Three Good Things

For many years we believed that one’s disposition – either optimistic or pessimistic – was a hardwired element of personality. However, new research says otherwise. Scientists have been studying the practice of gratitude and optimism to determine how it impacts everything from cognition and productivity to happiness and overall health. In one study, participants were more optimistic and reported an increase in overall well-being after keeping a gratitude journal for ten weeks. Another study reported a surge in happiness scores after participants wrote a thank you letter to someone who had positively impacted their lives. Numerous workplace studies show gains in productivity, job satisfaction, and engagement by employees who were thanked for their contributions.

The research is very clear about the positive impact optimism has on depression, mental illness, stress, anxiety, physical health, and even professional success.

Dr. Martin Seligman, the Father of Gratitude and Optimism, has conducted extensive research in the area of gratitude and optimism. In one landmark study, Seligman wanted to find out which types of gratitude practices would not only make people happier, but which had the most long-lasting effects on countering depression. He divided participants into four different groups – each given a specific task to complete for one week. They were then tested immediately after the task, and then again one week, one month, three months, and six months after the task to determine how long the effects of that week-long exercise would last.

Control group: Participants were asked to write about their early positive memories every night for one week.

Gratitude visit group: Participants were given one week to write and then deliver a letter of gratitude in person to someone who had been exceptionally kind to them but had never been properly thanked.

Three good things group: Participants were asked to write down three good things about each day for one week. They were also told to write down what they thought caused those good things to happen.

You at your best group: Participants were asked to write about a time when they were at their best and then to reflect on the personal strengths that experience exemplified. They were also told to reflect upon those experiences by reading the journal entry once each day for a week.

It may not surprise you to learn that Seligman found an increase in happiness and a decrease in depression after these reflection exercises. But, the most significant difference between the groups was the length of time that the positive changes lasted.

Participants in the control group and the you at your best group showed an immediate boost in happiness and a reduction in depression immediately following the exercise. However, the effects significantly diminished after one month and were no longer apparent after three months.

Participants in the gratitude visit group showed the most substantial positive changes in the whole study. This boost in happiness and decrease in depressive symptoms were maintained at follow-up assessments one week and one month later. But, beyond the one-month mark, the effects began to diminish.

The biggest surprise was the three good things group. They demonstrated the greatest long-lasting gains. They began to show beneficial effects one month following the posttest. At the one-month follow-up, participants in this exercise were happier and less depressed than they had been at baseline, and they continued to demonstrate the positive effects at the 3-month and 6-month assessments.

Seligman maintains that optimists may be more health-conscious because they believe in the potential positive outcomes. Or, perhaps because they are more positive, they are more likable and have stronger social networks and relationships.

Regardless of why, the research is clear that optimism has a positive impact on depression, mental illness, stress, anxiety, physical health, and even professional success.

Studies have also shown that optimism significantly influences how people perceive us in the workplace. Optimistic people smile and laugh more, and this makes them appear more confident, trustworthy, and collaborative. They also have more energy and motivation to be productive. People who are highly optimistic demonstrate higher energy and motivation to be productive. For all of these reasons, optimists are more likely to get promoted and salary increases than their pessimistic peers.

So, on those gloomy days when your happiness meter isn’t registering, the best way to change your outlook may be to express your gratitude to someone else. Walk down the hall to thank a colleague for being on your team. Pick up the phone for the sole purpose of saying, “you’re special to me.” Grab a notepad and write a heartfelt expression of thanks. If you want that happiness to last, make it part of your routine to look for three good things every single day.

That old saying, “What we find depends upon what we look for” is so true! If you begin each day with the intention of looking for three good things, you’ll likely find more than three. And on the really tough days, those good things are going to mean even more.

What are your three good things today?


Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Dr. Melissa Hughes is a neuroscience geek, keynote speaker, and author. Her latest book, Happier Hour with Einstein: Another Round explores fascinating research about how the brain works and how to make it work better for greater happiness, well-being, and success. Having worked with learners from the classroom to the boardroom, she incorporates brain-based research, humor, and practical strategies to illuminate the powerful forces that influence how we think, learn, communicate and collaborate. Through a practical application of neuroscience in our everyday lives, Melissa shares productive ways to harness the skills, innovation and creativity within each of us in order to contribute the intellectual capital that empowers organizations to succeed with social, financial and cultural health.

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  1. An attitude of gratitude helps to perceive situations in a more positive perspective.
    Nowadays the sense of gratitude has lost a little. Many of the positive things that we have or do happen are taken for granted. Being able to develop a greater sense of gratitude can seriously help to observe the wealth that surrounds us.

  2. Your presentation of various aspects of human capital deployment suggests that higher touch “philosophies” (like life/death, liberty/dependence, happiness/sadness, productivity/lassitude, quality/quantity, competition/collaboration, etc.) may well work neurally in ways similar to macros in spreadsheets.

    • The prior comment is from @DrJefferson Stewart. Thumb slipped when I sneezed while posting! I’ve reflected on and off most of today about the meta-format of the posted review, and chatted about that reflection with seasoned professionals in the world of audit and finance, who are used to dealing with all sorts of forensics and cultural reactions. These professionals have described how they keep “big ideas” and “big themes” in their “client buckets” to help frame and reframe their cultural work and accountability. As such, where financials reflect the deployment of human capital, they’ve felt strongly so far like the similarity mentioned in the first remark above, would bear careful neuro-psychological assessment. My sense now is that intensification of affects in real-world situations could yield measurable tendencies worth tracking longitudinally.

    • Thank you for taking the time to read and share your thoughts, Dr. Stewart. I will be honest, the point of the article is just that optimism has a significant influence over physical and mental health. I’m not sure where this ties into the deployment of human capital, cultural work, and accountability. I do know that there is a wealth of research to support the benefits of optimism.

  3. Very interesting article, Melissa. Being shown gratitude in any situation will make you feel good. To my way of thinking when you unselfishly show gratitude to others, it makes both parties feel good. For instance, whenever I see a New York City Police Officer or Firefighter I thank them for their service to the city. On July 4th of this year, my wife and I went to Coney Island where there many Police Officers stationed as this was an attractive “high profile” target for terrorists due to the high volume of tourists along with us native New Yorkers who came to witness the fireworks show. we made sure to thank them. The smiles they gave in return was an indescribable feeling. Seeing them feel appreciated for their hard work and sacrifice made us feel good as well.

    • What a great habit, Joel! We often take the people who put themselves at risk to keep us safe for granted. Your comment is a great reminder that we all want to be appreciated. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

    • There is no question we all deserve to feel appreciated by somebody. Each of us feels appreciation differently. At work compliments from the boss will do that for you. Certainly, a raise, bonus or promotion does not hurt. Kind words from family members will do the same. In the end, it is what we do for or say to others is what matters most.

  4. Melissa, what a great topic! I’m so glad this showed up in my feed today. I enjoyed reading about this study and the varying effects. Pretty insightful. I can see how the three good things group had an impact because of the daily intention. It stands to reason that when we do something, with purpose and consistently, such as expressing gratitude, writing, or even exercising, it can have longer-term positive benefits. At least, that’s been my experience with exercise. It becomes a part of your lifestyle, and when you see and feel the benefits of it, you want to keep it integrated into your life.

    I love the thought of expressing three gratitudes a day, however. So, despite the gloomy weather that is making me blue, I’m going to share three with you:
    I’m grateful for today.
    I’m grateful for the trials in life because they’ve made me stronger and helped me grow.
    I’m grateful for the knowledge and insight of Melissa Hughes.

    Thanks for putting this out into the universe, Melissa. It’s a winner!