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What are You Counting?

written by Dave Shearon 17 May 2010

Dave Shearon, MAPP, applies positive psychology to both law and education. Dave writes articles about applications of Positive Psychology to law and education at his site. He co-authored the recently published book, Smart Strengths: Building Character, Resilience and Relationships in Youth. Full bio.

Dave's articles are here.

Page 8 by lucybrettPositive psychology is a science, and scientists count things and measure stuff. Ed Diener recounts how his dissertation advisor steered him away from happiness as a research topic partly by saying it couldn’t be measured. Positive psychology exists because folks like Ed Diener figured out how to measure and count all kinds of things that were once thought of as immeasurable, including happiness, optimism, hope, passion, and strengths.

Using Counting for Resilience

Just as lawyers almost instinctively create and organize arguments, scientists count. While she was writing her wonderful book Positivity, Barbara Fredrickson’s husband suddenly became seriously ill. During the crisis, she was unable to follow her writing schedule. After the crisis resolved, she initially felt despair about meeting her deadlines. However, she had kept records. She had counted how many hours she spent writing each day and how many pages she produced. She was able to use this data to recalculate her schedule and find a path toward her deadline. Hope Theory posits that hope is the result of goals, pathways toward goals, and perceived self-efficacy to move along the pathways. As she describes in her book, Dr. Fredrickson experienced a blocked pathway, created a new one, and restored hope. Her tendency to collect data helped.

Counting and Management

line chart by Dmitry BaranovskiyManagement guru Peter Drucker is widely credited with saying that what gets measured gets managed. On a weekly basis, I pull together (i.e., count) over 20 separate pieces of information from the work of my office for the week before. I share these stats with every member of the office. This helps the staff self-manage, making my job much easier!

Recently I was a panelist at a law firm management conference sponsored by the Tennessee Bar Association. I suggested, as I often do, that for many years law firms have been managed solely on the basis of some version of “profits per partner.” To date, no one has contradicted me. However, in the discussion, several folks spoke of decisions that were influenced by other factors. One noted that they had just acquired a new branch office because the mid-career lawyers in that office wanted to leave their old firm because it was controlled by a small group of senior lawyers. “They were just looking for some hope,” he said. I pointed out that the failure to measure hope almost caused that firm a significant loss of talent.

Counting for Thriving

In thinking about how to improve personal well-being or the well-being of a relationship or group, it helps to ask about what you can count and how counting might help. Here are some areas to consider:

  • Calendar: What does looking back over your calendar for the last six months or a year tell you about how you are using your time? You can count by categories, such as number of days for vacation, personal development, developing others in your organization. Do any changes suggest themselves? Set a goal and a date in the future to count again.
  • Feeling Strong: Marcus Buckingham in Go Put Your Strengths to Work suggests counting as a way to explore personal strengths. He recommends keeping track of the activities at work that make you feel energized and strong, as well as those that make you feel drained and weak. Then look for ways to do spend more time on the activities that make you feel strong and less time on the ones that make you feel weak.
  • To-Do Lists: Do you regularly make to-do lists? Do you keep them? If so, go back and look through what made it on your list, what got done, and what got put off or ultimately dropped. What patterns do you see? What does this suggest for direction you might take in the future?
  • Three Good Things: If you regularly do the Three Good Things exercise and keep your lists of good things that you noticed about a day, you can use these as a source of data. Go back over your lists for a month or so. How many items made your list about your accomplishments that day? Family life? Your colleagues at work? Beauty in the world around you? The actions of others? What areas are totally missing from your list? What does this tell you about the focus of your attention? What changes do you want to make?
  • Breaths: Counting breaths is a frequent component of meditation. Counting ten deep, slow breaths can be a good way to maintain emotional control under pressure.
  • Relationship Bids: John Gottman in The Relationship Cure describes the concept of bids. Bids are small, quick offers of interaction. A happily married couple may average 100 bids in 10 minutes together; an unhappy couple averages around 65. Although counting while interacting may be unworkable, you can get a sense of the rate of your interaction, then make an effort to increase it.
  • Relationship Maps: Dr. Gottman also discusses relationship maps – the overall knowledge base the individuals in a relationship have of each other. Adding to the relationship map can improve the relationship. Think of a relationship you would like to improve. It could be a close personal relationship, but it could also be with a co-worker. Count how many items you can add to the relationship map over the next week. Other people matter.
  • Steps: The importance of adequate exercise to well-being has been covered onNet niet helemaal 20 kilometer by mjk23PPND frequently. One approach to increasing the amount of exercise in your life is simply counting steps. Get a pedometer. Start recording the number of steps you take every day to collect a baseline. Likely, some obvious ways to increase your steps will suggest themselves and you will see your numbers go up. Soon, you may set and reach goals that would have been unlikely without having a baseline for comparison.

