How to Use the Principles of Positive Psychology to Start Your Year Off Right
By Kim Scott, LMFT
Collaborative Counseling Center
Studies show that up to 50% of happiness comes from intentional activities. Intentional activities are activities that we choose to do. This shows that although external events or early childhood experiences do have some impact on one’s happiness quotient, much of our happiness is within our control. Below are some ideas, practices and tips that you can begin implementing today to start the New Year right! But before I share tips for increasing your happiness quotient, let’s look at what happiness is.
True happiness is more about enjoying the large and small things in life rather than the waiting for the big, miraculous events to touch you. True happiness comes from looking for the silver lining when bad things happen. True happiness might feel more like contentment or a sense of well-being. True happiness comes from a sense of pursuing meaningful activities and being in a state of flow.
Being a happy person doesn’t mean putting your head in the sand and ignoring or denying bad things that happen. Life is full of ups and downs, accomplishments and disappointments, sunshine and rain. We can’t change the facts of life but we can control how we view bad events and how we respond to them. This view was taught by Greek teacher and philosopher Epictetus when he said, “Men are disturbed not by things but by the view which they take of them.” Bridget Grenville-Cleave, a British therapist also identifies a negative mind-set as a barrier to well-being in her book “Positive Psychology: A Practical Guide” (excellent book with lots of great tips).
For example, imagine you’re at the mall and a friend walks by without saying hello. You might think, “She’s so rude, she didn’t even say hello.” This might lead you to snub her the next time that you see her. Or, your internal self-talk might go more like this, “Huh, she must be distracted. I’m going to go over and say hello.” It’s the same exact situation with very different outcomes which both arose from how you viewed the event. If you believed that your friend intentionally ignored you, you might feel angry, sad, or afraid that you did something wrong. This might lead you to pull away from your friend. But if you assumed that your friend was merely distracted and did not intentionally ignore you, your feelings might be more positive. Observing how your thoughts contribute to your feelings is the first step in understanding and changing your mind-set. Observing and noticing your negative thoughts give you the power to change them.
In cognitive behavioral therapy, this is known as the ABC Model. “A” stands for, the actual event, which in the previous scenario was the friend walking by without a word. The “B” in the ABC model stands for the different perceptions of the event – your beliefs or thoughts about the event. And finally, “C” stands for the consequences that occur due to your thoughts or believes. In the ABC model, your beliefs, determine your feelings about an event and your feelings then determine the reaction/consequence. So, it follows that if you change your beliefs your feelings will change and the consequences or your reactions will change. So, although we have no control over the actual events with will occur in our lives, we can begin to look at changing our beliefs or thoughts.
Some of the types of thinking that lead to negative emotions and consequences include, catastrophizing, black and white thinking, personalizing, labeling, overgeneralizing, and mind reading.
Tip 1: Catch and change your negative thoughts. You can do this by starting to keep a log of your thoughts when you are feeling sad, mad or bad. Learn to take a critical view of your thoughts – are they helping to protect you? Are they leading you away from danger? If so, listen to them. If not let them go. Catch yourself when you are catastrophizing, mind reading, or personalizing. If you find yourself engaging in this type of risky thinking, ask yourself, “How else could I view this situation?”
Each time that you are able to catch, examine and change an unnecessary negative thought; you are beginning to build a more positive mental attitude, which will contribute to a happier 2017. Sometimes it can help to share your negative thoughts with a friend and see if they can help you find another way to view the situation.
Tip 2: Do something for at least 30 minutes a day that brings you joy and stirs up positive emotions. To start make a list of everything you could do for up to 30 minutes a day to feel happy. Think of this as “you” time. On my list I have things as small as going to Starbucks and sitting and reading while enjoying a Latte, and as large as going to my favorite spa for a massage. Then, each morning look at your list and make sure you add at least one item from the list into your day (more is great too)!
Tip 3: For the next day notice only the good things that happen to you. Try extending this for 30 days. We attract more of what we focus on. Developing a positive attitude is a habit.
Tip 4: Reframe negative experiences right away because the longer you dwell on them the longer they will have power over you. Negative experiences can have more staying power that positive experiences, so when something bad happens, make sure you remember and focus on 3 positive experiences right away to counteract the impact of the negative event. This is referred to as the Losada Ratio. In Dr. Marcial Losada’s research he found that it takes 3 positive experiences to make up for 1 negative. Psychologists have also found that the frequency of positive experiences is more important than the intensity or length, so find lots of large and small things to feel good about every day!
Tip 5: Be in Flow! Engagement, as defined by Dr. Seligman, is about being in Flow. The more we feel this sense of being fully in the moment, the more likely we will experience happiness. Flow occurs when we are doing something that we find absorbing, challenging but doable, intrinsically rewarding, and when time stands still. Engage in the activities that bring you this kind of connectedness and joy often.
Tip 6: Engage in activities that are meaningful to you. Meaning comes from being committed to something larger than oneself. This could be your religion, a charity, your family or helping mankind in some way.
Tip 7: Stop comparing yourself to others. The more you compare yourself to others who have more the worse you will feel. To break the comparison habit you may need to steer clear of social networking sites. These sites are notorious for engendering comparisons. Unfortunately, often the viewer is comparing his or her insides to other’s outsides. When you hear your inner critic comparing yourself to another, remind yourself that you are doing the best you can; that everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Remind yourself of your strengths and visualize the comparison floating out of your mind.
Tip 8: Remember your accomplishments. Nurturing a sense of accomplishment leads to a sense of well-being. According to Dr. Seligman: Skill + Effort = Accomplishment, which leads to as sense of well-being. Some great ways to keep your accomplishment front-and-center in your thoughts is to hang your diplomas on the wall; post pictures of loved ones on your social networking pages; let yourself brag a little; journal about your successes at the end of each day.
Tip 9: Develop an attitude of gratitude. A fun way to do this is by creating a Gratitude Jar at the beginning of the year. Each day put in little notes to remind yourself of everything that you have to be grateful for that day, then open the jar and read the notes at the end of the year. Hey, you can even read them mid-year if you need a pick me up. Saying thank-you, writing thank-you notes, and posting your gratitude on social networking sites also helps to deepen one’s sense of gratitude.
Tip 10: Stay in the moment. So often one’s pain and sadness comes from reliving the past or worrying about the future. This year by beginning a mindfulness or meditation practice you can enjoy the moment in front of you, while letting go of the past and future. Or as Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh teaches, “To meditate means to go home to yourself. Then you know how to take care of the things that are happening inside you, and you know how to take care of the things that happen around you.”
Here’s to making 2017 your best year yet!