I was finishing up the Certificate in Positive Psychology at the Kripalu Center. Led by Tal Ben-Shahar, it was a 9-month program in the field of positive psychology. My final project was due and I decided to do a gratitude project with my boyfriend and two kids. Typically, gratitude projects involve writing down three things that you’re grateful for before you get to bed. There is a lot of research that proves that this increases happiness levels and is good for you on multiple levels. I decided to do something a little bit more specific to relationships to see if I could cultivate more loving feelings and open-heartedness with these three very important people in my life.
I started with this passage from Martin Seligman’s book, Flourish:
We think too much about what goes wrong and not enough about what goes right in our lives. Of course, sometimes it makes sense to analyze bad events so that we can learn from them and avoid them in the future. However, people tend to spend more time thinking about what is bad in life than is helpful. Worse, this focus on negative events sets us up for anxiety and depression. One way to keep this from happening is to get better at thinking about and savoring what went well.
He goes on to offer this “experiment”.
Every night for the next week, set aside ten minutes before you go to sleep. Write down three things that went well today and why they went well. You may use a journal or your computer to write about the events, but it is important that you have a physical record of what you wrote. The three things need not be earthshaking in importance (“My husband picked up my favorite ice cream for dessert on the way home from work today”), but they can be important (“My sister just gave birth to a healthy baby boy”).
Next to each positive event, answer the question “Why did this happen?” For example, if you wrote that your husband picked up ice cream, write “because my husband is really thoughtful sometimes” or “because I remembered to call him from work and remind him to stop by the grocery store.” Or if you wrote, “My sister just gave birth to a healthy baby boy,” you might pick as the cause … “She did everything right during her pregnancy.”
So I took this experiment and I modified it a little. I asked my 12 year old daughter, my 14 year old son, and my 61 year old partner if they would participate with me. Everyone was a little resistant but I explained that it was for work and finally everyone agreed.
For one week, every day, I would spend 10 minutes with each person and we would go over what had happened that day in our relationship that we were grateful for and why it had happened.
My son was the most reluctant. I would check in with him after dinner. He did not see the purpose and for the first couple of days, the most I could get out of him when I asked what he was grateful for, would be a curt, “You make me food,” and when I asked why did this happen, he would say, “Because you love me.” It didn’t feel that meaningful or connected but I persevered and by day four, the most amazing thing happened. After dinner one night, I was standing at the sink washing dishes. He came over to me to drop off his plate and he gave me a kiss on the cheek and said, “Thanks, Mom.” For those of you with teenagers, you realize what a humongous moment this was!
I had a different experience with my 12-year-old daughter. She was much more agreeable and willing to participate. We would do our check-ins at bedtime and it was easy and fun to recount something we really appreciated about each other and share how much it was proof of our love for each other. But then, midweek, she had a very bad day and was so unpleasant to be around. She was moody and sulky and everything I did was wrong in her eyes. At bedtime, when I asked her if there was anything she was grateful for, she said, “I can’t think of anything, this was a very bad day.” We sat with that together for a moment. And I said, “Well, I’m grateful that we can sit here together at the end of a very bad day and share that too and know that our love is stronger than any fight or upset.” She brightened considerably and appreciated that. This practice gave us a really beautiful context to talk about a difficult moment and to find a silver lining at the end of it.
With my boyfriend, it was a little bit different. He lives a couple of hours away, so we decided to focus on anything we were grateful for in our check-ins as opposed to something that had happened that day. We spoke first thing in the morning.
At first, to be honest, it was a little bit disappointing for me. I didn’t realize how much I was expecting these large declarations of love. Instead, I was getting things like, “I love that you wash the dishes and clean up after I cook.” It felt so mundane. But when I asked the really important question of why, it all made sense. “Because it makes me feel like we are a team, that we care about each other and want to help each other out.” Every day, he shared some action I’d taken on his behalf or something that we did together. It made me think of Gary Chapman’s work on Love Languages. Clearly, my boyfriend’s love language was Actions but I’d never realized this before.
Because my “love language” is words of appreciation, if I don’t hear it said, I almost can’t recognize it. Doing this exercise made me realize that everyday, he was telling me how much he loved me with his actions and I could barely hear it. Also, I got to learn what he valued by this practice of hearing his concrete examples of when and why he felt loved by me. It wasn’t when I was telling him how fantastic I thought he was, words weren’t his thing. It was when I did something for him that made his life easier or better. Then, he felt really loved. Now, we laugh that we’ve become bilingual in love languages. I’ve gotten much more fluent in speaking his love language and he’s gotten much more fluent in speaking mine and this experiment really helped us get there.
In all three relationships, writing down and sharing the things we appreciated about each other and why they happened was profoundly heart-opening and life changing. As Tal Ben-Shahar says, “When you appreciate the good, the good appreciates.” Although I’d heard him say this for the nine months of the training, it wasn’t until I actually put it into practice in this very concrete way that I realized how true it was.
In the words of one of my favorite philosophers, Alain de Botton, “love is a skill not a feeling” and our skills improved over the course of that week.
Also, as a postscript, it is important to document these self-tracking experiments. Because this experiment was for my training, I had to create a presentation to share in the program. When I referred to it to write this article, there was so much magic that happened that week that I had forgotten in the last six months. You swear you’ll never forget but your memory is the worst way to remember. Documentation of our experiences is the safe deposit box of our moments and the crucible of our future identity.
All you need is a notebook or a word document!
If you’re interested in getting some feedback on your self-tracking project or would like help creating one for yourself or your business, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Or find me at prismhaus.com or on Linkedin at www.linkedin.com/in/susiearnett