Counting is attention. What are you counting? What could you be counting that you are not? How have you used counting to improve your well-being?



Buckingham, M (2007). Go Put Your Strengths to Work: 6 Powerful Steps to Achieve Outstanding Performance. NY: Free Press.

Diener, E. & Biswas-Diener, R. (2008). Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth. Wiley-Blackwell.

Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown.

Gawande, A. (2007). Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance. New York: Picador – Metropolitan Books.

Gawande’s third suggestion for becoming a positive deviant is “Count something.” In one chapter, he explains the difference made by the Apgar score in the quality of birth experiences.

Gottman, J. & DeClaire, J. (2001). The relationship cure: A 5 step guide to strengthening your marriage, family, and friendships. New York: Three Rivers Press.


Page 8 courtesy of lucybrett
Line chart courtesy of Dmitry Baranovskiy

Net niet helemaal 20 kilometer (Pedometer) courtesy of mjk23

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Jeremy McCarthy 17 May 2010 - 3:03 pm

Hi Dave, excellent article, I loved it. For other people who enjoy this one, you will also enjoy this great NYT article on “The Data Driven Life”.

I remember Deborah Szekely, one of the leaders of the spa industry, advising people to always review their calendar at the end of each day or week and evaluate how the hours spent have either propelled one towards, or distracted one from their goals.

Great job tying this data driven approach into several different areas. Let me add one to my count of excellent PPND articles!

Senia 17 May 2010 - 3:45 pm


This is MY FAVORITE of your articles on PPND, and you’ve written a lot of great ones! I think this is super, concise, useful advice, and clearly based on research.

Here’s a lovely article by Marshall Goldsmith about counting what matters:

Questions That Make a Difference Every Day


Dan Bowling 17 May 2010 - 6:44 pm

Doggone it Dave, you have done it again. Every time I try to clean up my computer and delete stuff you go and write another article that I end up downloading,emailing, and saving in about five different places. Please quit offering such practical advice for practical people! Your articles are way too good, insightful, and smart. Either you quit writing or I am going to have to get a new hard drive!

Dan B

Dr. Steve Wright 17 May 2010 - 11:14 pm

I agree with Senia – great article. I love that you’ve explained (in a way easily understood by non-scientists) a central reason that science is successful, and go on to give useful examples of how to use that principle to improve our everyday lives.

I only occasionally tweet on twitter, but I’ll be telling people about this article.

JM @ Calgary Psychology 18 May 2010 - 3:52 am

Interesting perspective. I think positive emotions are very difficult to quantify that’s why some social scientists tend to dismiss studies on emotions such as love, happiness, etc. I think the examples you gave are a great way to measure positive emotions. These can help other social scientists who want to study positive emotions using experimental methods, instead of the usual correlational or qualitative methods.

oz 18 May 2010 - 5:19 am

Traditional aerobic fitness training trumps pedometer-based walking programs for health benefits


Dave Shearon 18 May 2010 - 7:48 am

Jeremy – Thanks! Great article in the NYT. Enjoyed it.
Senia – Ditto, and the Goldsmith article brings in “Other people matter”! Love his wife’s quote, “It is a lot easier to blow off a computer than a friend.” Makes me think of the line from “Crocodile Dundee” when Mick hears about the use of therapists in America, “What, ain’t they got no mates?”
Dan, Dr. Steve, and JM — much appreciated!
oz – Trying not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. The sequence I’m focusing on is “Baseline, improve, challenge.”

Jeff 19 May 2010 - 5:39 pm


Your ideas strike a chord with me. Motivating yourself to start and keep counting is tricky (motivation again!). Counting is a key ingredient to the goal pursuit pie. How do you keep counting and for that matter, what is a way to strike to the core of what matters and count that, not the other rabbit trails that are less important. Example: if you wanted to be happier and counted dollars mistakenly vice happy moments.

Matthew Cornell 27 July 2010 - 10:38 am

I think this work is important, and Gary’s piece was seminal. These ideas generalize into a wider life-as-experiment perspective, and I’d like to link to my response and outline of how it all might fit together here: The Experiment-Driven Life (http://www.matthewcornell.org/2010/06/the-experiment-driven-life.html). Also, we’re working on a tool for self-experimenters, called Edison (http://edison.thinktrylearn.com/). Great stuff!

The Success Agents 4 February 2011 - 6:42 pm

A very interesting article. The idea of numbers as resilience and coping strategy ties in well to its ability to motivate you to continue to achieve, even when the chips are down (as Dave recounts about Barbara Fredrickson’s experience). Drucker’s quote is also very true, without numbers it is difficult to manage progress, and without the feeling of tangible progress in a task it could lead to negative affect and failing in the goal.

More of the same interesting articles please!



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