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)
A version of this article appears in Gratitude: How to Appreciate Life’s Gifts. The image was drawn by Kevin Gillespie for that book.
Reading this makes me so happy! Thank you, Jen! Thank you, Jonah!
It’s just so real and fun. My parents used to say when I was a kid that kids know the real depth of things. They know what things really are, the truth behind things. I see that here.
Jonah, I especially like your point about how you shouldn’t just come in and stuff and make someone do the exercise – only if they want to, and they might have ideas about how they enjoy doing the exercise. Finally, I call this “three great things” also just like your “three good things.” Thanks, you joint authors!
Your experience with Jonah reminds me of a friend who complained that she didn’t know how to have fun. I suggested that she ask her 9-year-old son. When she did, he wrote her a manual of things to do — many of which were doing things with him.
Thank you for bringing us Jonah’s wisdom. Jonah, thanks for sharing.
DOUBLE PLUS GOOD! Jen,
My wife is a guidance counselor at the elementary level and I swapped email correspondence with Jon Haidt & Karen Reivich (among others) about how to tap into the Resiliency and happiness exercises for the vulnerable and impressionable younger ages. Isn’t prevention at least as powerful if not moreso than cure?
Well, no one has an answer except social modeling…show the monkey and see the monkey dance like you! I can’t wait for the big brains to delve into this elementary topic.
You are doing some extremely important action research!
Keep going and sharing with us.
Here’s a little tweak that might help boost the efficacy of Three Good Things.
I’ve been putting a lot of thought into this one and as usual somebody beat me to it by a couple thousand years. Here goes anyway.
Distinct from the broader terms of meditation and imagery, simming could mean mixing sensory input both mental and physical-external to rehearse & practice a skill. Whereas with meditation perhaps you monitor your breath, in simming you construct extremely vivid mental sights, smells, tastes, touch, motion in a mental movie with sensory benefits. It is focused daydreaming for the purpose of rehearsal and physical practice.
Sports psychologists talk about imagery, but I think simming could expand this vital concept further. For example, maybe you now include real world motion into the simagery. You actually get off your bum and physically rehearse the movements that form part of the skill. In effect you are doubling the practice, because you are mentally focusing on the moment while tracing physical actions with your body.
This has the potential of incorporating more moments of flow or seconds in the zone. Again a key difference between simming and imagery is the potential inclusion of SimProps.
The impetus for SimProps came from a combo of playing The Sims, the popular computer game and thinking about medieval memory palaces. Also called the method of loci, this mnemonic device has us walk through real world places to remember names, dates, faces, whatever information we need to regurgitate. With SimProps you put together a physical journey of cues for the Simagery that you want to conjure up and rehearse.
How does this fit with happiness/the Three Blessings (3+)?
Well, I think incorporating more vivid mental images would increase the mnemonic value of the 3+ dramatically. I forget what you tell me, so the saying goes. I forget part of what I hear & see. What I practice I remember forever. So we could form a sort of mental palace of Good Things that we could make a fabric of our existence every single day.
The habit of “walking the SimProperty” could jolt us out of negativity and strongly complement the 3+ exercise.
An example of a SimProp is your daily commute: if you consider the door to your house a memory Peg, the walkway to your car another peg, the carwash on the right of the road another peg, all the way to your jobsite the final peg, then you start practicing adding your Good Things to the pegs. That’s great. Then you sim it each day until you know the good events like the back of your hand. You could recite, relive and rehearse them in your sleep. You have become “one with the simagery”. Art now becomes life and life art.
Finally, this could apply to past, present and future events, so that you could incorporate forgiveness practice, gratitude, hope & optimism, savoring, etc. once you got the basics well mastered.
Loved hearing about the three good things that happened in a day wish I would have known about, three good things , when my kids were young. If I ever have grandkids, I well tell my children about it so they can share it with their children . When I found myself yelling at the kids when they were teenager I would quiet often apologize and say I didn’t like what you did but I had a bad day at work sorry for yelling at you.
I’ve been doing some more Deep Thinking. Why is it we drive through our lives with a 3 pound black box on our shoulders that we really don’t understand, but tricks us into assuming that we know everything about it?
It is too easy to blow off the 3+ exercise as a fluffball with a happiness potential equal to the mere hedonic pleasures of, to quote Dr. S,
“…eating ice cream, masturbating, having a massage, or using drugs…”
(I need a new hobby).
Look at how Time magazine article backhands the MAPP movement in this recent article from the FRIENDS- OF-PP LISTSERV.
“His program (Csikszentmihalyi’s)… isn’t about quick fixes. Rather than teaching people how to be happy or educating happiness coaches, the school will train graduate students first in statistical methodology and then in specific research techniques…” etc etc.
Happiness coaches are pioneers. So-called quick fixes are necessary for a desperate population, many of who are suicidal or merely piddling their lives away living far below their potential for lack of simple SWB skills and cannot wait years to prove through meta-analytic studies the precise value of each intervention. A good plan now is better than a perfect plan in five years.
Just exactly how many studies do you need to use toilet paper? Yeah, but what if bumwiping doesn’t eliminate 100 percent of the bacteria? Science that you can base key decisions on evolves like snails mate: very slowly. I’ll be dealing with a mid-life crisis before happiness science approaches ‘definitive’ whatever that means. You all provide timely experiments for everyone to use and keep or reject as we see fit.
We base life and death decisions on anecdotal evidence every single day, like when driving to work. Will that deer jump in front of me? Don’t know, I’ll slow down and go around the goofy bugger. The trial and error of daily action research can provide guidance for us mere mortals, bringing a little bit of empiricism to the average person and giving a sense of whether our actions are effective. Just as long as our ‘black boxes’ don’t fool us into believing the grounded exercises, like the 3+ and disputing, are just quick fixes.
Jen: I enjoy reading your writings. Your personality clearly shines through in all your write. You better get Mr. Jonah James Haunsmann enrolled in the next MAPP program! Thanks for sharing this special bedtime ritual with us.
All the best, Doug
I love your “research” with Jonah! His innocence is so refreshing; I want to give him a hug. And Jonah’s insights are so great; he makes it clear that happiness involves effort. And the “three good things” exercise really helps boost our happiness!
Just came across this when I Googled Jonah’s name to see what might have been listed.
What a wonderful daily habit for him to reflect on positive things in his life and the lives of others.
Keith Sr. forwarded me this article you wrote and I thought it was wonderful. I can’t wait to begin with Sara (now 6 yr old!) and Melanie (maybe too old, but I’ll still try). I don’t see Jonah hardly ever, but he sounds like a great kids. Thanks for sharing your experience.
I miss you.
I began this exercise with my sons Seth and Zach five years ago or so, when they were 5 and 3. And I think I knew it was working when one day, while doing something fun, Zach (4 at the time) said to me, “Daddy, this is going to be one of my three things!”
Hi all, I’ve created a facebook page on the 3 Blessings which i hope to share, and all of us will be able to keep track and post our daily 3 blessings! =)
enjoy! and feel free to share!