Positivity often gets a bad rap, especially among those of us who like to think we are realists. Life is both good and bad, right - and sometimes more of the latter, especially when you look out of your little bubble. Sitting around writing gratitude journals isn’t going to change the world. Also, isn’t it a tad self-indulgent?
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Audre Laude
While we can’t deny the pain and suffering in life, studies have shown that focusing too much on the negative can make you feel stuck, hopeless or depressed. Martin Segilman, the founder of Positive Psychology conceptualised “learned helplessness”, now a cornerstone of psychology, which explains how we come to believe we cannot change our situation so do not try, even when opportunities present themselves. Simply entertaining the idea that we can change is positivity.
Also, negative self-talk can be very detrimental. We all know our Inner Critic, that bitchy voice in your head constantly putting you down, undermining your self-esteem and ramping up your stress. Research shows that developing positive self-talk instead can help regulate your emotions, thoughts and behaviour when under stress.
Let’s be clear though – being positive does not mean telling someone with depression to cheer up or asking someone who is grieving when they’re going to get over it and move on. This is toxic positivity and is used to shame people with genuine depression or sadness.
So, how can we get some of these positive vibes?
If you are interested in wellness, you may already have explored some of the tools of positive psychology such as:
Gratitude – Research increasingly shows that writing three things you are grateful for each day in your journal or gratitude app can help with anxiety and depression. A study with 300 students in therapy found writing a weekly letter of gratitude to someone else for just three weeks reported better mental health.
Resilience – is the ability to recover from trauma, loss or a stressful event. Resilience can be developed as you become more compassionate, aware, adaptable, optimistic and forgiving. Resilient people see difficulties as challenges with potential for transformation.
Compassion – is the perfect antidote to the Inner Critic and it’s cruel companion Perfectionism. Self-compassion researcher Dr Kirsten Neff says: “You may try to change in ways that make you more happy and healthy, but this is done because you care about yourself, not because you are worthless or unacceptable as you are.”
How can positivity help me live a good life?
The PERMA Model is used in Positive Psychology to guide people on a path towards happiness and wellbeing. These are not quick fixes but part of a larger life-journey, aspects of daily living that we need to focus on and develop over time.
P – Positive Emotions
While hedonism is seeking pleasurable sensations, eudaimonia is more about thriving and wellbeing. In positive psychology, eudaimonia is considered more long-lasting and slightly higher form of happiness. However, those fleeing sensations of joy or comfort are important in learning to build longer-term contentment. When you notice what makes you feel happy, joyful, connected, loved – those fleeting meaningful moments – or safe and content, you can consciously bring more of it into your life.
Task: When you experience a positive emotion, pause, notice how it feels in your body, your head and your heart. Rest in the sensation for as long as possible and remember it when it has passed.
E – Engagements
The concept of ‘flow’ was developed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe the state that artists, athletes, musicians and other creative professionals fall into when they are engaged in a task where their skills match the challenge. Those in flow are so immersed in what they are doing, they become one with the task, lose a separate sense of self and time. In his research he found that the ability to enter flow regularly led to greater happiness, wellbeing, success and healthier relationships.
Task: Look at your hobbies and work – when do you achieve flow? How can you improve your skills to match the task?
R – Relationships
Human beings are social creatures and bringing positivity into our relationships is essential to our wellbeing. Some people can feel ‘toxic’, bringing you down usually because they are projecting their own negative feelings. These people can be positivity-resistant, but you can build your own resilience in dealing with them by being optimistic that eventually they will find their way, while quietly and intently focusing on your own strengths and not identifying with their negative beliefs.
Task: Focus on the positive aspects of your friends, partner, members of your family, the pleasurable moments.
M – Meaning
Happiness can feel hollow if you don’t have meaning in your life. To find meaning you may need to look beyond yourself and find something bigger that gives you a reason to live a certain way. Some people find meaning in helping others through charity work, expressing their deep beliefs creatively or exploring spirituality.
Task: Be curious. Explore philosophical ideas, engage in conversations that go beyond small talk, don’t be afraid of taboo subjects.
A – Accomplishments/Achievements
We thrive when we aim to reach our goals. Not to be rich and famous, but personal and specific goals, such as being healthy, completing a piece of work, running a marathon, climbing a mountain, doing yoga every day. It’s not the outcome that’s important, but the aim that creates the energy and drive, and gives us purpose.
Task: Write down your goal and break it into manageable steps. Keep a diary to record and track your progress. Reward yourself as each step is achieved.