The Science and Art of Positive Psychology- Part Two

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In the first session of these series we found out that:

  • Negative emotions are genetically embedded as part of our survival instincts and mechanisms.
  • Positive emotions are by nature subtle and fleeting; however they are important for us to develop and flourish.

It is important to recognize these facts and rather than trying to eliminate negativity working on accepting it, as well as recognizing the power of positive emotions despite their transcendence. The winning strategy will then be to increase their quantity so they can eventually outnumber their negative siblings.

Research shows that below a certain ratio of positive to negative emotions people start feeling burdened and lifeless, become rigid, predictable and lose their creativity. The ratio is one to three, which means that for every negative emotion that we experience we need three positive ones to balance it off.  You can calculate your positivity ratio at http://www.positivityratio.com./single.php.

Keeping our positivity rations high has numerous benefits:

  • It is good for our health- over the last decades researchers have found stunning correlations between expressing positive emotions and living longer.
  • Positive emotions can increase our curiosity, playfulness and openness to others, which would help us broaden our mindset and outlook and build our resources – this is the so called “broaden and build” effect.
  • Positive emotions can help us improve our satisfaction with life. Positive psychology tells us that in order to improve our happiness levels, we should be focusing on how we feel day-to-day and not on how to become happy with life in general. When we focus on day to day feelings we work on building our resources, growing and improving ourselves which eventually leads to higher satisfaction with life. Rather than overthinking and trying to design a “happiness strategy” we should try to live in the moment and to get the best out of it in terms of positive emotions. This will naturally result in greater meaning and purpose in life.

So go ahead- measure your positivity ratio and keep in mind that three to one is just the tipping point and it is best if your balance well above this. Tracking our emotions throughout the day is also an effective way to become more mindful of our sources of positive and negative emotions, compare reality to where we want to be and think about ways to increase our positive experiences.

Something to keep in mind is that in order to get a good idea of your positivity ratio over time this exercise needs to be done for a longer period of time rather than once off. When I started I scored myself every day in the course of a week to get a good understanding of how the ratio differed from day to day and form a “baseline” for myself. From then onwards, I`ve been doing it a few times a week, comparing against the baseline and identifying ways to improve it.

For more suggestions on how to increase the positive emotions that you experience and boost your positivity ratios – have a look at the first session of the series.

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The Science and Art of Positive Psychology- Part One

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The concept of positive psychology is something extremely close to my heart. It started after I had my first glimpses of  mindfulness and meditation when I got to know more about Neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to change based on our conscious and unconscious thoughts, behaviors and the environment. Neuroplasticity tells us that we can consciously train our brains similarly to how we train our bodies. Mindfulness, meditation and positive psychology are some of the “tools” to do this training.

I was already practicing and studying the first two and keen to know more. The opportunity to find out more about Positive Psychology came through a six module online course in Coursera that has been developed and thought by Dr. Barbara Frederickson.

One of the best ways to consolidate knowledge is to share it and the opportunity to have even the smallest positive influence on your lives would bring me immense joy, so I will be sharing interesting insights and my reflections from the different modules of the course.

Let`s start with the basics. Have you thought about the positive emotions in your life? Can you maybe name a few? When I tried to come up with a list it struck me that it is very difficult to come up with more examples beyond joy and happiness.

So here there are, a list of the ten main positive emotions and their characteristics:

Emotion Appraisal Tendency Outcome
Joy Safe, familiar, progress Play, learn new things Acquire skills
Gratitude Receive altruistic gift Give creatively Nurture bonds/skills for loving
Interest Safe, but also novel and mysterious environment Explore, be inventive Energy, gain knowledge
Serenity Safe, certain, low effort Savor and integrate Modify self
Hope Negative situations where you yearn for the better Be inventive Increased resilience
Pride Socially valued achievement Dreaming Further achievement
Amusement Non serious social incongruity Share laughter Build friendship
Inspiration Witness human excellence Aspire to excellence Gain skills and morality
Awe Overwhelmed by greatness Accommodate the new Self as part of a larger whole
Love Positive emotion in connection with somebody Play, explore, dream Build trust, bonds, communication

Something important to realize is that positive emotions are much more powerful than what we think. They do not only improve the overall quality of our lives, but enable us to be curious, creative, connected, to develop ourselves and eventually reach our fullest potential. And very importantly- they can be consciously evoked. 

