Although I’ve always considered myself to be a relatively upbeat and optimistic person by default, I never did much to capitalize on what I thought made for a consciously happier outlook on life until a few years ago, when I briefly studied a branch of psychology pioneered by Martin Seligman. Although just a simple introduction to the subject changed me for the better and continues to influence my daily life, positive psychology isn’t something that has yet to become ingrained in modern society. As to why that is, I can’t say for sure — but the topic alone might very well be worth introducing to people who may not have ever stumbled on it otherwise.
In the spring of my senior year at a liberal arts university, I threw a dart at an elective to round out my psychology minor, which ended up being a class called Positive Psychology. My curriculum up until that point had engaged my guilty pleasure interest (such as a class called Abnormal Psychology, which detailed the gritty, mostly repugnant history behind treatment of unusual disorders and psychoses) and quelled any desire to pursue it on a higher level (here’s looking at you, Scientific Writing), but although my department friends assured me Positive Psychology was a good choice because it was a bit of a blow-off class, it ended up being one of the most influential courses of my entire college education. My friends ended up being sort of right about it— the subject matter wasn’t difficult —, but I don’t think I would have minded even if it was.
The class structure in Positive Psychology was quite simple: we either sat in a circle and talked about what made us happy or we studied ways to enrich that which made us happy. That’s not to say that we held hands and sang “Kumbaya” together or anything cliché — it wasn’t like that. Our discussions were intensely personal and sometimes frank and dark, but I looked forward to each class after the first week because I left it feeling more thoughtful, more appreciative of my life, and generally more fulfilled. Our professor gave us two books that provided a basis for discussion: the vastly underratedFlourish by Martin Seligman and The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less by Barry Schwartz. I highly recommend The Paradox of Choice, but the teachings in Flourish are what have helped me get through some tough shit in the years since I took that class.
Flourish is stuffed with fantastic takeaways that are all backed with supporting data, but I’m going to share three of my favorite mini-lessons from the book. They’re simple exercises that help combat negative feelings that affect the average person, but they don’t force the practicer into adopting an overly bubbly, frou-frou attitude. They don’t ask the practicer to adopt a perma-grin and see if it sticks. It’s all internal, it’s all practical, and it’s all for you and your well-being.
Three Good Things
"When we take time to notice the things that go right — it means we’re getting a lot of little rewards throughout the day. " — Martin Seligman
My favorite thing that Seligman encourages readers to do to devote less time and energy to negative thoughts and feelings is to simply write down three good things that happen to you each and every day. I have journals dedicated to the practice and they’re filled with good things ranging from the seemingly mild to the undeniably profound:
“I finally figured out how to make a perfect hard-boiled egg.”
“I rode my bike to work.”
“I had coffee with my former best friend after a bad falling out.”
“My basil sprouted.”
“I booked a campsite in the Redwoods for my summer road trip.”
“A stranger bought my coffee.”
There’s more than one takeaway in this practice. By focusing on and seeking to recall even the smallest good things, you’re taking mental focus away from what may be a large bad thing: a fuck-up at work, an expensive car repair that broke the bank, a tough breakup, a death of a loved one. It doesn’t remove the bad thing, but it provides a change of mindset and maybe an uplifted mood. Over time and committed use, it changes perspective.
Seligman also encourages you to also ask yourself why a certain good thing happened, what it means to you, and how you can ensure more of it happens in the future. This expansion of thought over a simple occurrence only compounds your positive reflection.
When I’ve had really good days, I’ve been able to list either the three best things that happened or list a plethora of things. When I’ve had really bad days, writing things like “My basil sprouted (which means I followed gardening instructions and I’m on my way to being a great gardener!)” helps shift my focus and take the spotlight away from whatever ugly thing has gotten me down. It helps. It really does. And over time, it becomes a ritual to look forward to — an internal sigh of relief before closing out the day.
"Honesty. Loyalty. Perseverance. Creativity. Kindness. Wisdom. Courage. Fairness. These and sixteen other character strengths are valued in every culture in the world. We believe that you can get more satisfaction out of life if you identify which of these character strengths you have in abundance and then use them as much as possible in school, in hobbies, and with friends and family." — Excerpt from Flourish
At authentichappiness.org, you can take the Signature Strengths test to identify your most valuable strengths and use them in new ways. It goes beyond what the results of similar tests imply. Instead of telling you with no real opportunity for follow-up thought that “You’re a super loyal friend” or “You’re not terribly creative,” the test identifies your strengths in a new way.
I’ve taken the test a few times, but as of this morning, my test results showed that I always have perspective in a situation (debatable, but I’ll take it), I always have gratitude, and I’m usually loving, kind, playful, andhumorous. Similarly, I am never spiritual and rarely forgiving.
The point of this exercise is not necessarily to focus on all the test results but to strive to use your biggest strength in a new way. I’ll use my strength of gratitude as an example. Since my gratitude normally comes in the form of a quick “thank you” or a hug, my initial thoughts are to send a heartfelt “thank you” card to my significant other just because, or to bring in treats to work to celebrate how grateful I am for my wonderful job, or to call my dad just to tell him I love him. The benefits in even thinking of using your strengths in positive ways is surely such that it’ll spread positivity to those around you with very little effort.
In Flourish, Seligman writes that applying a study on signature strengths in tested schools resulted in a vicarious improvement in many different ways. Love of learning increased, and so did creativity. Grades improved. Traditional classroom goals were enhanced, not undermined. Bad conduct was reduced. The far-reaching benefits of teaching well-being and emphasizing positivity — both in analyzing oneself and your interactions with others — has been backed by study after study for several years now.
“Another one-penny stamp increase!” I fumed as I stood in an enormous, meandering line for forty-five minutes to get a sheet of one hundred one-cent stamps. The line moved glacially, with tempers rising all around me. Finally I made it to the front and asked for ten sheets of one hundred. All of ten dollars.
“Who needs one-penny stamps?” I shouted. “They’re free!” People burst into applause and clustered around me as I gave away this treasure. Within two minutes, everyone was gone, along with most of my stamps. It was one of the most satisfying moments of my life.” — Excerpt from Flourish
This one is so simple that it could not even be simpler: Find one unexpected thing to do for someone else tomorrow and just do it.
But don’t do it just once — do it once a week. When you buy your Monday morning coffee, buy a cookie for whoever is behind you in line. Compliment a stranger on his or her outfit. Leave a folded-up note in a public space that says something lovely to whoever finds it. Organize a free event for your neighborhood. It doesn’t have to be a dramatic thing — it just has to inspire you to continue the practice and increase the likelihood for whoever is on the receiving end to do it also.
I’ll always be intensely interested in most aspects of psychology and what effect the subject’s research has on our society, but it disappoints me that the work of Seligman and other pioneers of positive psychology is still not emphasized and remains expensive to implement in systems that could benefit from it the most. I’m hopeful that this will change in the future, but in the mean time, the small daily practices to be learned in Flourish and similar works are undeniably good for you and those around you.
I challenge each reader of this little essay to take small steps in increasing your own sense of well-being and the well-being of those around you. Keep a Three Good Things journal for a week. Take the Signature Strengths test. Do something nice for someone else. Read a book like Flourish and identify favorite passages of your own. Even if you start small, the effect can be huge.
Want more? Sign up.
We’ll keep you up to date on our latest articles and insights. Sign up for our newsletter: