Momentum is a curious thing. One day, we’re humming along, with everything going well – eating, exercising, chasing our goals. Inevitably, something undesirable pops up – doesn’t it always?
Crazy project at work – or even just a business trip.
Maybe we get sick or have an unpleasant home emergency.
Or maybe we just have a bad day.
Whatever it is, everything gets off track, and it can feel like we’re really swimming upstream to feel on task again.
How can we keep the good vibes going?
Today I want to talk about one simple tool that can help smooth out the rough spots – the What Went Well exercise developed by Dr. Martin Seligman, a leading behavioral scientist and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
This amazing little mindset exercise can be useful in so many ways. We can use it to simply lighten a heavy mood, or more profoundly, as a gentle reminder that not everything sucks. Pretty helpful when it feels like everything is going to hell.
I do What Went Well with my daughter and it never fails to lead to good conversation.
Read on for the background, or skip to the last heading below for the actual exercise.
THE SCIENCE OF HAPPINESS
It’s comforting to know that What Went Well is not just a nice idea, but an exercise that is grounded in science.
After falling into a pretty deep funk a few years ago, I did a lot of reading and reflecting on what makes for a happy life. One of my more helpful discoveries was learning about an entire field of science—Positive Psychology—dedicated to studying happiness. I found this cool and empowering, because I had previously thought of psychology as focused only on fixing what’s badly broken.
Positive psychology is different. It looks in a new direction and asks what we can do to not simply survive, but thrive.
If you think about medicine, it’s somewhat like the difference between taking a drug to treat heart disease that’s already there, versus adopting a lifestyle that prevents heart disease in the first place. Positive psychology aims to promote healthy function, preventing dysfunction before it can start.
It does sound a bit self-helpie, I know. But positive psychology isn’t about being an optimist or powering through troubles with the power of positive thinking. It’s a legitimate field of science. There are experts at leading universities who spend a good part of their careers advancing our understanding of happiness.
A good introduction to Positive Psychology is Flourish by Dr. Seligman, who is widely viewed as a pioneer in the field.
WHAT WENT WELL – HOW TO DO IT
What Went Well is ridiculously simple: all you do is write down each day three things that went well, and why they went well.
It may not seem like much, but according to Dr. Seligman, this simple exercise in gratitude can be as effective as antidepressant drugs in alleviating symptoms of depression. I do it often and have found it very comforting, even when I don’t write it down.
Here’s a list I had for a typical day at work – first the what and then the why:
I left home in time to catch the 7:17 train, but I left a few minutes early and ended up catching the 7:11 train. Why? I’ve gotten better at waking up on time and organizing my stuff, so I leave faster in the morning. Also, I’m lucky to live in a place that has great public transportation, with a lot of trains.
I had a good solid belly laugh with some coworkers at my 10 am meeting. Why? I work with smart, funny people and we share a quirky sense of humor.
I had leftover chicken that tasted really good! Why? I experimented with my recipe and discovered I like using oat bran for a coating more than almond flour.
At its core, What Went Well is a gratitude practice. The beauty of it, though, is that it’s all at once simple, actionable, and highly credible. By focusing on what is actually working, it provides a little burst of energy that can help keep good momentum going.
ABOUT FIT ENERGIES: Knowledge is kinda like food – we need juuuust the right amount to thrive. Too little and we falter; too much and it’s hard to focus on anything but sitting on the couch. Ironically, the fitness world suffers from a terrible case of infobesity.
Fit Energies is on a mission to find the sweet spot by collecting the most essential info, skills, and strategies for fit living. To inform, to celebrate, to inspire, to remind, but most of all, to be useful in our shared quest to eat well, move often, and navigate life’s little adventures with grace.
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