Archives for February, 2011
Common courtesy and civility can be a rare occurrence in the hustle and bustle of daily life. It can be easy to get caught up in our many responsibilities and feel we just don't have time to help others or stop to make a kind gesture. When was the last time you helped someone without expecting anything in return? I wish I could say I did this more often, and not just because it's the right thing to do, but because research shows that committing acts of kindness is one intentional activity that can have a major influence on our level of happiness. Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky reveals a plethora of information on how we can live a happier life in her wonderful book The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. According to some of her research one way to boost positive emotions and well-being is to commit random acts of kindness.
I know numerous people who simply don't recognize that their life's work can be more inspiring, fulfilling, and purposeful. Instead, they go through their day on “autopilot” never really engaging in their work or responsibilities. It doesn't have to be this way though. We can become more absorbed in what we do by shaping our routine to offer us challenges and opportunities to stretch our skills, and by having clear goals and feedback about the progress being made. This experience of complete absorption in the present moment describes “flow.” People who follow their passions and use their natural talents in daily life and work experience more flow.
Finding more happiness is not out of the question. But we must ask ourselves, "What can I do to be happier?" One major theme in positive psychology research is the pleasant life. The pleasant life refers to simply experiencing pleasantness often, or having as many positive emotions as one can. This idea of doing whatever we have to do to be happy can seem a little self-centered and irresponsible. Fortunately there is an important distinction between experiencing simple pleasure and experiencing gratification. Pleasures are those external and momentary experiences such as a good meal, having sex, or smelling perfume. Pleasures often spike our positive emotions in the moment, but are fleeting and don't provide lasting happiness. Positive psychology would emphasize we strive for more gratifying experiences. Those activities that offer more growth and allow us to use our strengths. These may not always even be pleasurable, and can be challenging and strenuous, such a mountain climbing, studying for a test, or doing a job well done on some task. These activities offer more lasting positive emotions and are not necessarily based on physical needs and ephemeral sensations.
If there's anything I need to make more time for, it would be exercise. It's nothing new to hear that exercise is valuable to mental health. Exercise can enhance quality of life and even be a therapeutic tool to work through mental illness. Even more importantly, it can serve as a proactive agent to prevent mental health problems from occurring. When adults have around 30 minutes of moderately intense physical activity per day it has been shown to be an important factor in not only physical health, but psychological well-being as well. Despite this we live in a day in age where many people practice a sedentary life style. It may be due to the fact that the majority of the world no longer needs to hunt and gather their food, and we have access to everything we need from the comfort of our homes. If there's any simple and immediate way to begin enhancing our well-being it's to get up off the couch and start moving.
I was talking with a friend recently about her concerns for her teenage son regarding setting goals, planning for his future, and feeling more confident about school. She expressed wishing schools had some sort of "life skills" program. I agreed with her, and had actually thought about this previously after looking into Positive Youth Development (PYD), which on a side note, is something I'll be writing a post on soon. In short, PYD provides a framework to support youth development by focusing on strengths and building assets, with the goal that youth will grow up to be contributing adults. A major part of this framework includes public institutions, such as schools and other community centers, working in unison with the parents and youth toward this mutual goal. What do you think? Should schools have some responsibility to help youth develop emotionally as well as academically? I believe schools can really be an empowering institution that promotes well-being and develops psychosocial strengths, in addition to academic learning.
Answering the question, "What is my life's purpose?" isn't easy for most people. We all want to be successful and feel important; yet being successful is much different than living a life of significance. Developing significance is about having a sense of meaning and knowing we offer value to the world and others. It's beginning to recognize a purpose greater than ourselves and how we can impart this calling to others. Many people write personal mission and value statements for this reason. They want to have a clear idea of why they're here and how they can live out their purpose. To begin making sense of life, explore where you've been. Consider the important parts of your past that lead to who you are today. Where did your beliefs and values come from?
Being able to regulate our emotions is more important that it might seem on the surface. Sure, we want to be able and manage our anger, stress, and anxiety, but recent studies show that the key to a happy, thriving life is a 3:1 ratio of positive to negative emotions. Our negative emotions tend to stand out and linger in our mind, and negative emotions have a greater impact on our overall mood than do positive emotions. In other words we need more positive emotions to counteract negative emotions. Psychologist Dr. Barbara Fredrickson's book Positivity offers insight about this concept. Here website states, "…experiencing positive emotions in a 3-to-1 ratio with negative ones leads people to a tipping point beyond which they naturally become more resilient to adversity and effortlessly achieve what they once could only imagine." Every emotional experience offers a chance to live a more thriving life. Be open-minded and consider what you can do to start having more positivity in your life. Turn down the negative and turn up the positive Learn to identify and recognize negative emotions in your life. When do you become angry, stressed, and anxious? Starting to notice and be aware of your emotional state is the first step to regulating how you feel. From here you can begin to incorporate tools and techniques to manage emotions. The second part of reaching a point of thriving is not just to manage negative emotions but to begin substituting positive emotions in their place.
We have all experienced some level of emotional pain and suffering. Whether from the abuse of others or from our own behavior, we begin to resent and feel guilty about what we're doing and what we've done. These highly emotional experiences are easy to recall, and the feelings of shame, bitterness, and regret only loom on our minds and lead to anger and sadness. It's in our own best interest to cultivate forgiveness and release the negativity, about ourselves and others, that we're holding onto. Why forgive? The ability to forgive offers emotional and physical benefits. Forgiveness is associated with psychological well-being, physical health, and relationship outcomes. For me, forgiveness has lead to greater personal growth and spiritual development. Holding onto bitterness and resentment prevents us from moving forward and we become stuck in a negative cycle. What leads to forgiveness? People are more likely to forgive those whom they feel close to and care for. The expected value of forgiving is also an important factor. Those relationships that have value or potential benefit are more likely to prompt forgiveness. Lastly, people more readily forgive those who they feel will not cause further harm. People who are viewed as trustworthy and safe are more likely to be forgiven. Can this apply to how we think about ourselves?
There are those who view the glass as half-full and those who view it as half-empty. As we know, the optimist views the glass as half-full, and that it will stay this way. An optimist tends to expect good things to happen in many situations, and that they are responsible for their success. There are many benefits to developing a more optimistic outlook. Optimistic people are more confident and persevere in the face of adversity, and they are healthier and live longer. Learned optimism Positive psychology would suggest that like any other activity or habit, optimism can be learned and developed. Optimism is an outlook about future circumstances, and by changing our thinking about what will happen and why things happen, we can begin to have a more optimistic attitude. A very important part of optimistic thinking is how you attribute what happens in your life. Here are three main types of attributions we can make: 1) External vs. Internal: The belief as to whether the cause of an event lies within us or outside of us. When something good happens and optimist will attribute this success to themselves, whereas a pessimist will give themselves little credit for success.
The defining moments in life are those that present us with a consequential choice to make. Sometimes there is an easy way out, but others times, we have to make a decision despite our uncertainty and fear. We have to be courageous and confront our doubts. What is courage? Courage is an emotional state defined as overcoming a threat that may be accompanied by fear, sadness, or anger. In the general sense, courage is often glorified. We might think of having to physically risk our life to save another, or leading an effort of social change to make the world a better place. Not everyone will be as courageous as Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi, but that doesn't mean we should approach life as a passive victim to our fears and insecurities.