Exercises

This page contains brief descriptions of the various happiness exercises that are part of my regular rotation. Most, if not all, of these exercises can be found elsewhere in the internet. I’ll often link to at least one outside source, but it may be worth doing a search if you’d like to see more detail or variations.

Three Good Things

This is one of the classic positive psychology exercise – there’s even a web site devoted specifically to this one exercise. And for good reason!

The essence of the exercise is to write down three good things that happened in the last 24 hours, reflecting on why they happened and why they made you happy. Most descriptions prefer you to do this in the evening, looking back over the day. But evenings can be crazy for me. I do better to set aside 10-15 minutes in the morning, so I can write without interruption or stress. There’s a more involved description of the exercise on Action For Happiness.

Loving-Kindness Meditation

There are lots of descriptions of how to do this meditation, so if you don’t connect with the one below, feel free to find your own. I like to keep mine very simple. I start with a person for whom it’s easy to feel loving-kindness, and think:

  • May you be happy.
  • May you be healthy.
  • May you be safe.
  • May you feel peace.

If you haven’t done this before, it’s important to think the words slowly, really savor them, and try to generate a genuine feeling of love and compassion. Then I move on to someone who generates slightly less positive feelings in me, and repeat. I keep going until I can generate those feelings of love and compassion for someone with whom I’m currently struggling. I think it’s important to get yourself in there as well, wherever makes sense for you.

Mindfulness Meditation

There is a ton of information out there on mindfulness, so if you’re looking for more detail, or want a guided meditation, Google is your friend. The basic idea of mindfulness meditation is to focus your awareness on a physical sensation or process – the breath is a popular choice – and try to keep it there. As you notice your mind wandering (and it will), gently bring it back to the breath.

Gratitude Meditation

The stillmind site has some simple instructions for gratitude meditation, which focus on gratitude for the world around us, our friends and family, ourselves, and our life. It’s a good place to start, but if that seems too long or if you want to try something different, it’s entirely possible to build a custom meditation for yourself. I’ll sometimes choose a single thing in my life, or a single relationship, and spend my meditation time focusing in on all the ways I’m grateful for that one thing.

Gratitude Journal

There are lots of ways to keep a gratitude journal, and I’ve only tried a few. The one I’m using currently is to write down one thing I’m grateful for, followed by five specific reasons I love it. So for example, I might focus on being grateful for my home, and then list five specific things that I appreciate about my living situation.

Reflect On Social Connections

This is a journal exercise designed to help people focus in on their interactions with others. Take 10-15 minutes to give a brief description of the three longest social interactions of your day. Include how connected you felt to the other person and how in tune with them you felt. It isn’t necessary to pick particularly positive interactions – just choose the three longest.

Most Moments Are Positive

I’m not sure who to credit with this exercise, because I’ve seen the idea pointed out multiple times. Probably one of the first places I saw it was in Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence. The basic idea is that, if we only pay attention, most moments in our lives are actually positive.

We don’t notice this because the negativity bias predisposes us to react much more strongly to negative emotions. So if we get stuck in traffic, we feel a ton of frustration; but if traffic is fine, we hardly notice. We could notice a sense of connection as we talk with a coworker, the pleasure of biting into a good sandwich, or the satisfaction of cleaning up the kitchen – but many of us don’t. This exercise is an attempt to focus on all those hidden positive moments and let them enrich our lives.

Hardwiring Happiness

This exercise comes from Rick Hanson’s book Hardwiring Happiness. It’s an excellent read, and one of the earliest books I found about positive psychology. The main exercise I took away from it is what I mean now by “hardwiring.” This is basically the act of pausing to notice a positive emotion; deliberately amplifying that emotion; and giving myself a short time to soak the emotion in. Usually the entire thing takes less than a minute.