Stress and daily hassles often narrow our attention to the point where all we can prioritize are immediate challenges. In contrast, truly thriving requires thinking more broadly and making time for the things that give us meaning and purpose. My psychotherapy client, Gary, was so focused on his physical concerns that he rarely considered his hopes and dreams, so I asked him to imagine that he’d woken up one morning and all his reasons for coming to see me—all his complaints—had miraculously disappeared. I then asked him to think of how he would answer the following questions, which I invite you to consider as well: 

  • How would you know the miracle had happened? 
  • What would others around you notice? 
  • What would you do? 
  • What would you see if you compared your before and after pictures? 

The “miracle question” is a solution-focused approach developed by social workers Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg and their team at the Milwaukee Brief Family Therapy Center. After spending thousands of hours observing therapy sessions, the two narrowed in on this specific technique because it proved most likely to nudge a client toward positive change. A key assumption of asking about miracles is that focusing on solutions is easier and more empowering than getting mired in complex problems. 

After a few minutes of “I don’t knows” and protests—“I’m a very rational person!”— Gary reluctantly responded that he’d obviously stop with the doctor’s appointments; not be preoccupied with pain; exude more gratitude; bring more attentiveness to his relationships, especially with his wife; and find better ways to spend his time. I nodded appreciatively, then asked, “How close are you to your ‘miracle’ day? Are there any steps you could take right now that would inch you closer to that day?” He admitted he was pretty far from living that kind of day. “I know you’re trying to get me to spit out some goals,” he said, “but don’t we need to wait until I’m feeling capable of managing to talk about ideals?” 

As I explained to Gary, simply imagining what you want your life to look like can be surprisingly freeing. And though it may feel counterintuitive and even fruitless to focus on hopes in the face of significant concerns, so many of us can benefit from reflecting on the miracle question; think of it as a strategy for improving coping during times of stress. In a study led by Jenna Sung, a doctoral student in clinical psychology at Stony Brook University, clients facing waiting lists for therapy at an outpatient clinic were offered a single session with a counselor who focused on the miracle question. The combination of considering a miracle day, generating three concrete steps to achieve that day, anticipating potential obstacles alongside related solutions, and the counselor writing the client an encouraging note expressing confidence in their ability to move forward significantly improved participants’ symptoms of hopelessness and anxiety. What comes to mind when you reflect on your miracle day? And what sorts of obstacles are holding you back? 

Taking a few minutes a day (or every week) to look beyond your to-do lists and problems and reflect more broadly on the things that give you a sense of purpose can help lift you out of the stress trap. By diversifying what I think of as your “life portfolio,” which is essentially what you want your life to consist of, you’re more likely to shrink the less optimal parts of your day.

Getting clear on your values can help you maintain a healthy sense of self, warding off that horrible feeling of personal disappointment and instilling faith in your potential. In a study looking at African American and Latino adolescents from financially marginalized homes, Dr. J. Parker Goyer and her colleagues at Stanford University discovered that those who completed a series of fifteen-minute writing exercises focused on values and why they matter saw improved academic performance and even correlated with success a decade later. Dr. Geoffrey Cohen, a collaborator on the study and professor at Stanford University who has studied brief interventions for decades, explains, “Affirming our most important values fortifies us, which can help protect us from stress.” In other words, seeing your values clearly can improve your persistence. That persistence pays off, and a positive cycle ensues. 

In a world that can feel so precarious, embracing a values-driven life can also give you a dose of certainty. There is a calmness that comes from knowing you can count on your inner compass, even when so much else—both within us and around us—seems imperfect.

Excerpted from Stress Resets: How to Soothe Your Body and Mind in Minutes by Jennifer L. Taitz, copyright © 2024. Used with permission of Workman, a division of Workman Publishing Co., Inc., a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.


  • Jenny Taitz is a clinical psychologist and an assistant clinical professor in psychiatry at University of California, Los Angeles. Dr. Taitz completed her fellowships at Yale University School of Medicine and achieved board certification in cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavior therapy. Passionate about spreading proven tools to a wider audience, she wrote STRESS RESETS to offer practical ways to find hope in moments when your emotions feel overwhelming. In addition to working with clients in her practice, LA CBT DBT, she frequently writes for the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.