Some years ago I recommended the daily practice of identifying three good things that happen each day. This idea, which I got from Martin Seligman, helps you develop a more optimistic mindset. The original tip is also on the blog.
In addition to making you more optimistic, identifying “three good things” also helps you understand your values. Over the years, I have used this simple exercise as a starting place for clarifying my own value hierarchy and deepening my appreciation for the values in my life.
Here are two more steps you can take to extract more value from the “good things” that happen to you.
1. Ask yourself, “What does this mean to me?”
I’ve often suggested asking “what does this mean to me?” to dig deeper into a negative emotion. It’s a question that can send you into tears when you’re feeling vulnerable. But it’s equally powerful for fleshing out why a “good thing” is good.
I figured this out one day, quite a while ago, when I was discouraged about the political situation. I had written my list of “good things,” but I still felt down. So I decided to try this extra step, and I was able to turn around my mood.
It wasn’t hard. One of the items on my “good things” list was that I had edited a piece of writing and sent it out. Its meaning for me was that I had fulfilled my commitment, and that I take pride in fulfilling my commitments. Another item on the list was that I completed an apparently trivial chore (bringing a necklace to be repaired). When I thought about the meaning to me of that chore, it had some personal symbolic significance.
None of these “good things” generated much positive emotion — until I thought about their meaning. In fact, I was amazed at how inspired I got from this extra step. I noticed that instead of feeling discouraged, I was energized.
2. Identify the deep rational values at stake
It’s not always easy to discover meaning yourself. An aid to this is to look specifically for “deep rational values.”
In Ayn Rand’s words, “a value is that which one acts to gain and/or keep.” A rational value is a value that is in fact good for you. A deep rational value is a fundamental one, a value that is closely related to meeting basic needs of human existence. You can see my list of deep rational values in my OFNR Quick Reference Sheet.
Every action you take is motivated in some way by your deepest values. This list can help you find that link.
For example, here are three good things that happened to me yesterday:
- I caught up on sending out recordings to clients.
- I played tennis with a “real” person.
- My mother arrived for a visit.
I didn’t see sending out the recordings as deeply meaningful at first. It helped me clear my task list. But when I looked at the list of deep rational values, I saw that it helped me gain two mental values: “crow”1 space and closure. In addition, it was a contribution to the learning of the clients who got the recordings. It was also fulfilling a responsibility, and, an instance of productiveness — actually creating a material value.
On the other hand, playing tennis with a “real” person had obvious meaning to me. As background, you need to know that last October I decided to learn to play tennis, not knowing the rules of the game, nor how to throw a ball, hit a ball, or run. (That is a slight exaggeration, but only slight.) I have been taking lessons 4-5 times a month ever since. However, I had been playing only in lessons, because I wasn’t good enough to play with a “real” person, or at least not the real people I know. We would not have been able to maintain any kind of volley.
Well, I have now reached a minimum level of competence — so I and my opponent could both have some fun hitting the ball back and forth. It was meaningful to me that I have reached an objective level of mastery. This sport is turning into a bona fide source of playtime for me. I now have more freedom to play at will, instead of just in paid lessons.
Mastery, play, freedom: these are all deep rational values. Looking at my list, I realized another value was at stake here: celebration. There is value in pausing to mark important events. This is a value I hadn’t even thought about until checking the list — but I feel deeply satisfied to celebrate the occasion right now.
As for the meaning of my mother’s arrival — the value is mutual visibility. Having her visit means I can see how she is, hear how she’s doing. And in turn, I will be seen and heard.
Taking the time to identify deep rational values helps you develop the language of values. Soon you see deep values everywhere. This practice helps you maintain a benevolent world view.
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I have used these extra steps when I am feeling sluggish and unmotivated to turn around my attitude. I just write down three good things that have happened, and what each one means to me, and what deep rational values are at stake. Each time I am a bit more inspired, and more eager to take action.
It’s a keeper: it’s easy and inviting to do, and there’s an immediate payoff.
1. “Crow” Space is the capacity of focal awareness. Read more about it in my article What is “Crow” Overload?