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Happiness Tip: Write Down the Good Things

I am not a journaler; after sitting in front of my computer all day, it doesn’t usually occur to me to end the day by whipping out pen and paper to document life’s events.

But I’ve long preached the benefits of ending the day by noting “3 good things” that happened. And I’ve practiced this research-tested happiness-boosting technique by asking my kids about “3 good things” that occurred during their day at bedtime for nearly a decade. It has come to be my favorite part of the day — when it happens. Which increasingly, it doesn’t. My kids are are now tweeners and teenagers. They share rooms, and they no longer always want to end the day by cuddling with me.

Clearly our family’s “3 good things” practice is ripe for reinvention. And I was recently reminded by the Greater Good Science Center’s wonderful (free!) Science of Happiness online class that the power of this exercise often comes from writing down three good things that happened to you during the day. Here is the suggested practice:

  • At about the same time each day (I recommend the evening, just before bed), take about 10 minutes to write down three things that went well for you.
  • In addition to just jotting down what happened (e.g., “I finally finished a project I’d been procrastinating”) add some details, like what you did or said, or what others did or said.
  • Focus on your feelings. How did you feel when the good thing happened? How did you feel afterwards? How do you feel now?

I’ve decided to start doing this expanded “3 good things” with my kids… via text. Even if they are under the same roof. I like this because sometimes I am not with them at bedtime, but am in a place where I can still text with them. I also like it because the practice includes me more: I prompt them with something good that happened to me during my day, sometimes sending them a picture. (Again, even if they are just in the next room.)photo

Text doesn’t really lend itself to detail, so for each good thing I typically send two texts, one for what happened, and one for how it made me feel. I use the voice recognition on my phone and speak the texts, which saves me time.

My kids and I exchange just one good thing now, typically, since we are trying to go into detail. I also have been jotting down one private good thing for myself, and talking to my husband about a third.

Even though this isn’t the exact exercise that was tested by researchers, I think it is better to modify an exercise to make it something that you find inherently enjoyable than to try to stick to something that doesn’t feel like as good a fit.

Take Action: How can you integrate detailed reflection about three good things that happened during your day? Block off time on your calendar, or set a reminder on your phone, and try to do this practice for 10 days in a row.

Join the Discussion: Are you planning to try out the “3 Good Things” exercise? If so, what format do you think will work best for you? If you’ve done something similar before, what worked for you? Share in the comments!

27 comments

  1. Kay says:

    What a great idea and yes, I will begin doing just that today. Several years ago, I decided to make a gratefulness journal – took a picture each day in November and placed it in a little album with a comment about what I was thankful for. It was a wonderful project – made me focus on the good things in my life. When I look back on that little photo journal, it still makes me feel happy and content. I haven’t done it since, but I do have a scrapbook that I occasionally add pictures to with a brief comment – just not every day.
    I’m glad I signed up for your blog and looking forward to more posts!

  2. Cathy Parsons says:

    Hi there! I’d just like to add something from the research end of things…. the three good things exercise by Seligman and others does ask people to write down three good things at the end of the day, however the question afterwards is why did the good thing happen? You already know the event made you happy. The why is ultimately what gives the lasting rise in happiness. Why? Because when you do something that makes you happy – you enhance your agency – in other words, you can be the source of your happiness. If someone else does something that makes you happy, then you can see that others are the source of your happiness as well. And finally if something is just happenstance, then you see how luck or circumstance play a role. And when comparing all of these whys you will be able to see which particular good things play a role in your life or where you might want to make more of an effort yourself. Anyway, I was a student in the MAPP program in Philadelphia and I worry that your readers won’t get the same results as they did in the research because you missed the most important ingredient. I hope I do not offend, just want to show the down-side of changing research questions.

    • Christine Carter says:

      I think you raise a really important point! There is other research that shows that leaving the “why” out can be very effective, too. People often think as gratitude as hoaky or pollyanaish, but I think you are really seeing the complexity!

  3. Ellen D says:

    I so believe one of the most important pearls of wisdom you reminded is to reinvent and repurpose what “works” to bring joy rather than to completely give up a helpful practice that no longer fits your situation. To this end, I bought a super pretty tiny journal that I keep on my bedside. (The strategy for me is twofold: it inspires as it is beautiful and tiny which makes it appear doable:). Each morning, I write down three bullet points that will trigger the back story of the joy filled moment. Ex: Emily’s teenage, pimpled, morose face:) I know when I read it down the road it will trigger the longer version that I don’t have time to write. So there it is, make it seem like a small task as it will give big returns. PS And I cut myself slack by saying nice things to myself when I don’t do it. Rigidly does not bring happiness but merely productiveness which we get tricked will bring us long term happiness!
    Keep the tips coming. It helps me daily!

      • Christine Thank you! Basically if you want to be happy in your life than you have to see things around you in positive manner and also you have to be positive with other so that be positive than have positive….

