Dr. Lindsay Malloy, co-founder of Pandemic Parenting
It would be difficult to guess how many interventions that psychologists have tested over the years to try to improve people’s well-being. If you never slept, worked, or did anything else for the next decade (or longer!) you probably couldn’t read every self-help book on the market. Not to mention you could spend a lot of money trying to increase your happiness…especially while pandemic parenting.
But what if I told you, pandemic parents, that there’s something you can do at home for a few minutes a day – something that is cheap and easy – that has been shown in numerous studies to have positive effects on well-being, increase happiness, and decrease symptoms of depression?
What is this magic, you ask?
A gratitude journal
I know it sounds a little hokey and frankly a bit TOO easy, but hear me out. Years ago, I saw Dr. Martin Seligman – commonly referred to as the “father of positive psychology” – give a talk on the subject, and I was floored to learn of the scientific evidence supporting such a simple intervention.
All you need is a notebook and a pen. Or you can treat yourself to something a little fancier. You can also use your computer or type it in an app on your phone – the important thing is that you have some sort of record of what you are writing.
Write down three things that went well that day
…what Dr. Seligman calls “three good things.” And, importantly, write down their causes – why did those three things go well? They can be big, monumental life events (e.g., getting a promotion at work or becoming an aunt) or they can be smaller, seemingly insignificant events (e.g., an accident-free day while potty training your toddler or convincing your homeschooling teen to do their homework without an argument). You don’t have to write a novel – a few sentences will do.
The great news is that this quick exercise has been shown to increase happiness and decrease depressive symptoms for up to six months!
Personally, I like jotting down my “three good things” just before bed. I find it to be quite helpful to fall asleep thinking of a few things that went well that day, rather than ruminating on the things that went wrong or worrying about what the next day will bring.
Bonus points for sharing this positive behavior with your family! I’ve started keeping a child-friendly gratitude journal with my young kids (ages 3 and 5). They write or draw a picture of three things that made them happy that day. Sure, the 5-year-old’s response tends to be “Pokemon, Pokemon, Pokemon” but it’s the process of reflecting and expressing gratitude that matters here, right?
I am not at all suggesting that you should try to treat clinical depression with this exercise – if you are experiencing significant symptoms of depression or anxiety, you should seek the guidance of a professional for treatment. But for those who need a little boost to your well-being right now (and who doesn’t?), this little trick won’t take much of your time or energy (precious commodities while parenting in a pandemic) and has plenty of science backing it up.
As the holidays are fast approaching, consider giving nice notebooks and pens to family and friends along with an explanation of the “three good things” exercise and the psychological science behind it. We all could use the gift of gratitude – now more than ever.
Lindsay Malloy, Ph.D.
Dr. Lindsay Malloy is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Ontario Tech University, specializing in developmental and forensic psychology. She is the Director of the Development, Context, and Communication Lab and her research addresses how, why, and to whom children and teens disclose negative or traumatic experiences, as well as factors that influence children’s memory, deception, and narratives. She frequently provides expert testimony and consultation related to children’s communication about and memory of difficult events. Dr. Malloy is also a wife and mother of two young children trying to navigate all of the COVID-19 uncertainty with a little help from chocolate and Disney Plus. Learn more about Pandemic Parenting here.