Posted by: Liz Massey | August 7, 2009

Clutter-busting by … being appreciative

Photo courtesy SXC.

It’s amazing how a change of pace can cut through the crap when you’re trying to create and getting nowhere. Today’s tip comes from an exercise I learned from the writings and website of Jackie Kelm, author of Appreciative Living: The Principles of Appreciative Inquiry in Personal Life and The Joy of Appreciative Living.
A few years back, Kelm conducted a small study in which she asked participants to do the following:

1.    Every day, write down three things for which they were grateful.

2.    Write down one thing each day, however small, that if acted upon, would bring joy.

3.    Each week, doing a 15-minute visioning session, in which participants imagine their version of a perfect joy-filled life as if it is already taking place in their present reality.

What she found was that, at least as far as her initial 30-person sample was concerned,

“At the end of the four weeks, the participants were significantly happier on average. And it was the people who were most unhappy at the start who showed the greatest improvement. Almost everyone who began as ‘unhappy’ at the beginning had moved into the ‘happy’ part of the scale by the end of the four weeks. And they stayed there for two months after the study ended.
“This surprised me. I knew the exercises were good, but I didn’t think they were that good. There was one person in the study who came to understand that he did not have to be depressed any more. He realized he had a choice and could take control of his life. Wow—what is that insight worth?”

I have been doing the first two parts of Kelm’s exercise diligently for more than a year. Every day that I ride public transit to work, I do parts one and two of the three-part prescription. (I haven’t done part three more than once or twice, but now that I’ve been reminded of its presence, I think I will add that to the mix.)
Since I do much of my brainstorming for new projects and outlining and writing on the bus and light rail, doing the Appreciative Living exercises before I do anything else helps put me in a constructive frame of mind. For example, this morning I was brainstorming concepts for a biweekly column I write, and for a brief while, I was stuck. I eventually hit a vein of thought that I think will yield a good column, but if I hadn’t been primed by the exercises and their focus on positive, constructive things, I might not have hung in there long enough to get to the good stuff.
One stumbling block for me with these exercises, however, was that it took me a while to get the hang of thinking about a quick action I could take to bring myself instant joy. When I began, I was actually writing down chores! (Perhaps because crossing them off my to-do list would bring relief?) However, over time, I’ve been able to use that second part of the exercise to focus on what makes me deeply happy—and I find a lot of it revolves around laughter, spending time with my partner, or dreaming up creative projects or fun things to anticipate and dream about.
Kelm’s Appreciative Living approach is one interpretation of an exciting body of thought known as Appreciative Inquiry. While developed originally as a method of facilitating organizational change, AI has wide application to any individual or group trying to envision a better future for themselves. Artists will appreciate the method’s use of imagination to assemble a positive future state, as well as its utilization of existing strengths (instead of only shoring up weaknesses) to create a desired result.

Give the Appreciative Living exercises a try—and report your results in the comments field below.


  1. […] 2. Look to your day to day life for ideas and inspiration. Those who practice design thinking often carry “bug notebooks” to document problems with systems, machines, or interactions that could be fixed through more thoughtful, constructive responses. Those notebooks (whether electronic, audio, or paper) can also document flashes of insight arising from the activities of your day, or moments of inspiration and gratitude. […]

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