In this section …
Positive Psychology is an evidence-based approach to life that underlies all the therapies that I practice.
A mounting body of research is showing that we can improve our wellbeing and enhance our ability to experience happiness if we learn to focus on positive things, and develop regular habits of noticing the positive aspects of our lives.
The Negativity Bias
Our brains evolved in order to keep us alive – they enable us to solve all sorts of problems, and focus our attention on the things we need to be aware of in order to survive.
For this reason, our attention is naturally directed towards threats to our wellbeing – like danger, potential danger, pain, discomfort, and problems that may hamper our goals.
This focus of attention has been extremely useful in solving the problems of survival that our species has faced, and has made us a very successful animal in most environments. The focus has been on problems, threats, and other negative information.
How to Develop a Positivity Bias
Positive Psychology comprises a group of strategies to help people to counter this negativity bias by actively focussing on positive events and information, and deliberately experiencing the feelings that they evoke in us.
Specific techniques help people to develop a positivity bias. Here are some examples of things you can do to cultivate a positivity bias:
Find Silver Linings – When you notice yourself struggling with a difficult situation, challenge yourself to find a positive aspect of the situation. For instance, worry over a friend who is experiencing a serious illness may be showing you how strong your attachment to that person is, and make you take steps to be more available to them. Your relationship may grow in new directions because of the illness.
Take Time to Enjoy the Enjoyable – When you have an opportunity to do something enjoyable, no matter how small, whether it's eating a good piece of chocolate, walking through a pretty park, or getting a good night's sleep, take a moment to really feel the pleasurable part of the experience. Luxuriate in the feeling, and strengthen the neural networks in your brain that story that experience, so that you can call it up again later. Make pleasure a well-frequented part of your experience, and enjoy it!
Let Go of Unhelpful Things – Do work to solve the problems that you face and improve your situation, but don't dwell on your problems. Make a decision to let go of what's bothering you, and spend as little unproductive mental time there as you can. Go there to work on it, but when you're not being constructive in that space, make a choice to let it go, and focus your energy and attention on something that feels good.
Forgive Someone – If you are holding on to a grudge with someone, it can affect your wellbeing in a negative way. Why not try forgiving them, even if they haven't asked for it. Forgiving them doesn't mean that you condone what they did. Forgiveness is about letting yourself out of your resentment with somebody else. It can be very difficult, especially if they have not acknowledged their behaviour and its impacts on you. By choosing to see their behaviour in all the complexity of the situation and what brought that person to act in a hurtful way, you may be able to release yourself from the negativity that holding the grudge is causing you.
Know your Qualities – Spend some time thinking about what you are particularly good at, and what you or other people like about you. Make a habit of noticing when you do something well, are kind, or use one of your talents. Take a moment to feel what it feels like and enjoy it. Learn to tap into those feelings and spend some time there.
Look for Qualities in Others – Make a habit of thinking about the things that you like about the people in your life. With some people this will be easy, with others it will be more challenging. Try to focus on the qualities in others that you admire, and place your attention there. Consciously let go of the things that are harder to like, and imagine others doing this for you.
Daily Journal of Positive Experiences – Some people find that having a daily diary or ritual to list and enjoy positive experiences keeps their focus on the positive. You might try to do this morning or night or both, to keep you focused on the positive. Start by listing 5 positive things in your life right now.
Daily Gratitude Exercise – At least once a day, take some time to think of 5 things that you are genuinely grateful for. Try to focus on different things each day. You may find that a habit of doing this as a ritual once a day changes your perspective so that you start to notice moments of gratitude throughout the day.
Whether you try one or all of these simple exercises, the research is clear: positive psychology can make very powerful differences to your life. Try some of these techniques and see how you feel.
Hansen, R (2013). Taking in the Good, Chicago Ideas, published on April 11, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jA3EGx46r4Q&list=PLZwaG5do7TJ2V_O_VKL2YqLNXEKj66WMI
Seligman, M (2002). Authentic Happiness. Australia: Simon and Schuster.