Three Good Things

All difficult decisions reflect intrinsic motivations, usually a tug-of-war between a value-based goal that requires sacrifice and a more comfortable "good-enough" alternative. If, as Stulberg et al. contend, self-preservation limits your physical and mental capabilities, then a full understanding of your core values and their importance to your long term thriving helps to transcend the human tendency to take the path of least resistance. The three good things practice seems like a worthwhile one in a season that is almost inescapably stressful.

Three Good Things

Earlier this week, Barbell Logic published an article on Mental Toughness. The article discussed how core values fuel mental toughness. (Read: Mental Toughness and Core Values here.)  For most, “toughness” suggests aggressive resistance to any and all opposition; to be tough, you must remain obdurate to the persuasions of comfort and self-preservation no matter what. Mental toughness, however, is meaningless without an overarching purpose; it should be forward-looking. Rather than waiting for some opposition and reacting to it, the article argues that we should set our goals with care and clarity. That way, when opposition comes, your core values act like cues, reminding you of your big-picture goals, helping you make decisions that might be especially difficult. There are many ways to think about mental toughness. This one calls for a positive focus on your values rather than a callousness to the inevitable resistance you will encounter to any long-term, worthwhile goal.   

Importantly, these values should go beyond your “self,” at least according to Brad Stulberg and his colleagues who collected their observations in the book “Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success.” They write, “By focusing on a self-transcending purpose, or a reason for doing something beyond our ‘self,’ we can override our ego and break through our self-imposed limits.” All difficult decisions reflect intrinsic motivations, usually a tug-of-war between a value-based goal that requires sacrifice and a more comfortable “good-enough” alternative. If, as Stulberg et al. contend, self-preservation limits your physical and mental capabilities, then a full understanding of your core values and their importance to your long term thriving helps to transcend the human tendency to take the path of least resistance.

(We discussed this trait and its potentially harmful effects here: “Fighting Against the Crowd.”) 

Moreover, people who focus on positive tend to be more psychologically flexible and, at least in our characterization, mentally tough. Not unlike when someone suggested you all go around the table and say something you’re thankful for to fill an awkward silence during Thanksgiving dinner yesterday, the act of identifying good things seems to tap into principles of psychological flexibility:

“Psychological flexibility actually refers to a number of dynamic processes that unfold over time. This could be reflected by how a person: (1) adapts to fluctuating situational demands, (2) reconfigures mental resources, (3) shifts perspective, and (4) balances competing desires, needs, and life domains.” (Psychological Flexibility as a Fundamental Aspect of Health.)

How we develop these dynamic processes is a little bit trickier and the focus of continuing research into positive psychology. (See Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi, Positive Psychology: An Introduction,” Am. Psych. Vol. 55, No. 1. 5-14 (January 2000).)

In 2005, psychologists Martin Seligman and Tracy Steen tested several positive interventions and their effect on people’s happiness and depressive tendencies. Based on their findings, they popularized an exercise called “Three Good Things in Life.” For this exercise, study participants wrote down three things each day that went well and a causal explanation for those things. Their study concluded that the three good things practice “increased happiness and decreased depressive symptoms for six months.” Rather than an immediate effect, however, they found that these participants were happier beginning one month after the one-week experiment, particularly for those participants that voluntarily continued the practice of writing down three good things every day despite the study having ended.

Though there are plenty of issues with the three good things studies, the practice of finding three good things struck us as similar to the Peak Performance/Core Values approach to toughness/resilience/flexibility. Both speak to a particular perspective, one that looks beyond our immediate stress and cares and seeks to connect present stress to bigger issues. Also, having just finished the Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S., perhaps we are just in the mood for looking at the good things in life and reflecting on them. Either way, the three good things practice seems like a worthwhile one in a season that is almost inescapably stressful.

There is little doubt that holiday stress can bring your training down. We’ve talked about ways to avoid burnout before, and we would add an at least passive perspective as that encouraged by the three good things practice to the list. (Read: “Avoiding Burnout” here.)

How you do it:

Three Good Things practice is simple. Every evening

  1. Write down three things that went well today.
  2. Write down a causal explanation for each good thing. It can be helpful to ask, “what was your role in bringing it about?”

The practice seems to work better if you do it every day for a short while. The original study had participants write down three good things every day for a week, but the most significant effects came to those who continued the practice after the study. Think of this as developing a habit of reflecting on your day and focusing on the positive things in it.

We’d love to hear any other practices you have found helpful for dealing with stress, becoming more flexible, or achieving some form of mental toughness on your own.

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