Many people come to therapy grappling with the effects of burnout. They might express their exhaustion by saying things like:
- “I’ve just been feeling so tired, I have zero motivation to go back to work.”
- “I love my kids but I’ve had so much to do lately. I’m already dreading next week. Am I a bad parent?”
- “I’ve just been low and snapping at people all week. I honestly can’t remember the last time I was completely relaxed.”
Research indicates that burnout stems from a demanding environment and insufficient resources to meet its demands. It involves prolonged exposure to stress, leading to emotional, mental and physical exhaustion, along with feelings of cynicism, detachment and a reduced sense of accomplishment. A 2019 study also connects burnout to anxiety and depression.
Like our ancestors who survived by remaining vigilant to threats, today, it is still human instinct to dwell on our hardships. However, the field of positive psychology instead emphasizes the healing power of tapping into positive emotions when faced with challenges.
A 2020 study found three positive psychology tools in particular that led to increases in psychological well-being and a reduction in burnout. These included the “three good things” exercise, a gratitude letter and the “looking forward” tool.
Here is a deeper look at the three well-being tools that can alleviate burnout, according to the 2020 study.
1. Reflect On “Three Good Things” From Your Day
The “three good things” tool refers to the practice of reflecting on three positive events from your day. Here is a brief guide to using it.
- Write down things that went well for you every day for at least one week. For example, “I spent time playing with my dog today,” “My friend called to check in on me,” or “I cooked a nice dinner for my partner and I.”
- Describe the events in as much detail as possible, including when and how they happened, what was said during, who was involved and specify your own role in them.
- With each event, no matter how minor it might seem, focus on why it was positive for you and name the specific emotions that arise when you think of it.
- Savor the positive emotions elicited by this reflection for a few minutes before moving on to the next event, as this heightens your positive emotional state and contributes to enduring feelings of well-being.
- Set a daily reminder to ensure consistency. It may be helpful to write before bed and incorporate it into your nighttime routine.
- Additionally, you can encourage colleagues, friends, family or partners to join, creating a shared activity that enhances your motivation to continue writing daily.
The study found that using this tool led to significant and lasting improvements in emotional exhaustion, subjective happiness, work-life balance, emotional thriving and emotional recovery among participants, up to a year later.
2. Write A Gratitude Letter To Someone Special
Research shows that expressing one’s gratitude for another person improves well-being for both the expresser and recipient. Here’s how to use this tool in your own life.
- Identify someone in your life who has significantly contributed to your well-being. They could be alive or deceased.
- Spend seven minutes writing a genuine, appreciative note to them in two parts. First, describe what the person did, its impact and benefits for you. Second, explain why their actions were important and meaningful, or what they revealed about who they are and your relationship with them.
- Consider expressing gratitude to different individuals over time.
The 2020 study found significant improvements in burnout, happiness and work-life balance in participants who wrote these letters, suggesting that even a small dose of gratitude can benefit individuals with packed schedules.
3. Practice Looking Forward To The Future
Research indicates that positive expectations of the future are linked to greater life satisfaction. The “looking forward” tool cultivated optimism by prompting participants to reflect on positive future events at different times and revealed significant improvements in depression, optimism, emotional thriving and emotional recovery.
“On day one, the prompt asked about something they were looking forward to 10 years from now, day three asked about five years from now, day five asked about three years from now, day seven asked about one year from now,” the researchers explain.
Here’s how you can use this tool similarly to see past present challenges and look forward to a meaningful future.
- In three to four sentences, share a future aspiration or something you hope to experience. It could be related to your hobbies, family, career, friends, a personal goal or well-being.
- Reflect on the thoughts and emotions that arise as you write and sit with these feelings awhile.
Reflection and positive contemplation can combat the jadedness and sense of bleakness that often result from a burnout.
Positive emotions are a powerful healing force when faced with burnout, promoting emotional thriving, fostering a sense of purpose and aiding in recovery after emotional challenges.
The “three good things,” seven minute gratitude letter and “looking forward” tool enhance well-being while reducing burnout. These tools are simple, brief and accessible to even the busiest individuals, providing a beacon of hope for a healthier and more resilient future.
Is your sensitivity to stress and unfamiliar stimuli contributing to your feelings of burnout? Take the Highly Sensitive Person Questionnaire to learn more.