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Happiness Habits: The Power of Positivity

23 Feb 2022 | Written by By Miriam Akhtar MAPP, author of The Little Book of Happiness

Three simple practices to help you get more positivity into your day

Awe, bliss, calm, delight, excitement, who doesn’t love a positive emotion? But is there more to these good feelings than a pleasant, uplifting experience? The joy of positive emotions is that they not only feel good but do us good too.  

One of the most significant discoveries in positive psychology is that positive emotions broaden our thinking, opening us up and enabling us to notice more and think ‘outside the box’. Being creative doesn’t have to mean putting yourself under maximum pressure and pulling all-nighters. You can play your way to greater creativity instead! 

But that’s not all. Professor Barbara Fredrickson, who leads the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab at the University of North Carolina, has also discovered that positive emotions build inner resources. Although they’re short-lived – a moment of joy or a moment of calm – positive emotions accumulate to form four types of resource that you can draw on to support your life. 

Psychological resources such as resilience and optimism, a sense of who you are and what your goals are. Intellectual resources to help you learn and solve problems. Social resources so that you’re open to form new connections and deepen existing bonds. Even physical resources like muscle strength, cardiovascular health and coordination. If you’re wondering how positive emotions strengthen the body, think of how children are when they’re playing. Having fun at the playground means moving the body and developing those muscles.  

The main issue with positive emotions is that they’re fleeting and our brains are so busy noticing what’s wrong (the negativity bias) that we fail to notice what’s right. So, we have to consciously do the stuff that makes us feel good. Even then positive emotions are not guaranteed. My top tip is to put yourself in situations that are likely to produce positivity but let go of the result. Sometimes it will work, sometimes it won’t. Neuroscience has shown us that the brain is malleable – it responds to practice, so the more you engage with these happiness habits, the more frequently they’ll work for you. Here are three practices from The Little Book of Happiness to help you get more positivity into your day.

 

1. Plan a playlist 

‘Work, rest and play’ was the famous advert but as adults we don’t seem to make as much  space for play as we did as a child. And yet leisure activities are great ways to relax, take time out from everyday stresses and learn something new.  Playtime recharges the batteries. Although it’s harder to get started, active recreation like sports, gardening, dancing, crafting or baking have far more benefits for wellbeing than passive leisure like watching TV. Spending time on a ‘hobby’ (a word that now seems obsolete) can take you into a satisfying state of flow, when you’re in the zone. Put together a ‘playlist’ of active, recreational activities and commit to doing something every day. One of the benefits of having a playlist ready is that if your mood sinks, you can scan your list for a reminder of  whatever puts sunshine into your soul. 

What do you have to look forward to?’  Write a list of active recreational activities that give you a jolt of joy. Schedule something from your playlist every day even if it’s only for 5-10 minutes. Keep your playlist somewhere handy (diary, screensaver) to act as a reminder whenever a boost is needed.

 

2: Practise Gratitude

Counting your blessings is the stuff of folklore but the science shows that it really does work. It’s one of the most powerful practices there is, but there is far more to gratitude than saying thank you. It trains the mind to tune in and notice the good things in life, which is a way of overcoming the brain’s negativity bias, where your attention goes to what’s wrong before noticing what’s right. Gratitude develops the awareness of being the beneficiaries of other people’s kindness and generosity. 

In one of the early studies in positive psychology, participants were asked to write down ‘three good things’ that went well every day for a week. One month later participants were happier and less depressed and stayed that way at the 3- and 6-month follow-ups.

Three Good Things

Every day make a list of three good things in your life. It could be anything like finding a parking space right outside the shop to something like enjoying good health or having a roof over your head. Use these questions as prompts. 

  • What is good in your life?
  • What are you grateful for? Who are you grateful to?
  • What has gone well? And your role in making it happen? 

Some people find it hard to do at first but once you get into it, you start clocking things during the day that can go on your list. Try anchoring three good things to a routine like the commute, brushing your teeth or over dinner. Making it something you do with family or friends is beneficial all-round and helps to make it into a habit. 

 

3. Savouring

Savouring is about paying attention to, appreciating and enhancing positive experiences. It complements gratitude, which is about noticing what’s positive. Savouring is about lengthening and strengthening a positive experience and takes a variety of forms – marvelling, basking, luxuriating, feasting and relishing are all examples. You can savour across time. Positive reminiscence is about savouring the past by replaying a special time, maybe telling someone the story of a success, describing it in glorious technicolour and lingering over the best bits. It’s a practice that’s used in therapy with older people.

Savouring the future involves building excitement about something positive coming up. What are you most looking forward to? Visualise the event exactly how you would like it to happen, there’s no need to rein in your imagination. The advantage of savouring the future is that you can paint the picture exactly the way you want to. Then there’s being present to the joys of the here and now. These steps will help you fully engage with a positive experience as it happens so that you can encourage good feelings.

    • Slow down and stretch out the experience
    • Focus your attention on what you’re savouring
    • Use all your senses – sight, sound, smell, touch, taste 
  • Ask yourself, ‘What do I appreciate here? What do I value?’
  • Reflect on the source of enjoyment. Does it remind you of past positive experiences?

Not only do positivity practices like these feed our wellbeing but they can also undo the effects of stress and negativity on the body by slowing down the pulse and lowering blood pressure. Like an ‘inner reset button’ guiding us back into a state of rest and digestion. The ultimate benefit of experiencing positive emotions is that it takes us into an upwards spiral towards a place of higher wellbeing, transforming us and our lives for the better.   


Miriam Akhtar MAPP is a practitioner of  positive psychology and was one of a hundred global experts invited to contribute to the World Book of Happiness, given to world leaders with a request to put wellbeing on their national agenda. She works as a trainer and coach and runs courses including the Positive Psychology Foundations, an online training in practices from the science of wellbeing, which you can use yourself and pass onto others, now in its tenth year.

Miriam also delivers live talks to members of The Joy Club and you can find out more about joining her next talk here.

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