Last year, I read the book 59 Seconds, by Professor Richard Wiseman. It’s wonderful – ostensibly the first “self-help” book underpinned by science. It’s packed full of tips on all sorts of topics – improving your self-confidence sorting out your love life, reducing stress, getting things done… in fact, it’s so full of handy hints that I did what I usually do: read them all with glee and then promptly forgot about all but a few.
One which sticks in my mind is the art of giving gratitude. This is a little like the “positive affirmations” beloved of other self-help books, but unlike vague and even counterproductive affirmations (“every day in every way, you are getting better and better and better”) it’s a specific and proven way of making oneself happier. The trick (established via a study by Robert A. Emmons and Michael E. McCulloch) is to regularly list things that you are grateful for. Not necessarily big things, just… anything: a beautiful sunset, the taste of pale ale, the love of a partner or parent. The reasoning is that we become habituated to the constants in our life (in the same way that, if you work in a bakery, you will come to blank out the smell of freshly-baked bread). By bringing these small positives to the front of mind, we see them afresh and learn to appreciate them more.
Similarly, bringing to mind recent positive experiences (even if they’re as small as finding a parking space or managing to drag oneself out of bed on time) has the effect of reinforcing those experiences. (Other writing exercises which lead to significantly improved mood include writing out your perfect future – something realistic, but in which all of your choices produce a successful outcome – and writing affectionately about somebody you love or care about)
So, for a short while after reading the book I practiced writing things down, but, as already mentioned, I rarely manage to keep something like this going. It slipped back onto the list of “things I really ought to do if I had the time”. Then, just recently, I had a revelation. And here’s how it came about…
I had started using the web service OhLife to keep a diary (OhLife is a little like a standard blog, but entirely private; it emails you once per day to ask “How did your day go?”; you reply with an email saying what you’ve been up to; a building archive of your responses is kept on the web for you to read back through whenever you feel like it). OhLife has got me keeping a diary for the first time in years. But sometimes I can’t be bothered to write anything, or don’t feel like it, or there aren’t enough hours in a day. It was on one such occasion that I was reminded of the diary schedule recommended in 59Seconds. And while I didn’t have time to write, in any kind of detail, how my day had been, plucking out three vaguely positive things from the previous day and sticking them in bullet-points hardly seemed like a chore.
Since then, I have continued using OhLife, sometimes as a diary, other times just as a brief list of positives, however small (“smiled at the postman; heard a bird singing; enjoyed a TV programme”). And it’s early days yet but it seems to be working: I haven’t had any real black moods since I started doing it, and it seems as though my up-times are swinging even higher up. It takes up so little of my time (perhaps two minutes per day) that even the most time-poor person could easily squeeze it in. And I even get some little joy from knowing that, five years hence, I will be able to look back and know on which day the postman’s smile made a difference to my mood.