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3 Good Things

In 2008, scientists out of the University of Vermont’s Complex Systems Center invented the Hedonometer, a tool that aggregates word data from online tweets and blogs to determine the general mood of society as a whole. They determined the amount of happiness in the world could be quantified by examining the online dialogue, and assigning numerical values on a scale of ten to a list of 10,000 hand selected words. If we were using more positive words in our texts, like “love,” or “laugh,” the algorithm quantified an average and showed it as a positive spike on a graph over time. On the flip side, of course, if people used more quantifiably negative words, such as say… oh, I don’t know…. “coronavirus” or “quarantine” or “riot,” the happiness line moved downward (fun trivia: the most negative words? A tie between “terrorist” and “suicide”).

Which is why it’s so damn important we figure out something to get out of this slump. I’m going to assume, like me, you’re motivated to change. I’m also going to assume, like me, you usually feel most motivated to do something right before you’re about to go to sleep, and when you do get up in the morning, you still pull out your phone and fall into the exact same routine of avoiding exercise by looking at cat pictures. Don’t worry. I get it. But Grumpy Cat can wait! Here is something you can do literally right this moment that has been scientifically proven to make people happier. Ready? Here it goes: Ask yourself, “What are three good things that went well today, and what was my role in making them happen?”

It’s called the “3 Good Things” method. It’s more effective if you write it down, and ideally, you want to do this before you sleep so that it “loads” your prefrontal cortex (the behavior and personality part of your brain) with a shot of positivity to be internalized. By practicing this for just two weeks, it solidifies positive thinking into your decision-making circuitry.

Dr. Bryan Sexton, a happiness researcher out of Duke University, trains medical professionals on how to avoid burnout with this technique. He noted just one night of sleep deprivation can reduce the amount of new memories being formed by almost 40% (another gentle reminder as to why cramming the night before a test is a terrible idea!). But negative memories are more resilient to fatigue, so one of the reasons why you’re so grumpy in the morning after poor sleep is because your brain can’t remember anything else other than the crappy things that happened. Rumination and worry were powerful tools to help us avoid getting killed back in the Stone Age, but such thoughts only increase stress in our modern lives. The solution? Re-train your brain to remember more of the good, rather than the bad. That’s what this exercise does.

showed the two weeks of nightly practice before bed has an effect on mood and wellbeing that is non-discernably different from starting a regimen of prozac, an antidepressant. Even more striking, some of this positivity carried over even six months after the test period ended. Impressive, right? It works because it tasks you with actively refocusing your attention to the positive things that happen every day we don’t normally notice, and reinforces that positivity with affirmation about your sense of self-worth and purpose in everyday life. For example, this is literally what I came up with for today:

1) I had a cheeseburger for lunch. It shows I have a job, and means I can afford eating out once in a while without worrying too much.

2) I talked to my mom on the phone. It shows I’m a loving son, and I care about those around me.

3) I chilled this evening with a video game. This shows I have the smarts to build a gaming PC and the means to do it.

Look, these aren’t really incredible, noteworthy things; just looking at these events in a vacuum would kinda seem like a regular boring old day. But reframing it as “3 good things,” makes me reevaluate how lucky I am to do these things, and shows how I have an active role in the positivity of my own life. By making you recognize your part in making these three things happen, it also pushes you to say good things about yourself. Anyone else in the “critical voice in the back of your head” club? This technique helps you through that.

The challenge, of course, is sticking with it when it feels like everything around us has gone to hell. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I’ve gotten increasingly more anxious about the future. But by giving “3 Good Things” a shot, I’m reminded of how, even in the crappiest of years, there’s actually a lot to be thankful for. We just have to try a little harder to look for the good. It’s trite but it’s true, after all: We may not be able to control the situation in the world, but we can control our attitude about it.


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