Attention and Gratitude

We’ve found there are ways that you can train your brain to be able to become more positive. In just a two-minute span of time done for 21 days in a row, we can actually rewire your brain, allowing your brain to actually work more optimistically and more successfully. We’ve done these things in research now in every company that I’ve worked with, getting them to write down three new things that they’re grateful for for 21 days in a row, three new things each day. And at the end of that, their brain starts to retain a pattern of scanning the world not for the negative, but for the positive first.
— Shawn Anchor

I did Anchor’s 21 day exercise when I first saw his TED talk, and liked it. I think the reason was that he requires three new things a day, so you can’t mindlessly repeat what you wrote yesterday or a week ago. It makes you pay attention to what good things are happening to you.

Interestingly, in her book The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubormirsky says that doing gratitude exercises every day doesn’t work. Her research showed that gratitude exercises once a week worked best; in fact she says that participants who counted their blessings three times a week didn’t obtain any benefit from the exercise.

Ruth Whippman points out in her book, America the Anxious, that Lyubormisky has done three studies of gratitude exercises, one of which showed a small benefit, one of which showed no benefit, and one of which showed the gratitude group feeling worse than the control group. So despite recommendations to do gratitude exercises, there seems to be no scientific evidence that they work. (In fact, Whippman’s whole chapter on Positive Psychology is fascinating.)

And yet, and yet. Despite the lack of evidence, it somehow seems that doing gratitude exercises must have some benefit because to do it well you have to pay attention to what is happening to you.

This is certainly the thinking behind the 5 Minute Journal. You are asked to spend  about five minutes every day: in the morning write down what you are grateful for and what would make the day great (something within your control). In the evening you write down “amazing things” that happened today, and what could have made the day “even better”.

5 Minute Journal

My daughter recommended the 5 Minute Journal to me so I bought a copy for me and one for Tanya. It’s not cheap – $22.95 for a journal with enough pages for 6 months – but that works out to be less than $1 a week so I thought, why not?

I did it for 46 days but ended quitting because towards the end I felt I was just going through the motions without any benefit. Tanya also quit around the same time.

I still like the general idea because I do believe it’s important and useful to pay attention to the things that happen, but am going to print pages with slightly different questions. First I don’t like the relentless optimism: “make today great”, “3 Amazing things”, “even better”. Second, I think there are different things one can pay attention to. For example, what gave me pleasure and what gave me satisfaction are very different types of things and I’d rather look at them separately.

So here are some of the things I’m thinking of including.


  • Things I want to get done
  • Things that are important for me to do
  • Something that will take me out of my comfort zone


  • Things that gave me pleasure
  • Things that gave me satisfaction
  • Things I’m glad I did
  • Things that took me out of my comfort zone
  • Things that went well – and why
  • Things that didn’t go well – and why

I’ll be curious to see how this exercise goes. Will it be beneficial? Will I get bored? How long will I sustain it? Which questions will turn out to be useful and which not? I’m sure I’ll modify the list as I discover which items are useful and I think of better items to add.

If you have any suggestions of other questions I’d love to hear them.

Links and Other Clicks

Sonja Lyubomirsky’s book, The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want.

Ruth Whippman’s book, America the Anxious: How our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks. Here’s an article Whippman wrote about her book. And here’s a review of the book. I loved the book and found her explorations fascinating.

You can get a PDF Quick Start Guide to the 5 Minute Journal. Or just buy the journal here or on Amazon.

My online graphic book, The Happiness Dance.

Here’s Shawn Anchor’s wonderful TED talk where he talks about writing down three new things you are grateful for every day.

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