I recently came across an interesting article from Brain Pickings which described the techniques of Dr Martin Seligman, the founding father of Positive Psychology – “a movement premised on countering the traditional ‘disease model’ of psychology, which focuses on how to relieve suffering rather than how to amplify well-being”.
One exercise that Dr Seligman suggests is known as the “What-Went-Well Exercise” which is supposed to counteract the age of anxiety we live in. He says:
“We think too much about what goes wrong and not enough about what goes right in our lives. Of course, sometimes it makes sense to analyze bad events so that we can learn from them and avoid them in the future. However, people tend to spend more time thinking about what is bad in life than is helpful. Worse, this focus on negative events sets us up for anxiety and depression. One way to keep this from happening is to get better at thinking about and savoring what went well.
For sound evolutionary reasons, most of us are not nearly as good at dwelling on good events as we are at analyzing bad events. Those of our ancestors who spent a lot of time basking in the sunshine of good events, when they should have been preparing for disaster, did not survive the Ice Age. So to overcome our brains’ natural catastrophic bent, we need to work on and practice this skill of thinking about what went well.”
He then describes how to practice the act of seeing what-went-well:
“Every night for the next week, set aside ten minutes before you go to sleep. Write down three things that went well today and why they went well. You may use a journal or your computer to write about the events, but it is important that you have a physical record of what you wrote. The three things need not be earthshaking in importance (“My husband picked up my favorite ice cream for dessert on the way home from work today”), but they can be important (“My sister just gave birth to a healthy baby boy”).
Next to each positive event, answer the question ‘Why did this happen?’ For example, if you wrote that your husband picked up ice cream, write ‘because my husband is really thoughtful sometimes’ or ‘because I remembered to call him from work and remind him to stop by the grocery store.’ Or if you wrote, ‘My sister just gave birth to a healthy baby boy,’ you might pick as the cause … ‘She did everything right during her pregnancy.’
Writing about why the positive events in your life happened may seem awkward at first, but please stick with it for one week. It will get easier.”
As you can see, he insists that it has to be a physical writing down of what went well, which I suspect is more to help the brain adjust to making it a habit and then something that becomes second nature. Of course, it’s not hard to note something down in your smartphone, alongside your grocery list.
Seligman claims that we will be “less depressed, happier, and addicted to this exercise six months from now.” Try it.