On the nights I am lucky enough to put my son to bed, I have learned to treasure a ritual that we established over a year ago, during my first semester as a student in Penn’s Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) program. Always looking for the “A” in MAPP, I was almost single-mindedly focused on “How is this going to matter in the real world?” types of questions. I wouldn’t say I was a doubting Thomas, although, looking back, I honestly might have been. Back then, especially for me, the best way to determine how positive psychology worked was to test out some of the theories in my own life.So, I started doing a variation of the Three Blessings exercise every night with my little boy, Jonah, which he quickly termed “Three Good Things.” I am not sure how many days it took to become a habit (I, unfortunately, lacked some rigor in this aspect of my research), but I am a firm believer that this is one of the most powerful interventions and one of the easiest to perform. Now, Jonah reminds me if I forget to be thankful for all the good things that happen to me each day. Prior to my MAPP experience, I would have been skeptical at the notion of cultivating gratitude. Who knew that I would be seeing it happen almost every night at bedtime only a few months into the program?
Seeing the effect Three Good Things had on Jonah inspired a developing interest in the potential impact positive psychology can have on children at a very young age. Psychologists such as Martin Seligman, Jane Gillham and Karen Reivich have performed extensive research concerning high school and middle school students and positive psychology (Penn Resiliency Project), however, I had a more difficult time finding studies involving younger, elementary school aged children. I am looking forward to the progress that will inevitably be made in this arena over the next several years. As with language, hopefully we can find ways for young children to incorporate positive ways of thinking and being into habit while their minds and capabilities are still developing.
Very curious about what Jonah, being a very typical 7-year-old boy, gets out of doing three good things, I decided to perform a one-subject, qualitative study (I use these research terms very loosely here) of my own. Our conversation, as it often does, provided a perspective that I found enlightening and endearing. I continue to be amazed by some of the insights young children have before they learn to become skeptics. Jonah already clearly has a handle on how gratitude and being thankful for the good things in life works in the real world. I only hope I can continue to foster his beliefs as he grows into adulthood.
Here are some research questions from this “study”, with adult translations when necessary (requested and confirmed by Jonah to make sure the grown-ups reading this “get it.”).
Mom: “What do you think of our bed-time tradition of talking about three good things?”
Jonah: “Umm, I like it. It’s like, you know… good to share good stuff… Why? Don’t you like it?” (Clearly I responded “yes.”)
Mom: “Why do you think we like doing three good things?”
Jonah: “Because you get to share your day with the people that you love and the things you share are probably things you’d like to do again. Usually, you share something that either makes you happy or you had fun with. And it feels good to be happy. I mean, you might have an amazing good thing that you liked. And the thing that you liked is probably something that you found, did, helped someone, or felt loved about.”
Mom: “Why do you think it feels good to talk about our good things?”
Jonah: “Maybe because you might have something that wasn’t fun so if you talk about the good things, well, the bad things you won’t think about any more.”
Adult translation: Focusing on the positive can help detract from the power of the negative.
Mom: “How do you choose your good things?”
Jonah: “The weird thing is, you might have not did a good thing or had fun, so, you can share something that you think someone else had fun with… because that would be good to have something good happen to someone you love, too…”
Adult translation: Our happiness can be enhanced with the increased happiness of those around us.
Mom: “Is it always easy to think of three good things?”
Jonah: “You might get stressed because you might not be able to get one out. Oh, but if it was Saturday, or Sunday, your parents could help you share one. Because Saturday and Sunday are home days so your parents will probably know what you did because you were probably on vacation with them or outside or watching TV or reading a book with your parents. Or, if you’re somebody that doesn’t have any three good things, and your parents can’t help you think of one, you can share it with your friends who might think of something and you could brainstorm.”
Adult translation: Sometimes its important to have people around who remind us of the good things we have.
Mom: “Do you think it would be good to teach other people how to do three good things?”
Jonah: “I think it would, but you shouldn’t just, like, come in and stuff… You’d have to let them pick whether it was something they’d want to do. They might want to do other things or have another feeling.”
Adult translation: “You can’t force other people to be grateful for what they have, but, you can offer opportunities to share.”
Mom: “Do you think it would be just as good to talk about more than three things? Why do we pick three?”
Jonah: “There might be like a thousand or a million things you liked that you did today, but you’ll only choose three, and those will be your best.”
“I think it is the just right amount because you don’t have to add or keep track too much because it’s only three. What I mean is, if you have three, you might have one favorite, then the second favorite then the third. If there were more, then you might change your mind all the time because you would have your most favorite thing confused and then you’d have to keep it all straight in your head so three is good, actually.”
Adult translation: Four would be one too many. Sometimes less is more. Think Barry Schwartz and his Paradox of Choice.
Final (and my personal favorite) closing comment…
“You know what would be cool, if you asked your old teacher, like from that college thing you did, if you could publish this and kids would want to read it.”
Jonah James Hausmann (Age 7)