CG #54 – How to Get Happy and Stay that Way

If gratitude can counter depression faster than the “gold standard” of talk therapy combined with drugs, can it make me happy long term?  Yup.  But your negativity bias is going to fight back.

Word Count: 696

Reading Time: about 3 minutes

When I first heard about psychologist Martin Seligman’s gratitude research, I was skeptical.  According to the study, 15 days of gratitude practice created immediate improvements in severely depressed patients that lasted for 6 months.  How could a daily gratitude practice be as effective against depression as the best psychology had to offer and achieve this more quickly?   When Seligman’s subsequent research named gratitude as one of the 5 key strengths* that happiest people shared, I started to get more interested. (*The other 4 are zest, the ability to love and be loved, curiosity, and optimism.)

So, I tried it.  I wrote down three things I was grateful for every day:  this beautiful sunrise, this tea that I love, love, love, the beautiful watercolor E. sent me from her painting retreat.  It was fun and easy.  I started looking for things to write down which got me noticing how grateful I was.  I said “thank you” more, and to everyone.  I felt happier, lighter.

But it didn’t last. 

So I tried the things I usually do to establish a new habit:  I recruited friends to join me, first in an online journal, then in an email chain.  We all said how much we loved it, how fun it was to read what others were grateful for.

But that didn’t last either.  My inability to adhere to this anti-depression practice was beginning to get a little depressing.

I was experiencing the power of what psychologists call the Negativity Bias.  Simply put, our brains are wired to pay more attention to negative information than positive information.  We are always scanning for danger:  It’s a survival strategy that keeps us out of harm’s way.  Negative information is more contagious too, perhaps because communicating danger quickly is how the herd keeps its members safe.

But surviving is not the same as being happy.

I chucked the whole idea into the mystery column, my receptacle for the things that are currently beyond me, and got on with life.  Then a colleague mentioned the details of Seligman’s original study.   I’d gotten it completely wrong.  The specific instructions to the 50 severely depressed participants were to write down three things that had gone well each day and why they thought so.  Oops.  Not three things I was grateful for that had nothing to do with me, but three things I participated in that had gone well.  And why I thought so. 

Oh. This expression of gratitude was also a confirmation of personal agency.  It fought powerlessness.  No wonder it was so effective against depression.

That’s very different than writing about things outside me: “the tea I get from France, the way Cindy Cashdollar plays steel guitar, fluffy bunnies”, or the truncated, drive-by version I eventually adopted: “Puppies.”  Sunrise.  Afternoon cappuccino at Peet’s.”

So I tried it. Here’s my list from yesterday:

What went well:  Tax appointment was fast and easy and left no sticky residue. Why?  I decided to enjoy the experience with Carolyn rather than focus on the complications of filing as domestic partners.

What went well:  HYCS was easier to write and got immediate positive feedback.  Why?  Because I finally understood that what goes in the middle of my mind-map is what I want my readers to experience or do, not the “topic.”  D’oh.  And that happened because I have been doggedly wrestling with this for months and allowing myself to ask Daphne (my writing coach) really stupid questions.  In public, and online where they will live forever.

What went well: The leak in my houseboat’s hull didn’t keep me up all night.

Why?   Because I got a second opinion from my contractor neighbor even though it was 7:30 p.m. and I didn’t want to bother him.  His verdict:  It can wait.  (He was right – it’s still waiting, and I’m still floating.)

What a difference.  That was fun.  I wasn’t just feeling happier.  I was feeling the joy that comes from knowing what I do makes a difference.

Today I looked forward to making my list and seeing what it would show me.  I have no doubt my negativity bias will try to derail me again.  It’s a wily, worthy opponent.  I look forward to outwitting it.


  1. Pete Rodseeri says

    Positive psychology seems an overly idealistic, if not, touchy-feely method for self/theraphy. I too was skepticle about the wonders people “experienced” when their lives dramatically changed after only several days of appreciating 3 things that went well and why. Why, I thought hand’t anyone conceived this concept before Seligman and claim the rights to it!? And why hadn’t I thought of this before? This is such a simple concept that appears to have a substantial impact on the lives of those who practice making their 15 minute list at the end of the day. So simple that anyone can do it, at any time, and without a psychologist. Perhaps this mini-therapetic process is a good starting point for those suffering from stress… Yes, I think we all can relate and I think we could (should) give it a try. Sometimes hype can create such astonishing positive affects when groups of people believe (or want to believe) that something works. The notion of inner peace is acheivable to a reasonable extent through mindful practices such as this- in allowing ones-self to reflect upon the day through the present before rushing off to the next task. Perhaps the phrase “all is well” can be limitially accessed and realized by setting aside time to do as Seligman suggests. I think I’ll start doing this today without any expectations other than to appreciate my days on Earth and getting an idea of why I am here. Why not? It is a painless and easy “to do”.

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