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Two Simple Exercises To Help You Think More Positively

People are often held back by their negative, maladaptive thoughts. One common way to tackle them is to learn to identify, challenge, and replace them directly. Something else that helps cut them off at the source is taking steps to shift your overall thinking in a more positive direction (I'll quickly note that 'thinking more positively' doesn't mean you have to become some blissed out hippie who denies reality and never works on or learns from their problems). In another article I covered some standard lifestyle changes that can improve your general mood. In this article I'll cover two straightforward written exercises.

It's human nature to focus on the negative. It makes sense to a degree. We need to notice what's wrong and think about how to fix it. However, if this tendency goes too far it can make us unnecessarily insecure or depressed. We can counteract it by taking time to explicitly remind ourselves of the many things that are going well in our lives. The two exercises below are built on this principle.

The What Went Well Exercise

I first read about this exercise in the Positive Psychology book Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being by Dr. Martin Seligman. Studies have shown it to be effective in reducing feelings of depression.

Instructions

1. Before you go to bed set aside a few minutes to write down three things that went well for you that day. It doesn't matter if it's in a physical journal, a Google Docs document, or your phone. Use whatever method is most convenient for you.

The items don't need to be earth shattering in importance. They could be about anything, not just your social goals. All kinds of bad things could have happened to you that day, but the exercise isn't interested in them. Some examples:

2. Besides each item write a quick explanation about why it happened. For example:

3. Commit to trying the exercise for at least two weeks. If it doesn't do anything for you, feel free to stop. If not, keep going.

My personal experiences with the exercise

For what it's worth, I can personally vouch for this exercise. I tried it out when I first read about it in early 2012 and I'm still doing it. Of course it didn't single-handedly transform my life or make me never think another negative thought, but I can confidently say it's had a positive impact on my mood and worldview:

Things I'm Grateful For exercise

I've heard a few versions of this exercise over the years. I find the What Went Well exercise helps you find the positive in the events that happen in your day-to-day life. This one is a bit more general in scope. Gratitude has also been linked to improved mood. As you read them they may seem a little trite, but they're effective.

Ongoing version

Like the exercise above, this provides a continuous drip of positive thinking.

1. Before you turn in for the night write down three things you're grateful for. They don't need to be related to anything that happened to you that day, just anything you can think of. The items don't need to be deep or poetic, just something you appreciate having in your life. Some examples:

I'm grateful that...

2. Again, commit to trying the exercise for at least two weeks. If it doesn't float your boat, don't worry about quitting. If you find it helpful, continue with it as long as you'd like.

One-off version

Sit down, and in one session write out as many things as possible that you're grateful for. You'll likely get more results for your mood when you remind yourself of these things daily, but this version is good for giving you a quick shift in perspective. It can help you see the bigger picture if you're in a spot where life isn't going your way.