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Emotional Health

The ‘Three Good Things’ Approach Is The Simple Balm You Need If You’re Burned Out

Do it for just 10 minutes a day for 15 days and you'll receive a year's worth of benefits, say psychologists

Feeling drained, irritable and blue? It’s likely burnout, and it’s becoming increasingly common these days. Whether you’re retired, working, or caring for loved ones, the nonstop grind of family, health, home and social obligations, money worries and other everyday stressors can add up. It may feel like there’s no mental or physical escape, and few, if any, meaningful breaks. Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be this way. There are surprisingly simple techniques, including a journaling method known as Three Good Things, that can help you beat burnout. The result: You’ll feel upbeat, energized and clear-headed again.

Understanding burnout

So what exactly does it mean when you’re “burned out”? Bryan Sexton, PhD, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Director of the Duke Center for the Advancement of Well-being Science, explains that burnout happens when it becomes difficult for someone to experience positive emotions like hope, gratitude, and interest. This can happen in your personal relationships, at home, at your job, or anywhere you spend time and energy.

“Our data show that burnout happens when your current situation exceeds your ability to cope and the availability of resources,” Sexton says. “This leads to what is called emotional exhaustion, which then leads to interpersonal exhaustion — you grow more callous toward others.” And all of this can cause what’s known as existential exhaustion, or feeling the weight of the world on your shoulders without clearly knowing your purpose. This hampers your immune system, decreases marital satisfaction, and hinders work performance, Sexton notes. In fact, burnout has even been linked to an increased risk of traffic accidents.

Related: A Mom Shares Her Story of How She Found Hope Caring for Special Needs Kids

A woman with grey hair, black glasses and a yellow shirt experiencing burnout

Why burnout is on the rise

In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) recognized burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” in its International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). It’s so prevalent that burnout is on the rise across the globe. A 2022 survey of nearly 15,000 employees in 15 countries found about 25% of employees experienced burnout. And while many focus on mental well-being in the workplace, researchers are now studying how burnout applies to other aspects of daily life, such as parenting and caregiving.

How the Three Good Things method can beat burnout

The quick and simple method to beat burnout was first published in 2005 by positive psychologist Martin Seligman, PhD. More recently, it has been adapted by Sexton and his research team. It takes only a few minutes each day to shift your way of thinking toward more positive things. “We’ve been actively using it as a well-being resource since 2010,” Sexton says. “To date, we have had over 60,000 people use it.”

In a nutshell, the Three Good Things method is to briefly journal about three positive things that happened that day. While journaling, you note three specific aspects of each positive encounter: what happened, how it made you feel, and what might have caused the event. Before bed, you pause to reflect on these positive moments.

“It is a daily reflection that retrains your brain to notice the good things around you as you go through your day,” Sexton says. These good things can be big or small — anything from a stranger holding the door for you at the supermarket to seeing your favorite bird in the backyard. (Watching birds is study-proven way to tame stress. Click through to see the best window bird feeders to attract feathered friends to your yard.)

This type of gratitude practice helps override the default setting in our brain that focuses on problems that need solving or stressors that our body perceives as “threats”. Three Good Things is a way to retrain your brain to look on the bright side and bring your inner monologue back into balance. (Click through for more Journal Prompts That Boost Bliss, Slash  Stress and Ease Anxiety and to learn how journaling improves adrenal function to boost energy.)

Lasting benefits of the Three Good Things technique

In addition to helping you beat burnout, the Three Good Things exercise can significantly improve other aspects of your life, too. That includes better sleep, an improved work-life balance, lower depression, greater happiness, and higher emotional recovery (meaning you’re better able to bounce back after any type of shake up), Sexton says.

“Three Good Things isn’t like SSRIs, where if you stop taking them the effects melt away”, says Sexton, referring to prescription antidepressant medications such as Prozac and Zoloft. “One week of practicing the exercise is enough to get an effect. But if you do it for 15 days, the effect lasts for a full year!” Sexton reveals.

More easy ways to beat burnout

The Three Good Things technique is a simple, effective way to beat burnout. But it’s not the only tool at your disposal to keep stress and blue moods at bay and your energy and spirits up. Here’s what else can help:

1. Take early breaks

Even if you don’t feel tired, take a 10-minute time-out between 10 am and 11 am. This simple trick helps you experience less on-the-job stress, fatigue and burnout than if you wait till lunch to take your first break of the day, Baylor University research reveals. The scientists explain that taking a brief rest early on tops off your mental gas tank before it’s on empty, so later breaks (such as lunch) are more effective. The result: longer-lasting alertness, focus and motivation, and less burnout.

