Psychological research has started to shed light on how to make yourself happier. New products and apps are launching that use these findings, and one of these promises to make you happier in just five minutes a day.
The Five Minute Journal is the journal for people who don’t keep journals. Built on positive psychology principles, it is structured to make it quick and easy for you to get all the benefits of keeping a journal.
If one of our other articles on journaling hasn’t taken your fancy so far, perhaps this one on the Five Minute Journal will.
A Brief History Of Psychology
Since its earliest days, psychology has mainly been focused on dysfunction rather than function. Large amounts of what we know about how the brain works comes from examining people who have suffered a traumatic brain injury, or have a mental illness. Many of the early theories that underlie our understanding of how personality, cognition and memory work, stem from single case studies.
One of the most famous is the case of Phinneas Gage. Gage was a railroad construction worker. In the pre-JCB era, explosives were used for clearing boulders. He was setting an explosive charge when it went off early, driving a tamping iron — essentially a crowbar — right through his skull. It was found more than 20 metres away. The majority of damage was done to his frontal cortex.
Amazingly, Gage seemed to recover remarkably well. According to doctors at the time, he kept “full possession of his reason”. His friends and family, however, soon noticed a marked change in his personality. Gage began to act inappropriately in social situations; he became impulsive and angry. The changes to his personality resulted in the loss of his job and his wife.
From the case of Gage, neuroscientists and psychologists began to understand how different areas of the brain have different, independent, functions. Gage retained many of them, to the extent that people who did not know him before his accident would not initially suspect anything was amiss, while having a total personality shift.
Gage is far from unique. There have been many case studies with patients with different dysfunctions that have all contributed to our understanding of the brain. While these case studies are illuminating, they tell us more about how things fail than how things work.
To look at what makes people happy and productive a different approach is needed.
Introducing Positive Psychology
Positive psychology is one of the newest disciplines in psychology. It’s focused on using the scientific method to understand how to lead a satisfactory life. Rather than addressing the underlying roots of cognition, or how to address mental illnesses, positive psychology investigates questions like how to lead a happy and fulfilling life.
Positive psychology stems from humanist psychology — and earlier philosophical thinkers like Socrates — but adds the rigour of empirical investigation. Instead of just philosophising over what makes a person happy, the past ten years of research have produced a number of techniques that, empirically, make people happier.
The Journal For People Who Don’t Keep Journals
You can get the Five Minute Journal as a beautiful physical journal (for $22.95) or an iPhone app (for $4.99). It goes beyond just being a record of your day or a gratitude journal, and instead includes other principles from positive psychology.
You could also take just some of the techniques and work them into a personalized journaling system that’s perfect for you. For example, if you’re on Android you could use Diaro with the Five Minute Journal method.
The five minutes it takes to do the journaling is split into two sessions: one just after waking up and one just before going to sleep. Neither session should take you more than a few minutes. I find the title exaggerates how much time is really needed.
The Morning Session
The morning session has three sections. The first is a simple gratitude journal.
You list three things that you are grateful for in your life. These can be simple things like a morning kiss from your partner, or things like your continuing health. Amongst other benefits, keeping a gratitude journal has been linked with an increased sense of well being and improved sleep.
Next is a section that asks you to list three things that would make today great.
These all have to be things you have direct control over. Like with the gratitude section, the items can be simple things like remembering to text your mother. Alternatively, I like to use the space to set out what is necessary to achieve long term goals. If you are trying to lose weight for example, putting “go for a walk” and “eat three healthy meals” down as things that would make your day awesome is a great idea; it embeds them in your mind from the moment you wake up.
The final morning section is an affirmation to prime you for the day ahead.
It is about creating the mindset you want. Any statement that starts with “I am”, or similar, works. For example, if you want to be in a confident frame of mind for a presentation later on, writing something like “I am confident about, and enjoy, speaking in front of others”, primes your brain to this idea. Priming can have a remarkable effect on how you approach tasks.
The Evening Session
The evening session is shorter than the morning one with only two sections. First, you think back on your day and remember three amazing things that happened.
As with all the Five Minute Journal’s sections, these can be the smallest victories, like a waitress thanking you for a tip, to life changing events, like your partner agreeing to marry you. People tend to dwell on negatives rather than positives. They think, what went wrong, not what went right. By forcing yourself to reflect on the best things that happened during the day, you are stopping yourself from dwelling on the miserable weather, the guy who cut you off or the hour you spent on the phone to customer service. It serves a very similar purpose to the gratitude section but is much more tightly focussed on the now.
The final section is for an honest reflection on how you could have made your day better.
It is rare that you will have a perfect day. Even on the best of days there will be something that, if you could go back in a time machine, you would change. If I fail at one of my goals for the day, I often describe how I could have changed that here. If, over time, there’s a trend in the things you’d change, that’s something you may want to address. It is meant to be a final reminder before you sleep that you have the power to change things in your life.
The Journal For Everyone
It may be obvious from the article above, that I’m a fan of the Five Minute Journal. It’s the journaling system I’ve used for the last year. I’m a very positive person, but sometimes I’ve some motivation issues. Setting out my goals for the day first thing in the morning helps me achieve them.
A friend of mine was going through some tough times so I got her a physical copy. To her, the affirmation and amazing things sections helped the most. By forcing herself to think back on the smallest victories in a terrible day — even if it was just getting a warm mug of tea after work — she found she was that little bit more positive. No matter what stage of life you are at, how happy you are, or what you are going through, I am certain you will benefit from the Five Minute Journal.
If you use it and love it, please let me know in the comments below. Alternatively, if you hate it and have a far superior system, tell me; I’m open to any awesome new ideas.