Counting your blessings: a happiness experiment

Ana Vargas Santos
4 min readNov 8, 2017

For the last couple of months I’ve been trying out something that led me to a wonderful realization. As with most realizations in my adult life, it all started with a book. And a TED Talk. And a lot of research*.

The more I read, the more I became curious about one specific experiment: the gratitude intervention. It basically consists of getting people to write down things they feel grateful for on a daily or weekly basis in order to promote their ability to appreciate, relive and remember the positive events of their lives. After doing this for 21 days in a row, the brain is supposed to start focusing on positive rather than negative experiences.

So, I decided to give it a try. I picked up a small notebook, personalized it, and started writing down one thing I felt grateful for each day.

And here is the realization I came to: by making a conscious effort to focus on the positive aspects of my day through a long series of days, not only have I been feeling more optimistic, but I also have been less able to remember the bad things (and trust me, there’s a lot on my plate right now). Plus, this simple practice gave me an energy container for the harder days: every time I feel I’ve had a bad day, I can easily go back to a previous memory and relive that feeling of gratitude in my mind, which in turn makes me more grateful for my life as a whole.

So, I thought it would be great if more people got to try this practice and see if it works. I could just drop a catchy call to action and hope for the best, but, honestly, we know how motivation works. Tell me about the benefits of dried fruits and I will think “that’s great, I would love to try that”. Put a bag of dried fruits next to me in the office and I will surely give it a try. So, I thought I’d go with the second, here’s-your-bag-of-dried-fruits, approach: I partnered with my friend Catarina Machado to create a set of notebooks, and I invited 10 people to embark on this experiment.

For 21 days, they will be trying to turn gratitude into a habit. After that, I will be gathering feedback from their experience: Did they manage to keep the practice? Did it have an impact? Are they willing to keep doing it in the long run, after the experiment is over? The answers will, hopefully, help us draw more solid conclusions about the results of the gratitude intervention on the lives of real people, like you and me.

In the meanwhile, if you’re willing to try it out, here are some Frequently Asked Questions (mostly by myself while thinking this through, but check to see if they fit your doubts too):

Is this something we’re supposed to do by ourselves, or can we do it with someone else? You can do it either way. I actually did the experiment with my boyfriend: we would sit together every night and each one would write their own grateful memories. We would then read each other’s writing. In some cases, the experience was the same, but told in a different way (which is an interesting way to understand differences in how we go through the same events); in other cases, we wrote about different experiences. Going through this practice together was a strong determinant of our ability to keep going, because when one of us didn’t feel like writing, the other would set the example.

What if we stop writing for a couple of days (or more)? Is the experiment doomed? Not at all. This happened to me too, and I had someone to push me to write. It’s normal, I think. It’s just part of the experience of initiating a new habit. The process should be similar to a mindfulness practice: whenever you catch your motivation wandering for a bit, just acknowledge the fact and bring it back into focus, by picking up from where you’ve stopped. I’ve tried recalling the days I had missed, but I realized that it only put more pressure on me; so I would recommend just writing about the present day, leaving the ones you missed behind.

Still have doubts? Just drop me a line.

*In case you’re interested, I would recommend reading:

  • This summary of findings on Gratitude and Well-being
  • This article on the impact of noticing good things at work
  • This philosophical essay on gratitude

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Ana Vargas Santos

HR Research Partner. I write about learning and career management.