2. Supplement with holy basil

If juggling all of your to-dos day in and day out has you feeling frazzled, try taking 500 mg. to 600 mg. of tulsi (or holy basil) daily. Research in the Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine suggests doing so makes multi-tasking less overwhelming and exhausting within 72 hours of the first dose. Study author Marc Cohen, PhD, says tulsi helps your brain produce the calming, mood-elevating hormone serotonin that tamps down on feelings of burnout. One to try: NOW Foods Holy Basil Extract, 500 mg (Buy from Amazon, $12.95). (Click through for more health benefits of holy basil and to learn about how Rhodiola rosea can ease burnout and fatigue, too.)

Holy basil, which can be used to beat burnout alongside the Three Good Things exercise

3. Stretch for 10 minutes

Whether it’s a difficult day at the office or you’re tackling challenging tasks on the homefront, stretching can help. Taking just 10 minutes to stretch your arms, leg and back at the end of your day dramatically reduces the stress that brings on burnout, say scientists at the University of Zaragoza in Spain. How? The researchers explain that stretching boosts your mood and energy by reducing aches and pains and improving flexibility. This leaves you feeling less overloaded and exhausted.

Three Good Things success story: Rebecca Maher, 68

Rebecca Maher, who used three good things to beat burnout

Without even turning a single page, Rebecca Maher put down her book and let out a sigh. Lately, I feel so drained and weary…this can’t continue, she thought. As a licensed social worker who had been counseling and helping people for 30 years, the 68-year-old knew she was on the brink of burnout. Her job required her to listen to people’s concerns and guide them toward solutions. But sadly, she was running out of both steam and empathy. And the excessive stress, fatigue, concentration issues, sadness and irritability were getting worse — and harder to work through — each day.

Even things she loved and that fulfilled her, like reading, listening to music, exercising and connecting with friends and her children, started to fall by the wayside. I’m just too tired, Rebecca would think as it became more difficult to recognize and appreciate the wins and good moments. But when she ultimately started questioning her future as a social worker, Rebecca knew she had to do something fast.

How Rebecca discovered the Three Good Things method

Fortunately, Rebecca recognized her symptoms early, preventing a formal burnout diagnosis. But she knew that burnout was very much like getting a sunburn: it needed immediate attention, and she also needed to learn and find prevention strategies for future exposure.

Going online, Rebecca began researching strategies to address burnout when she stumbled upon “Three Good Things,” a technique under study by Dr. Bryan Sexton. As she learned, the Three Good Things method boosts happiness and optimism by training the brain to think more positively. And, in some studies, it had worked as well as antidepressants. Better still, the method was free, quick and easy to accomplish.

Hopeful, Rebecca decided to take a chance and join the clinical trial. All she would need, as she learned, was a journal. She would simply write three good things that had happened to her in the course of the day. Then, she was instructed to take a moment to reflect on each of the good things before going to sleep. The practice trains the brain to notice, remember and savor the good things in life. And it prompts you to pay closer attention to positive events and engage in them more fully — both in the moment and later on.

Rebecca renewed her optimism within two weeks

Sounds simple enough! Rebecca mused as she set aside 10 minutes a day to write her three good things. She gave each event a title, wrote down exactly what happened in as much detail as possible, included how it made her feel at the time and then later, and what she thought caused the event.

In under two weeks, Rebecca had more energy at work and was beginning to feel the cloud of sadness and irritability beginning to lift. Today, she has totally beat burnout and is in her 37th year as a social worker, currently at the North Carolina State College of Veterinary Medicine.

“I think about how powerful the Three Good Things practice has been for me, especially in helping combat the overwhelm that has resulted for so many people after navigating a pandemic,” Rebecca smiles. “Three Good Things helps me stay optimistic and continue providing compassionate care while feeling great. Burnout is not a failure: It’s a symptom which can serve as an alert to seek out tools to address it….like Three Good Things!”

For more help beating burnout:

Writing Meditation Is Like Therapy Without the Therapist — Here’s How To Do It

Doctors Have Pinpointed the Cause of That Wired-and-Tired Feeling — And The Cure

This 5-Minute Mindfulness Meditation Will Break Your Worry Cycle

Stress-Induced Vertigo: Why It Happens and 6 Ways To Instantly Feel Calmer

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