Tools for the Good Life

In many areas of life, an essential strategic insight is to understand that the absence of negatives does not necessarily mean the existence of positives. For example, the absence of debt is not the same as the creation of wealth. The absence of weakness does not mean the existence of stamina. etc.

If we have a value of -5 and we restore the minus value, it simply gives us zero. It does not give us +5!

This insight is easy enough to understand when we focus on it but it is so often overlooked in its application in life.

The same is true when we think of psychological interventions we tend to think of interventions designed to overcome negative states like depression, anxiety, insecurity and stress. But overcoming the negative states does not mean an automatic enabling of positive states.

Overcoming negatives is not the same as enabling positives. As Professor Lea Waters, of Melbourne University’s Centre for Positive Psychology said in her recent Dean’s Lecture:

“In a good life, we can aim to go beyond the overcoming of depression and stress and aim towards the enabling of hope, optimism, courage and gratitude. And, this is the aim of positive psychology”.

The value of positive interventions is not new and has been well understood since the writings of Marcus Aurelius and K’ung Fu Tzu aka Confucius. However, in the past 20 years, in the field of psychology, much research and science has been undertaken to demonstrate the effectiveness of positive psychology, not only in therapy but also in the promotion of wellbeing in life, sport and business.

Just as there is a vast amount of study to show how negative emotions harm the body causing illnesses such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. And that chronic anger and anxiety can disrupt cardiac function by changing the heart’s electrical stability, hastening atherosclerosis, and increasing systemic inflammation.

We now have a wealth of science-based literature to demonstrate the positive benefits of happiness. Happier people are more likely to live longer, to learn faster, be more creative, have healthier bodies, and have longer relationships. People who are happier than their stressed-out peers have increased probability of getting a degree, of getting promoted to a better job with higher pay and leadership responsibilities.

So what are the tools of positive psychology?

The basic toolkit consist of tools known as PPIs or Positive Psychological Interventions. PPIs are usually simple but very effective actions, techniques or activities that have been shown to increase positivity (positive affect) in individuals.

For example, lab experiments have shown that certain exercises can help develop positive emotions within individuals. PPIs are often short exercises that are to be carried out for fixed time periods. These ‘interventions’ are essentially changes in routines that provide numerous emotional benefits to the practising individual.

A variety of psychological interventions have been developed for facilitating positive emotions, creativity, growth, fulfillment, wellbeing, and other desirable positive consequences for individuals. These positive psychological interventions may be nothing more than minor changes in an individual’s daily routines.

So, how are these PPIs different from other self-help exercises?

The main difference is the fact that these psychological interventions are designed and tested according to scientific reasoning and research. This does not mean that the same exercises work for everything; the activity and its length can vary from individual to individual. It’s a good idea to try to take a bespoke approach to PPIs.

How do I know which PPI is right for me?

Scientists have set a five question criteria for determining the right fit of a PPI for each person. Here are the questions used:

 Does it feel natural?

 Do you value doing it?

 Do you enjoy the activity?

 Would you feel bad if you do not engage in the exercise?

 Are there any factors that motivate you to do the activity?

At the end of the day, the key aspect to these PPIs is the time invested in the repetition of the PPI. Just like the physical interventions we do at the gym, the more practice the better the results.

Here are one of my favourite PPIs … Good Pillow Thoughts.

Try never to let the sun go down on negative and bad pillow thoughts.

Why? It’s because humans have a negative bias.

This means that even when we experience an equal number of negative and positive thoughts, our brain focuses more on the negative ones and so the positive thoughts may not have as much effect on our behaviour.

We often recall bad events rather than good ones not because the first are more common than the last (think about it) but because they have a greater effect on ours psychological state. Also, we don’t focus on the good events and often we take them for granted, for example simply having a nice meal.

As you no doubt have seen, bad events usually make a bigger impact on our brain. That’s why we often remember the bad things about people rather than the good … and for a longer period of time. The brain evolved this way to keep us alive during the highly threatening and dangerous evolutionary process. We needed it to survive.

Regrettably, this negative bias plays a role in our everyday lives: work, family, friends, relationships. To live a happy life and flourish we need to switch our attention from negative to positive.

PPI #1: Good Pillow Thoughts (instructions):

• Write down, or just consciously say to your partner or yourself on your pillow before going to sleep, 3 good things that happened to you today.

• Get into the habit of doing this every day. It’s also fun to do. The 3 things can be big or small as long as they are positive.

• For example: a nice meal, a stroll in the garden, buying some flowers, receiving a compliment, hugging your child, getting a new client, scoring well in an exam, making a friend happy, losing a kilo etc etc.

This powerful but simple method was designed by Professor Martin Seligman, the ‘father of positive psychology’.

By Francesco Caso | Director Positive Business, GradDipPsych(Melb), JD(Nap)

Student, Master Applied Positive Psychology, a member of the Graduate Union