Posts Tagged ‘positive emotions’

On a positive note

Article contributed by Amy Sargent.

Times such as these can feel overwhelming, far too trying and tiresome to attempt to maintain a positive outlook. With ever-changing restrictions, guidelines, and perspectives which continue to constrict their grip on life as we once knew it, many report feeling utterly exhausted. Mix in fear, uncertainty, and grief, and it’s a recipe for negativity. Add in a little financial struggle and a heaping lack of in-real-time social interaction, you may find yourself completely spent at the end of each day. Who can muster up the effort for a positive mindset with all of this going on? Choosing optimism can feel like just one more thing on your to-do list. It’s much easier to allow dejection and depression to curl their dark tendrils around what’s left of the light inside of you and choke out any positivity you have left.

But realistic optimism during tough circumstances is the very salve needed to soothe our wearied souls.

What does it mean to be realistically optimistic? To better understand, let’s take a quick exploration into the field of positive psychology. Jeana Magyar-Moe, Ph.D., defines positive psychology as the scientific study of optimal human functioning. Optimal human functioning. Let those words sink in. Would you describe your life right now as optimal human functioning? Most likely not! Martin Seligman, Ph.D., defines it as the scientific and applied approach to uncovering people’s strengths and promoting their positive functioning. Do you feel your strengths these days are being revealed in a way which promote positive functioning? If you’re anything like me, quarantines and stay-at-home orders have instead revealed how weak my character is when it comes to things like eating well and exercising. Oh, why is that fridge door so easy to open, and why is Netflix is so much easier to choose than a yoga workout? Similarily, Chris Peterson, Ph.D., of the University of Michigan, says positive psychology is the scientific study of what goes right in life, happiness and joy, what makes life worth living, and the good life. Nice. For him. All it takes is one glance on social media to see most everyone around us telling us what is NOT going right in their lives.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not seeing a lot of people who are living out positive psychology these days.

Whichever definition you most connect to, there’s no need to argue which is best. We have plenty of other newsworthy items to argue about. I think we can all agree that an increase of positive emotions is something we all could use more of. But how to find that in a world swarmed with negativity?

Realistic optimism is not about pretending nothing bad is going on. It’s not hiding our heads in the sand, or looking the other way when negative events occur. Life is tough right now, no need to pretend that it’s not. But would you believe that a positive spirit is not so much about what’s going on around us?

Researchers have found that our circumstances only make up 10% of our happiness levels! I find that shocking. What do you mean, my ability to experience positive emotions is not based upon what is or is not happening to me? Oddly, studies show that 85% of the stuff we worry about ends up having a positive or neutral outcome? Think back on the last thing you were really worried about — did it actually come to pass to the degree you expected?

And while 50% of our happiness results from our genetics, the remaining 40% is up to us, through our choices and actions!

You’ve probably heard of emotional intelligence — that ability to perceive the emotions you an others are feeling, in the moment, and manage your behaviors and relationships appropriately. The competencies which make up emotional intelligence are really about behaviors — behaviors based upon the emotions we feel. Two of these competencies, realistic optimism and resilience, are closely connected to positive psychology. Realistic optimism is expecting success instead of failure, seeing opportunities instead of threats, expecting the future will bring positive change. Resilience is perseverance and diligence in the face of setbacks. I sure like the sound of each of those. But easier said than done.

Why have a positive outlook? Through her work around the science of positivity, researcher and author Barbara Fredrickson and her colleagues discovered that positive emotions have superpowers. They can broaden our awareness, attention and cognitive abilities. They can build our creativity and resiliency. They allows us to see a wider range of possibilities, unlike negativity, which tamps down our innovative ideas. Positivity helps us be more socially connected and build stronger relationships, and has actually been proven to undo the psysiological damage that persistent negative emotions can cause. [https://positivepsychology.com/broaden-build-theory/].

And all of that can happen despite the negative circumstances which surround us!

I know, it’s hard. Honestly, I think it’s easier to allow negativity to take rein, allowing our emotions to run amok, without any awareness or management. Think back on a time when someone recently made you very mad. Remember the physical symptoms you felt? Maybe your heart was racing, your mouth became dry, and you felt a sick pit in your stomach. Maybe your face flushed, your jaw clenched, and you found your hands became fists. And the thoughts which result from that hard-hit of negative emotions! It’s probably not a good idea to mention them here.

These emotions which lead to thoughts are what lead to our actions. Actions which, often, later, when we lie down in bed and think back on our day, make us cringe. It’s much easier to let negativity rule than take hold and choose positivity. Consider this, for example. When you read a post on social media that makes your blood boil — which is easier, in the moment: to type something smart aleck or cutting, or to choose to tell them something you appreciate about them?! Negativity is a much easier choice. However, if we continue to let negative emotions take the lead, we’ll quickly and easily end up in Debby Downer’s neighborhood. But who wants to live there?