Some of the very interesting insights that are got from the course are:

  • Positive emotions are far more subtle than their negative siblings (such as sadness, anger, misery) that often “scream” at you. This has developed evolutionary, as we need our negative emotions in order to survive- without them we won`t know what’s dangerous and what is not. 
  • Positive emotions are also more fleeting than the negative ones and have a tendency to quickly come and go, which might pose challenges in recognizing them ad staying with them.
  • Despite the fact that they seem less powerful than negative emotions, positive emotions have an important quality called dynamic cyclic capability- where our current emotions determine the ones that follow. In that context the little engines of positivity are the spirals between emotions where one good emotion leads to another one which leads to yet another one and we are eventually put into a sort of “positivity loop”.
  • Positive emotions have the ability to help us recover from negative experiences a lot quicker compared to a situation when we are in a neutral state. The important practical implication of this is that even when we are taken over by negativity we can consciously try to evoke positive emotions and break the negative pattern!

And how can we actually evoke positive emotions?  The course gives us two ideas how to get there:

  • Be mindful and develop the ability to recognize the positive emotions when they occur. When you start doing that you will soon realize that you often take for granted good things that happen to you and you are like the fish who doesn’t see the water; for instance let`s take the simplest example – without air we wouldn`t be able to live no more than a minute or two, but how often do we actually acknowledge this? And there are so many more examples..
  • Of course there are also times when things just go out of hand and it is just so difficult to see the light. A second way to practice positivity is to remember things that make/made us feel grateful, peaceful, loved, inspired, etc. Ideas how to do this are:
  • Every day write down three things which happened during the day and which you are grateful for,
  • Write down one positive thing that happened to you and put the paper in a jar every day. You could open those at the end of the month- have a monthly “happy hour” 😉

More about the Positive Psychology course and Dr. Barbara Fredericson can be found here and here.

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Positive Psychology Part 4 – Love is

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When I was a little girl I was very fond of a bubble-gum called “Love is”. Every package contained a drawing and an example of an act associated with love- for instance “ love is squeezing lemon in his tea”. I found the whole package very appealing, however at that point couldn`t quite grasp how this exactly linked to love. Later I found out that this understanding is something that evolves in a course of a lifetime. Let`s have another look at it today.

So, following the introduction to positive emotions and the benefits that experiencing them bring, let’s zoom into one of the most important ones – Love.

So what is love? Some common perceptions of love are that it is exclusive; without finding it you are incomplete; it is a sort of an achievement; it involves serious commitment… Do these resonate with you? Our existing views of love inarguably serve us well, but it is such a profound emotion that it deserves to also be looked through a different lens.

Let’s start with what is NOT love. Love is not sexual desire, passion, romance, commitment, exclusivity or even something that necessarily lasts for a lifetime.

And what does science  say about love?  First, Love is a positive emotion that we mostly co-experience in the company of others. It is about investing in the well-being of another person without anything at stake. It is also a feeling that “you get me” and “I get you”. Looking at it scientifically, it can be defined as “interpersonally situated experience marked by momentary increases in shared positive emotions, behavioral syncronomity and mutual care.” The subsequent “products” of love are improved rapport with the person, forming social bonds and commitment.

If we honestly think about it we are not “chronically” invested in the well-being of others, and we can`t say that we “love” the whole time if we strictly follow the definitions above. What does this mean? That’s where emotional science kicks in.

