When I am giving maintenance programs to violent offenders on parole, at the start of every session, I give them at least five minutes each to talk about their week: the highs, the lows, how they dealt with their emotions, etc. In every group, there seems to be at least one person that uses up his time to complain about the system and every other little obstacle he has encountered since the last session.
It can be at times quite draining for everyone in the group to hear someone continuously complain. Imagine though, just how exhausting it must be for the one doing all the complaining. To be harboring all these negative feelings throughout the week. After all, for some of these guys, participating in a treatment program is one of the only safe places where they can express their emotions (good or bad) without the fear of being judged or sent back to prison.
It’s no surprise however, that some of these offenders have a natural instinct to focus on what is going wrong with their lives. After all, they have been conditioned to do so. Throughout their incarceration they have been thoroughly observed and written about by psychologists and criminologists whom are adept at finding what is going wrong with the individual and identifying certain criminological factors that are to be worked on while they are under their care. They are essentially surrounded by reminders of their failures, faults, shortcomings, and psychological issues that are keeping them from living crime free lives. Although the ultimate goal of this feedback is to work on what causing them problems in order to lead crime free lives, it can often leave them feeling depressed, anxious and angry.
On the other hand however, hearing about the things that are going well for them (i.e. their strengths), are often overlooked since they did not contribute to their crimes.
One day, as I asked everyone about their week and predictively, someone started complaining about everything and anything. I remembered the Three Good Things exercise developed by Martin Seligman and wondered how it would apply to violent offenders on parole whom were basically taught to focus on the negative aspects of their lives.
I instructed them to write down on a piece of paper, at the end of each day, three good things that had happened to them during that day. Three things that they were grateful for and brought a smile to their face: someone smiling at them, a compliment, anything at all. After writing these things down, I asked them to spend 5 minutes reliving the experience in their heads and bask in the positive emotions that were associated to these events. Much like muscles, if you only train your brain to notice and feel negative experiences, it will make living and experiencing positive emotions difficult. It would be equivalent to only working out your right bicep. The left bicep would be significantly smaller and weaker. I was inspired by a quote from William Penn, “the secret to happiness is to count your blessings while others are adding up their trouble”. It was time for them to start exercising their ability to notice and feel positive experiences and emotions.
While a few seemed to enjoy the exercise from the start, some of them had certain reservations. They reported difficulties in finding things they were grateful for. However, after hearing examples from the other participants, everyone slowly started to get the hang of it.
After a few weeks, the beginning of the sessions became more and more positive. They appeared to be focused on positive happenings in their lives. Furthermore, they seemed happier, less stressed and even optimistic.
This technique was confirmed efficient (by my standards) when one particular participant who was usually always negative and pessimistic used his time at the beginning of the session to let everyone know how he was now much more mindful of his social interactions and now woke up curious to find out what positive things would happen to him throughout the day.
If applying the Three Good Things exercise can bring happiness and optimism to violent offenders on parole, just imagine how it can increase your own well being if it became a regular routine in your life.