The Summer of Wellbeing, Part IV

Cultivate positive emotions

(Note: this article is part of a series. You might want to read the previous installments, Moving Your Body, Feeding Your Body, and Reducing Stress, first.)

Emotions and attitudes can feel like solid things-when you're in a bad mood or angry with someone, you may get a sense that the mood surrounds you like fixed walls. But giving in to this perception is a bit like putting yourself in prison. We like to think instead of moods and emotions as part of a flowing process, which changes frequently, based on what we're experiencing and the stories we're telling ourselves. With this perspective you can work with your emotions to enhance those that are positive (and thus good for you).

What the research says about emotions and health

You already know that stress (which can be caused by long-term negative emotional patterns) will mess with your circulation, sleep patterns, digestive health, and ability to fight off diseases. But what about the effects of feeling good? A recent study found that healthy attitudes like joy and enthusiasm can help protect you from chronic heart disease. The Mayo Clinic states that positive emotions can help you fight off the common cold. Other studies agree that people with healthy attitudes and contentment will actually live longer than those who mainly experience negative emotions.

Assess your own emotional wellbeing

The first step in transforming your emotional health is to take a look and see where you're at right now. You may be experiencing a lot of anger, or jealousy, or feel tight and closed up-that's okay! It's a big step to simply identify where you are, and possibly the most important step along the journey. Here are two assessments you can take now:

  • Our Taking Charge Emotions Assessment, which will help you figure out how you are dealing with your emotions, and where you could use some help
  • Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson's Positivity Self Test, which will identify what you are feeling today and where you rank on the Positivity Ratio

Since emotions are part of a continually flowing process, don't be surprised if each day your assessment results are different (in fact, Barbara Fredrickson recommends doing her assessment every day for a week to get a truer sense of your baseline).

Choose positivity

Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh likens our minds to a garden: we all have the seeds of joy, gratitude, compassion, anger, jealousy, and fear. But it's what we choose to water that will flourish-so if you practice cultivating a mind of compassion, it will naturally grow. Likewise, if you dwell on old resentments, you are feeding them and giving them strength to pop back up again.

This doesn't mean that you ignore, or push away, negative emotions! Current research indicates that this kind of emotional repression can lead to sickness. Instead, you cultivate a mindful attitude that simply notices when you feel bad and when you feel good, and gently work to give energy to the emotions that create long-lasting health and happiness. Barbara Fredrickson identifies these as amusement, joy, hopefulness, interest, curiosity, confidence, inspiration, wonder, love, and contentment--among others. 

The benefits of choosing positive emotions are strong and long-lasting.  Dr. Fredrickson's extensive research shows that that those people who experience more positive emotions than negative develop a broad, open approach to life that builds skills and creates a natural resilient to adversity.

Discover ways to increase positive emotions

Here are some ways to "water" the seeds of positive emotions in your own life:

  • Keep a gratitude journal. Gratitude can help transform negative thoughts into positive ones. It can also help us keep our cool in the face of stress-when you're running late for work, spontaneous gratitude can shift your focus from the traffic jam ahead of you to the beautiful, clear sky above you. Taking the time to jot down three things each day that you are grateful for (which could be as big as your family or as small as the kind clerk at the bank this morning) can help you expand your vision of the world. You could even make this a nighttime ritual for your family-each person names something they are grateful for before going to sleep.
  • Participate in "Kindness Day." Barbara Fredrickson, author of the book Positivity, suggests dedicating an entire day once a month to boosting your practice of small kindnesses. This could mean that you spend the afternoon volunteering at a local shelter, or that you simply make the effort to smile at everyone you meet. Do what feels authentic and works for you. Kindness is linked to increased feelings of fulfillment and pleasure, and research has shown that it's also good for the heart and can even slow the aging process.
  • Do things you love. This sounds like a no-brainer, but how many of us actually dedicate time every day to hobbies and pursuits that bring us simple pleasure? We fill our days with work, errands, preparing dinner, laundry, answering emails, and so many of life's other administrative tasks that we are often blitzed by the end of the day. But by dedicating a half an hour each day to a simple act that gives us pleasure-taking a walk or a bicycle ride, writing a poem, working on a craft project, or laughing with a friend-we are watering those seeds of positivity in our lives, and enhancing our ability to enjoy life and improve our overall wellbeing.
  • Relax by listening to a guided audio. Relaxing shouldn't be last on your to-do list for the day, and you shouldn't ever feel guilty about taking a few minutes to yourself in order to recalibrate your heart and mind. This may make you feel anxious at first-"How can I take five minutes to relax when there are so many bills to pay?"-but that's because you've conditioned yourself to accept stress as a natural, and even necessary, part of your day. The benefits of taking a mental time-out stretch far beyond the personal pleasure of feeling "chilled out;" by lowering your stress level and allowing contentment to arise, you'll actually be more productive and useful in your daily tasks. Try a guided body scan if you are able to be in a quiet space, a guided meditation, or an exercise designed to help you shift your emotions to a more positive state.

Now you have the tools you need to spend some time this month noticing your emotions and how they affect you. Work consciously to water the seeds of joy, kindness, and gratitude. As Barbara Fredrickson says, when we cultivate positive emotions, "our vision literally expands, allowing us to make creative connections, see our oneness with others, and face our problems with clear eyes."