The “What Went Well?” Bedtime Journaling Experiment

What if a simple 5-10 minute bedtime experiment could give you a more positive outlook on life?

In 2012, Martin Seligman, the person whom some call the father of modern positive psychology, published Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being. It is a powerful text that offers the reader insights on human flourishing, which he describes as occurring when a person experiences the presence of five key elements in one’s life: positive emotion, engagement, positive relationships, meaning, and a sense of accomplishment (PERMA).

Amid his description of cultivating more positive emotion, Seligman describes a simple bedtime practice that promises to produce a greater sense of gratitude and well-being. He even validated the efficacy of the practice in a formal study. Following is a simple version of that exercise.

  1. Select a journal/notebook and pen, setting it beside your bed and dedicating it to this experiment.
  2. Each night, place the date at the top of the page, and then write down three things that went well that day.
  3. After each thing that went well, write down, as best as you can surmise, why it went well.
  4. Repeat this each night for at least a week.

It might sound simple, but Seligman’s research indicates that people begin to develop a more optimistic outlook, quieting some of the negative thinking that sometimes consumes our minds and reduces our sense of well-being.

A Few Tips:

  1. When you answer the question, “What went well?”, it doesn’t need to be something extraordinary. It might be that someone greeted you at work, that you had a filling breakfast, that you met that deadline at work, that you woke up on time, or that you had a pleasant conversation with a stranger (or friend) at some point during the day.
  2. This doesn’t demand much time. Seligman suggests 10 minutes of journaling. If that is too much for you, make it 3-5 minutes.
  3. Write in complete sentences or make it is a bullet list with keywords, but make sure that you actually write it down each night.
  4. After a week, pause to think about if or how this exercise is influencing your thinking at night and, over time, during the day. Do you notice a difference?
  5. The Seligman experiment calls for people to do this for at least 7 days. If you are up for the challenge and finding it rewarding, consider a 30-day experiment, or maybe even make it an ongoing bedtime ritual. At least one study indicated that there were notable increases in optimism and feeling good about their lives after 10 weeks of a gratitude exercise similar to this.

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