According to emotional science and more specifically positive psychology love blossoms every time when two people connect over a shared positive emotion.  This is closely linked to the concept of “Positivity resonance” which effectively is a “co-experience” of positive emotions; a micro moment of connection when a positive emotion unfolds for both of you, between and amongst you at the same time (more about the background of positivity resonance can be found here- link).

Similar to its siblings from the positive emotion family, love also has a “broaden and build component”(for those of you who need a recap of “broaden and build- you can find it here (paste link)-it has a momentary effect based on which we build and expand.

Research has shown that practicing a certain type of meditation called Lovingkindness meditation (an ancient Buddhist meditation which practice involves generation of gentle, caring and warm feelings towards oneself and others) results in improved vagal tone (variation of heart rate when we breathe in and out) which predicts better immune function, cardiovascular health, glucose regulation and last but not least – social skills!

Now that we cover the positivity psychology view of love let`s think about the practical insights:

1) The experience of love is dynamic and not static and it is in our hands to maintain it!

2) Our hearts literally become more responsive to our breath as we experience loving feeling towards others which has huge benefits for not only our health but also our social skills and creativity.

3) Pay more attention to the little positive emotions that you experience and that you usually tend to trivialize- they can enhance not only improve the quality of your relationships, but also your well-being.

4) Never forget that love is not a relationship status – it is a verb, and an action that requires attention. Your attention.

I`ll end here with a beautiful quote by  Ursula Le Guin which was also mentioned in the course:

” Love doesn`t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; re-made all the time, made new”

 

 

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Positive Psychology Part 3: The delicate art of pursuing happiness

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Knowing how to pursue happiness effectively is essential for living a fulfilled life (you can find more about this here). At the same time finding sustainable ways to be happy could be quite a challenge, as often in our efforts we try to fully eliminate negativity which is not a feasible strategy (as negativity is “embedded” in ourselves as a natural way of protection against danger). Or some other times we tend to engage in non-meaningful activities to keep ourselves cheered up or distracted from the reality, as we are afraid it will bring us more negativity- like watching the next episode of that addictive series and then the next one and the next one..

The “optimal” positive ratio is 3 to 1-this is the ratio under which the people are found to be “flourishing” (you can read more about the ratio and how to calculate it here). The higher the ratio, the greater growth and resilience people show.

When we start calculating and measuring our positivity rations most of us will find them to be lower than what we think – often this is because negative experiences tend to be “louder” and more -prominent than positive ones which are more subtle- therefore the negative ones are more easily remembered and higher weighted. For example- which situation would stick more- a friend who said something nice and cheered you up, or the same friend making a nasty comment that made you feel miserable?

One great aspect of the positivity ratio calculation is that by doing it we`ll start thinking about all those small positive emotions that we tend to overlook and in many cases we`ll realize that we are experiencing much more positivity that we thought. By doing this we`ll learn to discover all the good things around us and to develop an opened readiness to capitalize on them and increase the number of our positive emotions. Research shows don`t really need huge positive events to be happy- mild positive experiences that occur in a sustainable way is what matters to keep our positivity rations high. For instance, in the course of calculating your positivity ratio you might discover that small things such as going for walks uplift you, but you never thought of it. As a next step, you can incorporate it in your daily routine, or perhaps go for a walk when you need a positive influx.

As mentioned earlier- doing a one day diagnostics is not the best strategy- to get some meaningful insights try to do it for at least a week and then calculate the average.

And once again- trying to fully eliminate negativity is not a feasible strategy- apart from being genetically impossible, research shows that exclusively positive people tend to lose their creativity and that successful entrepreneurs need a “pain point” that triggers them to take decisive action. Flourishing also requires some negativity- that is why the optimal positivity ratio is 3 to 1 and not 3 to 0. Being able to honestly recognize negativity therefore allows us to be grounded in reality and to be more creative.

So go ahead- start calculating your positivity ratio and let us know how you experienced this by leaving a comment below 😉

 

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