“For a long time it had seemed to me that life was about to begin – real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way, something to be gotten through first, some unfinished business, time still to be served, or a debt to be paid. Then life would begin. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life.”
I also think we can have a similar attitude to positive things, anticipating things that give us positive emotions such as joy, excitement, euphoria, comfort, peace, relief. Making these positive things seem like goals or even obstacles to be reached or gained. “It will be better once…”; we have our new car; it’s the end of the day and I can have a glass of wine, I get a new outfit, I’ve got a new phone, I have a cup of tea and biscuit (well, maybe not that one).
However, there are a couple of problems with this seeking of positive emotion. Firstly, that as human beings we’re quite good at finding short cuts to experiencing these positive emotions, some innocuous enough and some not very healthy at all; eating, shopping, serial TV watching/internet use, drinking, even masturbation or drugs. But often the positive emotions are short lived and we experience something called hedonic adaptation, where we need more and more to experience the same level of positive emotion.
Secondly, we’re actually quite good at missing the positive emotion available to us in many of life’s experiences and can be better at focusing on the negative. Imagine the last time your child had a tantrum and how you dealt with it or your last job interview you went to. I bet you remember the things that went wrong, what you forgot to do, rather than things that went well, even if your child calmed down or you got the job! There are good evolutionary reasons why we are pre-programmed to remember negative things, so we can try and avoid them in the future, but sadly it’s also the reason we can be prone to stress, anxiety and depression.
So how can we move away from this way of thinking; seeing the negative and waiting for the next challenge or new thing? How can we stop waiting until we have that new car/phone/gadget, lose 5 pounds, pay off the mortgage, get to the weekend, get married, have kids, get to the end of term, retire? How can we learn to be grateful for what we do have, right now, for the people and things that make our lives what they are, savouring each and every moment, or at least each and every day?
One thing we can do is learn to recognise the positive more, actually train our brain to see the good things and override that natural tendency to notice the negative. I previously wrote about an exercise called ‘3 Good Things’ (aka ‘three blessings’ or the ‘what went well’ exercise) designed by eminent American Psychologist, Martin Seligman. You can read that previous talk here, and I encourage you to do so. It’s really simple, you just dedicate some time each day to recognise three good things that have happened in your day. There is a little description at the end of the that talk which will give you a bit more information about how to do it. And the great thing is, some wonderful scientists have tested this exercise in a randomised controlled trial (RCT) and found it to significantly increase levels of happiness 6 months later when participants were only instructed to conduct the exercise for one week. Unsurprisingly, how long the participants continued the exercise after the prescribed one week period strongly predicted how long the changes in happiness lasted. So it is highly recommended.
Another thing you can do is to learn to develop an ‘attitude of gratitude’. When we think about being grateful for something or someone, we benefit from recalling this pleasant memory. When we express gratitude to another person they benefit also and we strengthen our relationship with them. They key here (as with three good things) is to make this gratitude purposeful and thoughtful, rather than perhaps our more normal ‘thank you’ that can be quick and almost meaningless. Also tested in the RCT was the ‘Gratitude Visit’. This was found to have the biggest immediate impact on happiness levels and also showed decreases in depression and increases in happiness after one month. It invites you to select one person in your life that you feel grateful to for something, a friend, partner, relative, even an old teacher. Then to write a letter of gratitude to them, it doesn’t have to be very long, and be specific and concrete about what they did for you and how it affected your life. This in itself is a nice thing to do but the next step invites you to share this with the person you are writing to. It’s best done in person but can be done over the phone, or even sent to them. However, if you can meet them in person don’t tell them why, so that when you read the letter it’s a surprise. Try to read the letter in whole before discussing it together, notice how they react and how you feel. Then take some time to talk about what you have written and what it felt like. It can be quite intense, and is not something you are going to do everyday but I encourage you to give it a go, what do you have to loose?
We at 101mothers want you all to experience as much genuine positive emotion and gratitude for life as possible and love being able to share with you some evidence based ways you can do that. Why not tell us about your three good things or share your experiences of developing an attitude of gratitude? Tweet us @101mothers and tag your tweet with #3GoodThings or post on our Facebook page.