21 Days to a More Positive Life through using a Gratitude Journal


“If we study what is merely average, we will remain merely average.” Shawn Achor

Shawn Achor is a psychologist who is the CEO of Good Think, Inc. He gave a talk about positive psychology at a TED talk  in May 2011.  I outline his talk below which he concludes with a methodology on how to press the “reset” button for your mindset so that you are more optimistic.    One of the methods includes writing three things you are grateful for, so I thought it would be appropriate to post this on Thanksgiving Day.   However, the method goes far beyond simple gratitude…

1. Escaping the law of the average

Social scientists make pronouncements about trends based on averages within populations, but people have to realize that when you are dealing with the potential for individual happiness or creativity, you need to escape the “law of the average”. When psychologists strive to make people “normal”, then if they succeed, people will continue to remain merely average.

I can illustrate Shawn Achor’s point with a story.  A friend of mine who was taking economics in graduate school, and I saw him one day in a coffee shop looking a little glum. “What’s wrong?” I asked him. “Oh, it sounds silly, but I’m a little bummed. My statistics professor said that up to 50% of us in the class would end up doing below average on the test.”

Intellectually, he knew that this was of course true because it hinges on the technical definition of the word “average”. However, it was the implication that he had only a 1 out of 2 chance of escaping mediocrity that was a challenge to his self-esteem.

2. Studying outliers

Shawn Achor has studied those individuals who have higher than average potential to find out what their secret is in order to be see if some of those secrets can be passed on to the rest.  Instead of a psychology model that tries to drag everybody down towards being average by making them “normal”, he wants to have a positive psychology model that moves everyone’s average up.

3. Changing the lens

We view the world through the lens of the media, which selectively captures negative events and brings them to our attention, with the news hour occasionally ending in a positive story. This has an effect on us where we start to assume a false picture of the world where that same ratio of negative events to positive events is replicated throughout the world.

4. External circumstance does not determine inner attitude

Shawn Achor related how the students he counseled at Harvard University should have been happy to be at such an elite school, but they sought counseling because they concentrated on the negatives of the workload, peer pressure, etc. He realized that no matter how good the outer circumstances, there were some people who have a negative attitude internally. He found that the external circumstances only account for 10% of a person’s happiness over the long term; the other 90% are determined by the way in which that person views the world.

In the work environment, he found that only 25% of job successes are predicted by a person’s intelligence level. The other 75% are accounted for by your optimism levels, your social support levels, and your ability to see stress as a challenge rather than as a threat.

5. How can you change your mindset?
Here’s the kernel of what Shawn Achor came to talk about. Most schools and workplaces have the mindset “if you work hard, you will be successful. If you are successful, then you will be happier.”  This theory of motivation is backwards.  If you have a success, then the workplace or school simply changes the goalposts and you have to achieve even better success the next time. If happiness is thought to be on the other side of success, your brain never gets there, it pushes happiness over the cognitive horizon.   Just remember that one of the definitions of a horizon is “an imaginary line that gets farther away from you the closer you get to it.”

The problem with this method of motivation is that our brains work in the opposite order:  if you raise a person’s happiness in the presentthen their brain experiences a happiness advantage, meaning that performs better than if it is negative, neutral, or stressed.  Every business outcome improves for an employee who has this happiness advantage: people are 31% more productive, they produce 37% more sales, doctors are 19% more accurate at diagnosis, etc.  So if our brain is more positive in the present, than it becomes more successful.

If people do the following 21 days in a row, it can rewire their brains to be more optimistic and therefore more successful.

Activity Explanation
1 3 Gratitudes Write 3 new things you are grateful for each day
2 Journaling positive experience … in a journal, along with one positive experience you have had in the last 24 hours.
3 Exercise 15-20 minutes of vigorous exercise, 3-6 days a week.
4 Meditation 15 minutes of meditation, 1-2 times per day.
5 Random Acts of Kindness Write down one random act of kindness you have done in the past 24 hours to someone you did not know.
6 Lessons Learned Write down how you will take a negative experience you have had in the past 24 hours and turn it into a learning opportunity for the future.

