Throughout generations, human beings have been wired to be keenly aware of negative circumstances and consequences in their environment, in order to survive. Although we no longer watch out for saber-toothed tigers, an evolutionary imprint called “negativity bias” still lingers within us. Said bias causes negative events to have a greater effect on the human psyche, than neutral or positive things. In fact, research has found that it takes about three (but ideally six) positive comments, experiences, or expressions to compensate for the damaging effects of one negative.
While the negativity bias may protect us in situations related to survival, it may cause distress in everyday encounters. I personally experienced such distress when I moved to a new country to start a two-year graduate program. Although I appreciated the dynamic and challenging nature of the program, it was also tiresome and insecure to constantly work with new people and unknown tasks. The constant pressure for performance was intense, and unlike anything I had experienced before. Over time, negative thoughts caused by the pressure at work started to consume my motivation and mental energy.
To cope with the stress, I started keeping a gratitude journal, in an attempt to habituate mental positivity. Initially, I used the app 5 Minute Journal. Every morning I would log three things that would make the day great. In the evening, I would scan the last 24 hours for things that had made the day great. The app also allowed me to upload a photo to commemorate each day, which was a nifty little feature!
It didn’t take long before I noticed the difference. Most noticeably, I started to recognize and appreciate the “little things” in life. In the beginning, I was simply looking for things to write about. With time, however, I started noticing all the great things in my environment naturally, and suddenly I had a lot more than three things to write about!
Although I no longer keep the 5 Minute Journal, the ability to appreciate my surroundings has stayed with me. In a way, I feel like the exercise helped me build a positive, mental foundation. And if I ever have a bad day, I get energy from scrolling through and remembering the entries in the app.
About six months after the experience described above, I was reading Shawn Achor’s book “The Happiness Advantage“. Among many great exercises to increase happiness, the book also confirms how it is possible to train your brain to become more skilled at noticing and focusing on possibilities for personal and professional growth, and seizing opportunities to act on them.
However, what is even more exciting, is that the gratitude exercise I performed has been found to have staying power. Shawn Achor continues to describe how a study found that participants who wrote down three good things each day for only a week were happier and less depressed at the one-month, three-month and six-month follow-ups. Even after stopping the exercise, they remained significantly happier and showed higher levels of optimism.
Although this finding sadly made my experience less unique than I had flattered myself thinking, it hopefully inspires you to try the gratitude exercise yourself. I mean, if one week is really all its takes to create a more positive outlook on life, for the love of god, people, get that gratitude journal going! 😀