Superhero You and Gratitude

Imagine this scenario: At a local flea market you find something that looks just like a magic lamp. Intrigued, you purchase it and idly rub it. Poof!  A genie floats before you. The genie is not here to grant you three wishes, however. Its magic is reserved for turning you into a superhero. Your choice is what color cape, and this is an important decision. The red cape will help you conquer the ills of the world such as poverty, war, disease, and suffering. The green cape, on the other hand, will help you make the world a better place by creating good outcomes such abundance, health, peace, and well-being. Which do you choose? And why?

This thought experiment comes from the director of the Positive Psychology Center at UPenn, James Pawelski. He challenges us to consider whether it is better to fix problems or bring positives, and then relates this question to psychology.

He describes positive psychology as the green cape approach to mental health, whereas traditional psychology seeks to fix what is wrong, as in the red cape approach to saving the world. The problem with the red cape is that the absence of depression and anxiety, for instance, brings you up to a happiness level of neutral. It takes a green cape to move beyond zero to joy and serenity. Pawelski says there is place for both approaches, and ideally we’d have a reversible cape. Yet there is good reason to spend more time focusing on the green cape. That’s because our innate negativity bias makes us more often see problems rather than the positives. Shifting our focus can lead us to live more fulfilling lives and experience a greater sense of well-being.

As I study Applied Positive Psychology with Dr. Pawelski (on Coursera), I often think about how positive psychology and its scientifically proven “interventions” apply to increasing well-being, and to my health coaching in particular. Many people already have a sense of what they should and should not be eating and what habits they’d like to change, end or begin. They struggle with the follow through. That’s where I come in, of course, as a knowledgeable sounding board and most importantly a support system for making positive changes and sticking to them.

In my next series of posts I will include some positive psychology techniques for improving your well-being. Today’s “intervention” is a 7-day challenge that has been shown to have powerful effects on people’s overall well-being, even long after the seven days are over. You may be familiar with various gratitude exercises such as keeping a gratitude journal, and this exercise is similar, but with a couple important distinctions.

Your Seven Day Challenge:

At the end of each day, for seven days, directly before bed:

  1. Write down three good things that happened during the day. You need only write a single sentence for each, but be specific. And you need to come up with three, no matter how difficult your day was.
  2. For each good thing, write down why it happened.

Important Notes:

  • The time of day is important. Before bed is a time when many people scroll through our days in our minds and come up with all the things that didn’t go well or we wish we had or had not done–making it hard to get to sleep or stay asleep for some. Thus one outcome of the exercise is better sleep. Another outcome is that it starts to make you spend the day looking for good things, because you know you will need to write them down. That can change the whole tenor of your day.
  • Write three good things. Writing makes a bigger impression on our brains than just thinking. You can improve upon the exercise by then sharing your good things with a loved one. This is optional.
  • Don’t give up. Keep pondering until you come up with three things. They needn’t be big at all: something your son or daughter said, a nice sunset on your ride home, good news, a relaxing talk with a friend, a particularly good dinner. Do it for seven days in a row. If you don’t like doing it, after seven days, you can quit.
  • Why? Lots of people get tripped up over this part of the exercise, but I think it is important and it’s not a huge explanation. You need write only a sentence or phrase. Did the good thing happen because you got over a fear and made a phone call? Did it happen because your significant other showed caring and support by doing the dishes? Did it happen because the universe sometimes moves in mysteriously positive ways? My interpretation of the effectiveness of the why, is that it does two things for you: 1) It makes you think more deeply about the “good thing” and 2) It makes you see how your actions or actions of others or even luck often turn in your favor.

So…why not try the three good things challenge for seven days and comment on how it went for you!