The Secret Lies In Harnessing The Power Of Positive Psychology

You might well believe you’re not in control of your own happiness. But, according to the science of positive psychology, that’s only partly true. Yes, around 50 per cent is determined by your genes, say researchers. A further 10 per cent – which is probably less than you’d think – can be accounted for by your present circumstances and conditions. But a massive 40 per cent is under your direct control and can easily be influenced by a shift in focus towards the positive, combined with some very simple mood-lifting strategies.

Put simply, positive psychology is the study of what makes life worth living, of what makes us happy. Dr Martin Seligman, who co-founded this new branch of science in the 1990s, identified three main pathways to happiness: pleasure, engagement and meaning. ‘Pleasure’ is about enjoyment and energy; ‘engagement’ is about the depth of your involvement with work, people and activities; and ‘meaning’ is about what gives your life purpose. The ultimate goal of positive psychology is to help you find more of all three.

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So what’s the secret? Actually, there are plenty of tricks to help you cultivate happiness – from expressing gratitude to simply stopping to smell the roses. In her new book, Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression (Watkins, £9.99), one of the UK’s leading practitioners of positive psychology, Miriam Akhtar, explains the principles of the science and how to make them work for you. Try these ways, inspired by her techniques, to boost your happiness – for summer and for life.

DEVELOP A GROWTH MINDSET

First and foremost, open your mind to the idea that most things – including your own happiness – are more flexible than they are fixed. You can learn to look on the bright side and develop your own strength and resilience. A fixed mindset believes everything is pretty much set in stone from day one, and there’s little you can do to change it. A growth mindset recognises that we all have huge potential for growth and development. ‘People with a growth mindset don’t give up,’ says Akhtar. ‘Instead, they learn and develop.’ So bear this in mind as you try out the tips listed here – and if something doesn’t work for you, take a different approach or try again later.

Learn to savour the moment

Remember, all positive experiences are transient – but by learning to tune in, appreciate and enhance each one, you’ll be extracting the maximum enjoyment and benefits. ‘Savouring strengthens your awareness of the positive or the pleasurable to overcome the “negativity bias”,’ Akhtar explains. ‘Our brains are wired so that we notice what’s wrong before we notice what’s right, the negative before the positive.’ So a key part of successful savouring is to actively identify the positives in everything we experience. And because we’re effectively attempting to change the way our brains are wired, it can take a little practice before it comes naturally. A tip? Engage all five senses to help you search out the good: listen for birdsong, stop and smell the flowers or really notice the cosiness of your slippers at the end of a busy day.

ADOPT A GRATITUDE ATTITUDE

Another way of seeking out positivity in everyday life is simply to count your blessings. ‘Developing the attitude of gratitude has a wide range of advantages for wellbeing,’ says Akhtar. ‘Research has shown that it’s associated with increased happiness, satisfaction with life, selfesteem, positive emotions, optimism, hope, enthusiasm, empathy, vitality, spirituality and forgiveness.’ Sounds pretty convincing, doesn’t it? And yet it can still be surprisingly tricky to remember to be thankful. One technique is to build gratitude into your bedtime routine: just before you turn out the light, list three things that have gone well that day. It could be something as simple as holding your plank for a second longer in your yoga class, or seeing a rainbow when you were out running. It can also help to keep a gratitude diary once a week, noting down all the things you’re thankful for. Finally, of course, it’s important to thank other people for their kindness and good service. This helps build our social connections and stops us from taking one another for granted. Again, do bear in mind that negativity bias: you’d soon speak up if the waiter brought you the wrong order or your food was cold, for instance, so remember to be appreciative when you’re served a lovely meal and everything runs as it should.

Create a feelgood playlist

Another failsafe way to build more positivity into your life is to write a list of your guaranteed mood-lifters – the things that always inspire and engage you, such as running round the park, cooking your favourite dinner or chatting to a friend on the phone. And then actively schedule in at least one of these activities each day, if only for 15 minutes. ‘By investing in activities that generate positive emotions, you’re investing in your future and opening yourself up to the possibility of a transformation,’ says Akhtar.

THINK LIKE AN OPTIMIST

Convinced the glass is always half empty? Believe it or not, you can learn to be an optimist instead – which, in turn, means things are more likely to go your way in future. ‘If you expect something to turn out well, you’re more motivated to put in the effort to ensure that success happens,’ says Akhtar. And according to positive psychology, optimists are also better equipped to rebuild their world after a traumatic experience. So when things go wrong, think of the possible external causes and resist the need to blame yourself or your own bad luck: this helps to preserve your selfesteem. Focus on what you might now be able to do to influence those external factors for the better. Remind yourself that everything is temporary: this too shall pass. And keep an eye on the bigger picture: the current experience may have backfired, but you still have plenty to be grateful for. One caveat, though: Akhtar warns against allowing optimism to turn into over-confidence or risk-taking behaviour. Being prepared for the worst does have its benefits, after all: if you leave your umbrella at home because you’ve convinced yourself it never rains in summertime, 4 you’ll eventually end up getting wet.

Climb the positivity ladder

If you find it difficult to remain positive in the face of a setback, you won’t be surprised to learn that scientists have decreed it’s officially hard work. In fact, it takes three positive emotions to counteract a negative, according to the 3-to-1 positivity ratio, devised by researcher Dr Barbara Fredrickson. As Akhtar explains: ‘What it means is that for every negative emotional experience you suffer, you need an average of three positive emotional experiences to compensate, so that you can get on the track toward greater wellbeing.’ The trick, then, is to actively seek out those positive feelings and experiences. So if something’s gone wrong, try to identify the things that have gone right. Your train may be on a go-slow, for example, but at least you’ve got a seat, the sun’s out and you have more time to read.

Nurture your relationships

The relationships we have with other people – at home, at work, even online – are a leading source of happiness. We have a fundamental need to belong. And for that reason, says Akhtar, it’s important to focus your efforts on investing in people, not things. But all relationships take a lot of work. A few pointers? Make the effort to focus on everyone’s positives and not to dwell on those little things that annoy you. Keep smiling, and learn to listen with enthusiasm and energy. Be compassionate, but don’t allow others to drag you down. We all have glass-half-empty, negative friends and colleagues – but rather than avoid them or join in the misery, focus on remaining upbeat in their company. And pay attention to the people on the ‘periphery’ of your life, too – neighbours, gym buddies, shopkeepers… In short, be happy and grateful with everyone you meet, and you’ll build more supportive ties.

PLAY TO YOUR STRENGTHS

‘Positive psychology is often referred to as the science of strengths, because they relate to the positive side of our characters – the things we’re good at, our talents rather than our shortcomings,’ says Akhtar. So while it’s important that you continue searching out fresh experiences and learn new things throughout your life, it’s also vital to recognise your own strengths – the things that engage, enthuse and energise you. Your greatest potential for growth lies in developing your strengths rather than fixing your weaknesses,’ Akhtar adds. ‘So this is where to focus your efforts to get the maximum return.’ Make a list of the things you’re naturally good at. What are you doing when you’re at your best? What do you do just for the love of it? What makes you become completely absorbed and lose track of time? Knowing your strengths, and playing to them when you’re going through a difficult patch or approaching a crossroads in life, will enable you to find the happiest way forward.

 

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