It has been said that positive emotions expand our consciousness in ways that help us solve problems. For Barbara Frederickson, the author of Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the Upward Spiral That Will Change Your Life, positive emotions build upon one another in ways that extend beyond the present moment.
Rather than focusing on developing an overarching or all-encompassing habit of happiness, Frederickson argues, we should focus on small “micromoments,” or opportunities for happiness. It is from these moments that we can then broaden and build upon a larger goal of more lasting happiness.
So just how many “micromoments” do we need?
In her early work with Marcial Losada, Frederickson answered this question. In what is now known as the “Losada line” Frederickson and Losada showed that the ratio of positive to negative emotions that fosters flourishing, learning, optimism, and even overcoming various negative physiological factors that accompany negative emotions, is effectively 2.93, or three positive emotions for every negative one.
In one study, Frederickson asked 86 participants to submit daily emotions reports – as opposed to focusing on larger and more general questions such as: “Over the last few months, how much joy did you feel?”
What Frederickson found was that not only was the level of positive emotions needed to create noticeable benefits not immense, but perhaps even more importantly, building a daily diet of positive emotions didn’t require banishing all negative emotions, or adopting otherwise unrealistic positive illusions that require denying the difficult parts of life (Frederickson, et. al. 2013).
Frederickson explains, “The levels of positive emotions that produced good benefits weren’t extreme. Participants with average and stable levels of positive emotions still showed growth in resilience even when their days included negative emotions” (Frederickson, 2013).
“This study shows that if happiness is something you want out of life, then focusing daily on the small moments and cultivating positive emotions is the way to go. Those small moments let positive emotions blossom, and that helps us become more open. That openness then helps us build resources that can help us rebound better from adversity and stress, ward off depression and continue to grow” (Frederickson, 2013).
Frederickson’s work demonstrates what many in the field of behavioral change know to be true – larger, qualitative change starts with small measurable, quantitative steps. Yet another interesting study validates another important truth about happiness: Happiness isn’t the same for everyone.
Recruiting 337 undergraduate students, Bernardo J. Carducci, director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast, had them complete an online survey that measured aspects of happiness, social affiliation, and drive to reach goals. The survey included the Satisfaction with Life Scale, Positive/Negative Affect Scale, and a 44-item Survey of Happiness Strategies.
Comparing the happiness strategies used by both extroverted and less socially inclined students, Carducci found that happy people who are less outgoing relied less on partying and drinking to be happy and more on connections with family and friends or cognitive strategies, such as positive thinking (Carducci, et. al., 2011).
Further, Carducci uncovered an interesting connection between goal-oriented behavior and happiness levels. Those college students who were found to be more goal-oriented, and more focused were, on average, significantly happier (Carducci, et. al, 2011).
Carducci explains, “When you look at what these people do differently, they engage in more purposeful leisure, rather than sitting around and watching television. They don’t go clubbing as much as the others. They spend more time on what we call spiritual reflection. They write in journals. These are the kinds of people who tend to be more happy. These also are the people who mostly graduate from college” (Carducci, 2011).
While Carducci’s results may fly in the face of the typical college students recipe for happiness – ample leisure time, significant amounts of partying, and minimal studying (perhaps only when forced) – they underscore the difference between what Martin Seligman calls eudemonic happiness – or that rooted in meaning and fulfillment – and hedonic happiness – that which is pleasure based. As Seligman notes, while hedonic happiness can give happiness a short-lived boost, it is the eudemonic happiness that endures over the course of a lifetime.
Happiness might be different for everyone, yet the goal need not be out of reach for anyone. In fact, it might be as simple as noticing the small micromoments of happiness that when woven together, lead to a qualitative shift, or what Frederickson might call, an “upward spiral of happiness.”
So what micromoments have you noticed today?