Sometimes being thankful leaves you feeling … lazy. That’s because gratitude can be passive. For example, maybe you’re thankful it’s sunny out — but you don’t control the weather. That type of gratitude doesn’t encourage you to think beyond simple acknowledgement.
Don’t get me wrong: Gratitude should be part of your life. It reminds you of the world’s infinite bounty and that no matter how topsy-turvy things are, they could almost certainly be worse.
But if instead you focus on what’s gone well — and then consider why it’s gone well — you may spark an internal revolution. This type of thinking recasts your attitude toward events, people and yourself.
Why? You’re forced to ascribe causes to positive outcomes, which can include everything from the ordinary (I got out of bed on time today) to the amazing (I bought a new car for so much less than I’d expected — and didn’t have to haggle). What’s more, you can turn points of gratitude into what-went-well tick marks.
Credit positive psychology pioneer Martin Seligman, director of the Penn Positive Psychology Center and author of Flourish and Learned Optimism. Seligman came up with the practice, and then tested it on himself, his family and his students. Mental health professionals use it too. Ready to try?
On your first go, think of three things that have gone well — ever. You can use the entire spectrum of your life anytime you do this exercise, but eventually you won’t need to because you’ll notice good stuff keeps happening. The best time to practice is before bed, but you can certainly do it throughout the day.
Pick three things that went well. So, for example, I got out of bed on time today, as mentioned above. And drawing from the aforementioned point of gratitude, it was sunny out today. You come up with a third.
Now’s the fun part. Why did you get out of bed on time? Was it because you planned well the day before, which enabled you to get in bed early enough for a full night’s sleep (credit to you)? Maybe it was because your alarm worked, which means the folks and machines that built it did a good job (credit to others).
Next: Why was it sunny out? Well this one could get complicated — but in a fantastic way. So: The universe/God/science created weather and grand patterns that made it sunny (credit to forces beyond you). But also, maybe you choose to live in a place that’s usually sunny (credit to you).
Repeat the exercise for a week. How do you feel? Has your internal dialogue changed in any way? Seligman says if you practice what-went-well every day, odds are you’ll feel happier in six months. But I promise you’ll notice a shift much sooner.
Mitra Malek’s reporting and writing have appeared in The Washington Post and USA Today, and she is a contributing editor for Yoga Journal. She practices what-went-well as often as she can, and sometimes during the day instead of at night.