  4. Elissa says:

    I have tried many, many times to start a journal, but I’ve never been able to make it stick for long. One thing that has worked relatively well for me, though, is to take a photo and post it with a comment (like on Instagram). It evolved from my goal of keeping a one-sentence journal as a part of a habit-change class I was taking. I thought if I shared my journal, my support network (grandparents, siblings, and my husband) might be more apt to encourage me in my goal–which has turned out to be true. Photos capturing silly, happy, exciting, or peaceful glimpses of my day seem to be easier (or maybe less time consuming) than writing for me. Last year, as (a thoughtful and surprising) gift, my husband printed the album and captions for me as a photo book, so now I have it as a book that I can revisit on my own or with my children, and we have a record of the more commonplace joys of our lives in addition to the more eventful happenings that we would usually photograph. The photos don’t happen everyday, but I do really enjoy going back and seeing them all!

      • Holly says:

        I’d like to share getting my family away from their cell phones so we can share three things that went well today.

  5. Cara Maksimow, LCSW, CPC says:

    I agree it is important to change things up. My family and I have been doing “3 things” for a couple of years now. As a therapist and coach I have most of my clients doing the same. Recently I found I needed to change it up and started discussing “what’s in my BAG”. We talk through “B” best thing of the day “A” accomplishment of the day “g” what we are grateful for. This allows for more thought into the ” 3 things”.
    I love to hear what others are doing!

  6. ARich says:

    We used to ask our kids what they are grateful for each night at dinner which was great for a while… and then the responses started getting repetitive. So I made a few cards with some questions and laminated them. I turn the cards over and each person at the table picks one, not knowing which one it will be. One card says, What was something that made you happy today? Another says, What was the best part of your day?/what was the worst part of your day? Another, What are you grateful for? etc. For us it was about being able to share things from our day together (and the prompts help) and also to name emotions and acknowledge all emotions, not just the happy ones.
    Another thing we learned at IMAGO is to give 3 appreciations to another person. Sometimes to shake it up a bit, we ask each person at the table to give an appreciation of someone else at the table. It has been lovely.

    One other thing I learned is to keep a ‘good book’–(don’t love the title but the book is great)–when your child does something you want to encourage, write it in a book for them, keep it task oriented, “you put so much thought into making the table look so beautiful for my birthday” (I still struggle with this one) and then read it to them once a week, or every night, or let them look in it.

    thanks for other ideas!

    • Christine Carter says:

      I love the idea of a good book — filled with growth mindset praise, it can really help kids feel powerful. One hard thing these days is helping kids see that they are in control of much of their behavior, and even how they feel.

  7. meg says:

    I think the 3 good things could be done anytime, not just at the end of the day……I have been using a journal to record those happy events during the day, week. Interesting, as I look back I can clearly see the things that bring me happiness most, and many of those things involve others….either giving to others, receiving from others, activities with others…interesting…

    this may be off on another tangent….for a year now I have used a Vision Board, where I pin pictures and words of things i either like or aspire to…I use felt glued to a light weight board and obtain pictures from magazines etc…..this has meant that my life seems to move in the direction of the pictures (visuals) ….I keep this board close to the place I am most often…the fridge!……..

    • Christine Carter says:

      Yes, you are right: recording good things at anytime of day works! It can be a nice savoring practice.

  8. Eva Bettina Trittmann says:

    For Absolute Beginners (such as my husband and son) I have introduced “beans of happiness” into our lives. Each morning, we start with a handful of beans (or peas) in one pocket of our pants/jackets. Whenever we feel happy, lucky, satisfied, enchanted, grateful etc. during the day, we move one bean into another pocket, the “pocket of happiness” (I prefer the one next to my heart). At the end of the day, we take out our “happiness beans” – on most day surprised by how many happy moments we have collected! I try to talk with our son about the beans and what they stand for before going to bed – but even if he doesn’t remember exactly what each beans stands for, we always agree: a day with at least one “bean of happiness” was worth living! And so far we have never ended a day without any beans in the “pocket of happiness”.

  9. L says:

    I’m wondering if you’re aware of the fact that under “love life”, all the way at the bottom there is a unmistakable clear word that is drowning the entire positive theme – “TITANIC” !
    Too good of a laugh that has to be shared…. :-))))))))

    • Christine Carter says:

      I know. I put a picture where the book is, the irony was too much!! Why evoke a sinking ship? Chuckle.

  10. Craig M says:

    My new bride and I combine some of Gottman’s Magical Five Hours, counting blessings and Hanson’s Taking in the Good into our daily routines: at the end of our day when we return home from our jobs (she is a consultant, I am in private practice) we review our day apart, while focusing on any positive experiences, then top off the evening by intentionally savoring a good meal, glass of wine, or a beautiful sunset and twilight.

  11. Sara says:

    That bookcase looks amazing! I do something similar to this and I try to do it nightly, but still working on this. Love this article and I’m going to share it with my clients. Thank you!

  12. RoyaltySphinx says:

    Interesting how thinking about “Good things” is so different than thinking about what one is grateful for – somehow the latter is more passive, perhaps? Either way, focusing on the positive is a critical daily habit.

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