How do you know if you could grow in realistic optimism? See if any of these ring true for you. People who struggle with an positive outlook tend to see failure as permanent and that difficulties, when they arise, will last a long time. They demonstrate inflexible thinking, and, as a result, can feel powerless and helpless. They expect the worst and often dwell in the past, engaging in negative self-talk. They operate from a fixed mindset and often believe that every misfortune is their own fault and attribute their success to luck rather than their own capabilities. They blame their circumstances for their misfortune and love to tell you about everything that has gone wrong over the days, months, and years. Does this sound like you?

On the other hand, those who possess a positive spirit see unfortunate events as temporary, and use each struggle to develop better coping skills. Their self-talk speaks to them of success because they believe they will succeed. These individuals operate from a growth mindset, believing negative events are temporary and happen to everyone. They are unfazed by defeat and bounce back after disappointments. They’re flexible, adaptable, and look for ways to allow failures to teach them resiliency. Do you know anyone like this?

Carol Dweck speaks of these two mindsets in her book, Mindset (2015). She describes a fixed mindset as one which assumes our character and intelligence are static, and our success is based upon of inherent intelligence, one that’s set at a fixed standard. In other words, there’s no room to improve or grow. Those with this mindset avoid failure at all cost to maintain their sense of worth. In contrast, Dweck notes that a growth mindset “thrives on challenges and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence, but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities.” Do you see the difference?

She also goes on to say, “Out of these two mindsets, which we manifest from a very early age, springs a great deal of our behavior, our relationship with success and failure in both professional and personal contexts, and ultimately our capacity for happiness.” [Mindset, 2015]

In other words, most of the goals we think will make us happy, often don’t. In contrast, it’s our mindset which determines our level of happiness.

The beautiful thing about a positive spirit is that it can be developed, no matter how negative you’re feeling today, and no matter the ugly circumstances swirling around you. A model to follow is PERMA, developed by psychologist, educator, and author Martin Seligman. Each letter of PERMA represents things we need in our lives to experience more positive emotions. Seligman coined the phrase, “Learned Optimism”, because a positive outlook for many of us does not come naturally. We have to choose PERMA, to learn it, and not wait for it to just happen by some act of fate.

Which one of these could you use more of?

Positive Emotion. In order to have a positive outlook, we need to feel positive emotions. Experiencing emotions like joy, hope, contentment, excitement, and giddiness, on a regular basis, can increase our levels of positivity immensely. Take note of the emotions you feel most strongly each day. If the negatives outweigh the positives, take some time to do the things which create positive emotions for you.

Engagement. Do you absorb yourself in your activities fully or are you a multi-tasker? If the latter, your ability to engage may be limited. Research shows that it really is difficult to multi-task — though you may be doing two things at once, one of them is getting more focus and attention which means the other is put on the back burner. Learning to focus on one thing at a time and relish the experience with all of your senses — engaging — is vital to building positivity.

Relationships. Experiencing deep, meaningful relationships, and taking the time to connect with those we care about, is probably the foremost way to build positivity. Make a list of those you love being around, and note why. Figure out ways to reach out and connect with them on a regular basis. Need more friends? Seek out ways to make new connections and build relationships, whether it’s joining a social group or expanding your friendship circles to include new faces.

Meaning. What is your life purpose, and how does that show up in your day-to-day activities? Can you connect that purpose to the work you do? Does it show up in your personal relationships? Knowing why you do the things you do and aligning them with your values can add meaning to everything you do. Try writing down your values, the things which are most important to you, and see what shifts you need to make to better align your life with those values. Seek the help of a coach or counselor if needed.

Accomplishment. If you’re a to do list-maker, you know how good it feels to check off a box when you complete a task. Accomplishments, both great and small, make us feel good. And they increase our motivation to continue to be successful. Looking back on past accomplishments can spur us toward greater goals. Try it. What did you accomplish today? Write them down, and circle the items you are most proud of. Share an accomplishment with a friend. Celebrate your wins. Try this for a week, or a month, and watch your positivity grow.

From a 20,000 feet view, here are a few ways to cultivate PERMA:

Challenge your negative thoughts about past events and why they happened.
-View negative experiences as neither personal nor permanent (“this too shall pass”)
-Consider the worst-case scenario and come up with actionable strategies to avoid it
-Remember bad things happen to everyone (the grass isn’t always greener)

And on a more down-to-earth level, here are some practices to incorporate PERMA into your day, week, month, and year, proven to increase your positive emotions:

Connect with friends/family/new people

Change your setting

Get outside and spend time in nature

–Find something that makes you laugh — and laugh!

Exercise (aerobic and cardio work best)

Do something kind for someone else– giving back, community engagement, volunteering, etc.

Activate your curiosity and learn something new

–Begin a gratitude jar/journal/letter

Reflect on a past achievements and celebrate them

Set a new goal and jot down how you’ll get there

Count your blessings and small kindnesses which happen every day

Savor moments, big and small

–Find flow (get lost doing something you love)

By choosing just one of these to start doing each day, with repeated practice, you will increase your positive emotions. Don’t believe me? Give it a try and find out. It can’t hurt to try. Your weary soul deserves a little positivity. And what an amazing example you could set for others who think they have to sink into the downward spiral of negativity. Who knows, your positive emotions may inspire them to do the same.

You and this world need your positivity.

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