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What if we told you that we know the secret to happiness?

No, it's not money or fame or 1,000 likes on Instagram. It's not a good job or a perfect marriage.

What if we told you the secret to happiness isn't anything subjective at all. It's based on science and involves training your brain to think differently. And it only takes 21 days.

That's what mental health professionals say, insisting that the social media trend to count your blessings isn't a hoax or a sales pitch. It's real, they say, and it works.

It's called the gratitude challenge, and you may have already seen it on Facebook or Instagram. The gist of the challenge is you list three things you're grateful for each day for 21 days, and at the end, you'll be a happier person, experts say. Whether you do it publicly or privately is your choice, but the results remain the same.

The idea was outlined by motivational speaker Shawn Achor, who has studied the effect of happiness on productivity and success, during a talk for the nonprofit TED. TED is an organization that encourages individuals to spread ideas through short, powerful speeches. His talk became one of the most popular TED talks of all time.

"We found there are ways to train your brain to become more positive. In just a two-minute span of time, done for 21 days in a row we can actually rewire your brain – allowing your brain to work more optimistically and more successfully," he said in the talk. " … At the end of that, their brain starts to retain a pattern of scanning the world not for the negative, but for the positive first."

This idea is something mental health counselors refer to as positive psychology, explained clinical psychologist Dr. Steven Saunders,  who is also a lecturer at UCF. Among the findings in this field, gratitude was identified as a game changer for those suffering from depression and negativity.

"When you force yourself to be grateful, even if you don't feel that way, by doing that you're pushing away those negative conditions," he said. "It really has a profound change on your emotions and how you think, and even your brain structure begins to change."

Instead of medication, gratitude is often a prescription of choice for counselors, said Saunders, who actively promotes the concept of keeping a gratitude journal. The 21-day gratitude challenge is a method Saunders said he uses with clients who suffer from depression, and he has yet to see it fail.

"I often tell my clients give it a try and if you do the 21 days and it doesn't work and you don't get anything out of it I'll give you your money back," Saunders said. "I've never had to reimburse anyone."

Why it works

Saunders explained that the time frame is key to getting someone hooked, as most habits are formed within a 21-day span. By focusing on the positive, he said, you're actively pushing negative thoughts out, as your brain cannot easily juggle both feelings of negativity and positive thoughts at the same time.

"What happens is when you have two competing cognitions and it creates cognitive dissonance, and your mind has to resolve that dissonance," Saunders explained. "Dissonance is a hard feeling because you're feeling two different things that are competing."

But to put happiness in perspective, licensed psychologist and Florida Institute of Technology assistant professor Mari Bennett said it's important to understand how happiness is scientifically defined.

"Researchers typically define happiness as having satisfaction and meaning in life including experiencing positive emotion, the ability to recover quickly from negative emotion, maintaining positive relationships and remaining engaged in and having meaning and purpose in our daily activities. Also, a sense of personal accomplishment," she said.

However, creating benchmarks for happiness, such as saying "I'll be happy if I make more money," or "I'll be happy if I get a better job" will never get you to that positive state of contentment, as you'll just be in constant motion moving from one benchmark to the next.

"Research actually shows that many of the things that people believe will make them happy actually do not translate to real happiness," Bennett said.

Engaging in the 21-day challenge could feel like something Bennett describes as "synthetic happiness," which is when we change our idea of what is a good outcome. For instance, if you're trying to buy a house and it falls through, instead of being sad about the house, you decide you're better off without it.

"Synthetic happiness is the ability to make happiness when we don't get what we wanted. What happens is we tend to revalue what we get rather than what we originally wanted as the most preferred option," she said.

So what are you thankful for? For the next 21 days, the Central Florida Future and its Melbourne-based parent paper Florida Today are challenging you to take part in the gratitude challenge. 

Each day, list three things you're thankful for on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Hashtag it with #UCFthanks. (If you see #321thanks floating around, that's the hashtag for Florida Today's Brevard readers.) 

We'll take entries from the community and display them both in print and online leading up to Thanksgiving. And you won't be alone in your efforts. Staff here at the Future and Florida Today will be taking the challenge along with you. Give it a try and tell us how it goes.

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Jessica Saggio is the Watchdog Education Reporter at Florida Today. Contact her at 321-242-3664 and JSaggio@FloridaToday.com, or follow her on Twitter @JessicaJSaggio.

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