Positivity—the P in Positive PsychologyJan 30, 2021 08:00PM ● By Ann C. Reeves
Positive Psychology (PP) is the scientific study of optimal human functioning and its research encompassing neurobehavioral, cognitive behavioral and physiological science. The acronym used in PP is PERMA-V.
P stands for Positivity, which may not include happiness, but more a deep sense of well-being, and it is also related to the quality of one’s engagement with life, sense of meaning, resilience, relationships and feelings of personal achievement. Any one of these can be a gateway to feelings of increased well-being. Seeking positivity is a choice we can choose to make.
The brain has an inborn negativity bias related to ensuring survival over danger. The part of our brain that mediates feelings and emotional memories is not as smart as we think. Often bypassing the help of the smart forebrain, it responds most readily to and believes what it has been told—a feeling memory bank. If we grew up in critical families, the message of “you’re not good enough” is reinforced and, over time, the brain believes it. It then affects everything, reaching into all parts of our life.
Barbara Fredrickson, of the University of North Carolina, developed the Broaden and Build Theory of Positive Emotions. She discovered that increasing positive emotions opens our hearts and minds to encourage more creativity and receptiveness, and broadens our ideas about possible actions. In contrast, negative emotions tend to close those aspects.
Fredrickson found that only one positive event could lead to a greater likelihood of finding another positive experience, and that is what broadens and builds. She also realized that this is impossible all the time and recommends we try to construct a 3:1 ratio. She proposes that for every negative feeling or experience we haves, we try to construct three positive reactions or experiences as a way to undo the negativity bias.
We can achieve more voluntary control over negative thinking by looking at our past, present and future. In a notebook, create three columns for PAST, PRESENT and FUTURE. Starting with the past, even in the presence of negative memories, write down what was good: a grandparent, neighbor, teacher, private adventures in nature, creating pictures or stories. For the present, write down what currently gives pleasure, meaning or satisfaction, without focusing on the challenges that are present. Lastly, look beyond the current situation to something that might be hopeful or optimistic: a dream, a creative project, a trip, a commitment to something larger than oneself. Just by doing this exercise, we take attention off the negative and prime our brain toward more positivity.
Another concept in PP is savoring. As with food, it means stretching out the moment, an opportunity to increase the intensity and duration of positive emotions, as explained by PP founder Martin Seligman. One strategy is to plan something each day that we know will bring pleasure: going to a certain restaurant, listening to a favorite kind of music, going to a museum, reading a book that captures our interest, volunteering for an important cause or making art.
Then, when we undertake that activity, we should practice savoring it, becoming aware of the specific ways that this activity pleases us—intellectually, through the senses, or through a feeling of competence and ease. Spend a little more time going deeper into that enjoyment, into appreciation and even gratitude. Savoring is another way to influence the negativity bias that we often carry, and another way to practice mindfulness.
A fourth approach is to keep a “What Went Well” Journal. Each night, write down three things that went well that day. It could be the kindness of the postal worker that waited on us, or that we were in a roughly made parking lot and found a yellow flower coming out of the crack in a rock. Or, we had been meaning for weeks to declutter a certain area and this was the day it got done. After each of the three, we should write down what we did to contribute to it being something that went well. Maybe we were more attentive and took the time to look at and appreciate that flower, or we did not allow ourselves to become distracted from a household task, or we established eye contact with the postal worker and gazed for a bit before turning away.
This one strategy, when researched, has had very positive results in terms of reducing anxiety and depression. It primes the brain for the positive. There are now many excellent books written about PP and positivity to discover additional strategies.
See the next article in this PERMA-V series, focusing on the E for Engagement, in the March issue.