Thinking about positive outcomes is not enough to build a solid foundation of optimism and self-esteem. Adults need to identify their unconscious negativity and reframe. Then, they need to repeatedly reaffirm with positive words and actions.
For children and young adults, writing appears to be one of the most effective ways to achieve these important skills. High school students were asked to do the following task for ten days. Each night, before going to bed, they wrote down three things they did well that day. Then they stopped. At first no one noticed much improvement. Yet, with each passing month, for the next three months, the student’s sense of happiness and well-being dramatically increased. [i] And yes, it also has similar benefits for adults. [ii]
The author of these famous studies, Martin Seligman, who founded the field of positive psychology, added that the effects will not fade away, as is the case with placebos.
Imagine: If just ten days of reflecting on what we do well can generate months of psychological improvement, what would happen if you wrote down your accomplishments each day for a month?
That’s what we recommend you do. Repeat this exercise anytime you feel frustrated in your work, your relationships, or your life.
Studies such as these also emphasize the power of the pen. In other words, it’s not just your imagination that primes your brain for success. Writing deepens the impact by affecting different language centers in the brain thereby creating more permanent changes in how you think. So if you want to transform a negative outlook on life, we suggest that you stimulate as many language centers in your brain as possible.
Listen to positive words and messages. Read uplifting and encouraging novels. Think about the positive aspects and successes in your life and write them down. Then share your successes with others. Not only will it strengthen your own resolve, but it will also stimulate the listener’s brain in positive ways.
But beware: the pen can be a double-edged sword. If you write down your negative feelings and thoughts, or write in your journal about stressful events, you’ll tend to feel more emotionally distraught and report more symptoms of illness.[iii]
In fact, the more often you write about negative emotions, the more anxious and depressed you’ll become.[iv]
On the other hand, brief written commentaries about anxious feelings can alleviate those symptoms temporarily, and as researchers at the University of Chicago discovered, “Simply writing about one’s worries before a high-stakes exam can boost test scores.”[v]
Here’s another strategy children and adults can use to make positive changes. Keep a daily list of blessings and experiences for which you feel thankful. Research from around the world shows that this will improve your mood and enhance your personal relationships. [vi]
When 221 young adolescents were asked to keep a gratitude journal for three weeks, their sense of well-being, optimism, and satisfaction with life improved. [vii] When they kept lists of daily hassles, their moods and coping behaviors did not improve.[viii]
Children who feel the most gratitude exhibit greater satisfaction and optimism and have better relationships with their peers. [ix] When minority students wrote about themselves in positive ways, their sense of personal adequacy and integrity improved, along with their grades in school. [x]
If you write down your most important goals, as specifically as you can, research shows that you’ll be more likely to achieve them. [xi]
When we teach our children these strategies, the benefits will continue into adulthood.
[i] “A balanced psychology and a full life.” Seligman M. E., Parks A. C., Steen T. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London: Series B, Biological Sciences. 2004 Sep 29; 359(1449):1379–81.
[ii] “Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions.” Seligman M. E., Steen T. A., Park N, Peterson C. American Psychologist. 2005 Jul–Aug; 60(5):410–21.
[iii] “Journaling about stressful events: Effects of cognitive processing and emotional expression.” Ullrich P. M., Lutgendorf S. K. Annals of Behavioral Medicine. 2002 Summer; 24(3):244–50.
[iv] “The effects of journaling for women with newly diagnosed breast cancer.” Smith S, Anderson-Hanley C, Langrock A, Compas B. Psycho-Oncology. 2005 Dec; 14(12):1075–82.
[v] “Writing about testing worries boosts exam performance in the classroom.” Ramirez G, Beilock S. L. Science. 2011 Jan 14; 331(6014):211–13.
[vi] “The effects of counting blessings on subjective well-being: A gratitude intervention in a Spanish sample.” Martínez-Martí M. L., Avia M. D., Hernández-Lloreda M. J. Spanish Journal of Psychology. 2010 Nov; 13(2):886-96. “Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life.” Emmons R. A., McCullough M. E. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2003 Feb; 84(2):377–89.
[vii] “Counting blessings in early adolescents: An experimental study of gratitude and subjective well-being.” Froh J. J., Sefick W. J., Emmons R. A. Journal of School Psychology. 2008 Apr; 46(2):213–33. Epub 2007 May 4.
[viii] “Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life.” Emmons R. A., McCullough M. E. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2003 Feb; 84(2):377–89.
[ix] “Gratitude and subjective well-being in early adolescence: Examining gender differences.” Froh J. J., Yurkewicz C, Kashdan T. B. Journal of Adolescence. 2009 Jun; 32(3):633–50.
[x] “Reducing the racial achievement gap: A social-psychological intervention.” Cohen G. L., Garcia J, Apfel N, Master A. Science. 2006 Sep 1; 313(5791):1307–10.
[xi] “Personal goals and prolonged grief disorder symptoms.” Boelen PA. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy. 2010 Dec 1. doi: 10.1002/cpp.731