I suggested that people make a list at bed time of three good things that had happened during the day.  I thought I was passing along a common-sense idea that came from my wife.  Turns out that the positive psychology researchers have been able to show experimentally that this is a good way to adjust the happiness thermostat.  They have demonstrated experimentally that focusing on only three things is better than trying to think of more, that the exercise is best performed in the evening, and that in addition to listing the items, it helps if people think about why each good thing happened.  Thinking about it in this way makes us more mindful and makes the memory more indelible.

                Here’s my adaptation of this exercise:

    1. When you go to bed at night, clear your head of other thoughts.  If you’ve got nagging worries, it may help to visualize taking each and putting it down in a small pile on the floor next to your bedside.  Many of them will wait patiently there for you in the morning, though some may skulk off in the night.
    2. Now, think about three good things that happened during the day—things that went well, that made you feel good, that brought a smile to your face.  They can be small or big, sensual pleasures, accomplishments, anything at all that brought a pleasant feeling.
    3. Focus in on your feelings about these things.  Practice differentiating the subtleties of feeling.  Do you feel proud?  Excited?  Joyful?  Naches?  Does the memory make you want to smile?  Pay attention to the muscles on your face as they form a smile.  Do you feel warm?  Where?  In your heart, your stomach, your whole body?  Do you feel a pleasant lump in your throat?  Does your heartbeat change? 
    4. Visualize the neurons in your brain forming new happiness circuits—tiny little bulldozers widening the channels to happiness.  Remember that brain cells form new circuits just because we’re remembering.  Visualize endorphins flowing into your joy receptors like fresh snowmelt flowing into those new happiness channels.  Remember that doing this exercise regularly will change your happiness set point; you’ll feel more joy, more easily.
    5. Let yourself go to sleep as you continue to savor, explore, and visualize.
    6. One test of this exercise found that it increased happiness and decreased depressive symptoms for the entire six months of the study period, although participants had been asked to do it for only a week.  Further exploration found that many of the participants continued to focus on three good things entirely on their own.

                One effect of practicing this exercise may be to help you “be in the moment” more often and more easily, by cueing you to pay attention during the day to moments of beauty, pleasure, and pride.  My boss just gave me a compliment.  I’ll have to remember that! Mindfulness is all about “being in the moment”—focusing on our immediate experience, on what’s happening right now, not being distracted by other thoughts or feelings, more thoughtful, more curious, more aware.  

     

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