Here Shawn gives an explanation of these 5 factors; I have added a sixth factor which I explain below

1. Writing down the 3 gratitudes changes you mind so that it starts scanning the world for the positives rather than the negatives. It doesn’t change the ratio of positives to negatives in the outside world, but it does change which factors you focus on as being the most significant.

2. Writing about a positive experience you’ve had in the past 24 hours allows you relive it.

3. Exercise teaches your brain that behavior matters.

4. Meditation allows you to detach from the cultural pattern of ADHD which we are creating through the constant attempts at multitasking, and increases the ability of the brain to focus on the task at hand.

5. You can write in your journal about a random act of kindness which you performed in the last 24 hours for someone, meaning that you did it without consideration of being paid back by the person whom you helped.  Alternately, perform a conscious act of kindness by sending a note of support to someone in your social support network.

6. To these activities, I have added a sixth of my own to Shawn’s list, which is to take a negative experience which you had in the past 24 hours, and created some lessons learned from it so that you will experience it in the future not as a threat, but as an opportunity to overcome a challenge.

I have to tell you that Shawn Achor’s method WORKS! I did try it for 21 days and found that I do see live in a more positive way than I did a month ago. The interesting thing for me was that, at first I thought I was just changing the way things were appearing for me, that is, the same ratio of negatives to positives happened out there in the external world, but I was gradually starting to focus on the positives.  The negatives were seen as less and less threatening and more and more as opportunities.

However, by the end of the 21-day period, I was starting to experience more and more positives on the outside. I think that the positive attitude I took with me while networking, for example, automatically drew people towards me and made them more helpful to me than they would have previously precisely BECAUSE I had a positive attitude.  So it does change your interior “weather” first, but that sunnier internal weather will gradually become reflected in your exterior circumstances.  I don’t know if it will work for everybody, but I recommend that you at least try it, because you have literally nothing to lose, and we could all stand to win a little more, right?

UPDATE:   I am writing this update in 2014, and I can tell you that this has become part of my daily ritual throughout the preceding year, with my gratitude journal also doubling as my planning journal.  I have to caution people against thinking that the gratitude journal will change someone’s brain chemistry who is clinically depressed.   Stephen Fry, in describing his struggle with bipolar disorder (what used to be called manic depression), said that when you are in the “depressed” part of the cycle, it doesn’t matter how good the internal weather should be, you find yourself living under a metaphorical cloud.    For people whose brain chemistry has severe challenges, just having a gratitude journal will not be enough–you will need professional guidance and medication to alter your brain chemistry to the point where you can live a productive life.

However, for those with “situational depression”, that is, a temporary state of hopelessness or helplessness brought about by traumatic circumstances, and not any particular imbalance in the brain itself, the gratitude journal can lessen the amount of time it can take to snap out of it.    I have a recent experience with this because my youngest brother passed away unexpected at the end of October, and after the week of preparations for his funeral, I had a chance to reflect back on my own life.    For about a week, I looked at the challenges I faced, and wondered if I could step back into the stream of life again, which suddenly looked as chaotic as whitewater rapids.

But my gratitude journal made me look at what lessons my brother, who had such an optimistic outlook on life despite his own challenges, could teach me.    Rather than seeing his passing away as a loss, I could see that his life only added to my own–a lesson reinforced by all the stories people told at his funeral and at the memorial service that was held later.   And finally, I realized that as his life was a gift, my own is a gift and I need to react to it as you would with a priceless gift–with gratitude.    Suddenly I looked at the challenges I faced in a positive light and I launched myself into the various projects I needed to accomplish.

In fact, that’s why I’m grateful for the Thanksgiving holidays, because it gives me a chance to work on my planning journal for the month of December in order to finish whatever projects need completing by the end of the year, and to reflect in my gratitude journal about the bounties I have received.    When you are thankful, your mind and spirit are opened, and life seems to expand to answer that openness.

So make it a promise to try a gratitude journal, if only for 21 days.   You will see a difference–and be thankful for it!

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