How tweeting #3glad things can rewire brain for happiness

Psychology researcher and author Shawn Achor gave this quite funny TED talk in 2011, with five quick, science-based ways to increase happiness daily that he explains further in the video and in a blog post:


Scroll to the bottom of this post for links to most of those research papers and others. Achor talks about why those first two methods work here:

If I put my hand in front of my face and look at it, area 17 in my visual cortex lights up. Now if I close my eyes and think about my hand in front of my face, that same part of my brain actually lights up, area 17 in my visual cortex. Which means my brain actually can’t tell the difference between visualization and experience.

That last bit’s funny, but it might be a stretch; at least some research indicates that Brodmann area 17, the primary visual cortex, responds similarly but not as strongly to an imagined image as to the image itself.

Changes in MRI signal intensity in different parts of the cortex, from Le Bihan, Turner, et al, 1993.
Changes in MRI signal intensity in (top line) visual cortex and (bottom line) non-striate cortex; Le Bihan, Turner, et al., 1993.

Achor says that if he writes for five minutes about some small good occurrence that happened to him that day, “I’m actually doubling the amount of positive experience that I have.” Maybe so; I know that when retelling one of my hi-larious college stories for the 18th time, really what I enjoy is briefly re-living the feelings of fun/embarrassment/panic/legal consequences. And subjects who did written “gratitude exercises” in the 2003 project Achor cites became measurably happier.

So I’m thinking I’ll try the impatient-person version — writing down three good things, things you’re glad about or grateful for, every day — and from time to time if I’m not too shy I may tweet my #3glad things, with a link back here (

Yeah, it sounds like happy fluffy fuzzy bunny foo-foo, but here’s why I think it can work: Newspaper columnists. Once you start to write a newspaper column, the most important thing in your life becomes coming up with three things a week that are interesting enough to fill 13-18 inches of newsprint. These are not so thick on the ground, and your brain rapidly adapts to help you. Everything you see and hear, it starts to consider, “Could I get a column out of that?”

All day, your noggin is considering the fastest ways to get through a task, plotting where you’ll need to go in the grocery store, fretting over a problem even while you’re asleep, and if it knows you have to write down three good things every day, maybe it’ll begin watching for good things all day. And I can see how having that program running in the background might affect your mindset, which is, after all, your interface with the world.

Achor says that only 10% of a person’s long-term happiness can be predicted by looking at their circumstances and 90% can be predicted by how their brain “processes the world.” The research he cites breaks that down as 10% circumstances, 50% genetics (your inherited internal “set point” or average happiness level) and “as much as” 40% “intentional activities,” defined as “the wide variety of things that people do and think in their daily lives.” The potential to affect 40% of your happiness makeup ain’t hay. Cheers!

Mmmm, science:

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