Last week I introduced you to Barbara Frederickson’s research into emotional positivity. The practice of positivity tackles depression and hopelessness head on by edging little spaces of light into the darkness. It is as if you are in a black room and take up a sword to slice into the heavy drapes that cover the window. Even if you cannot remember when you last felt joy, serenity, gratitude, hope, interest, inspiration, pride, amusement, awe or love, nothing can stop you from consciously pursuing activities that can evoke these feelings for you.
To begin the practice, it is important to recognise the fragility of positivity and how strongly human emotions are tied to the way we think. According to Frederickson, all emotions arise from our interpretation of events and ideas as we encounter them. If we want to enjoy the benefits of positivity, we need to turn on a switch located in our mind. We can do this anywhere and at any time by stopping for a moment, looking around and asking, what is going right for me right now; how am I lucky?1 Turning the switch does not change our surroundings, of course. But it changes what we are noticing and experiencing, and thus how we feel.
Another point to remember is that our emotional responses are highly individualised. Frederickson explains that what another person might view as a challenge, we might absolutely dread.2 Thus dancing to sixties music, which makes Suzie feel fantastic, might leave you stone cold. Try to discover what makes your heart sing, and also be aware of what makes it sink.
Furthermore, Frederickson argues that humans are in movement, either on an upward spiral growing in goodness, strength and creativity or on a downward spiral allowing bad habits, stagnation and rigidity to take over.3 On the upward spiral, a joy we feel this morning might spark an urge to be creative or play this afternoon, which will continue to broaden our perception of actions open to us.4 At the same time, on the downward slope, a bad feeling on waking reminds us of an unpleasant exchange we had yesterday. This makes us feel worse, and prompts the thought that we seem to be unable to get on with people, which must be why our friend stopped calling. This makes us sad, and next we conclude that perhaps we are unlovable. And so on. Negative feelings strongly attract negative thoughts, and the two will call each other up, feed on each other, and boogie together until their powerful chain of negative associations pulls us right down.5
So far this is all pretty logical. But wait for the magic: Frederickson found that the effects of positivity are nonlinear. This means that positivity does not conform to the rules of traditional linear science, in which an effect can be traced to a cause; thus the more you put in, the more comes out in proportion.6 According to Frederickson, in nonlinear systems there is the chance of encountering the butterfly effect. The butterfly effect is a model in chaos theory, which stands for a set of initial conditions, from which a very small change (such as the flapping of a butterfly’s wings) would lead to a chain of events that results in a vastly, disproportionately different outcome. Frederickson’s positivity ratio of 3 positives to 1 negative is based on her collaboration with mathematician Marcial Losada. Losada encountered the butterfly effect as he studied high performing business teams. He was eventually able to precisely calculate the point at which teams would flourish.7
The butterfly effect in positivity means that a very small change of perception or attitude can evoke a life transformation down the track.8 Perhaps today you lie down beneath a tree, and this makes you feel peaceful. A smile escapes you and meets an oncoming pedestrian, who in turn greets you. You think: “Maybe I am lovable?” So you call your friend and it turns out he was just busy. He rides his bike on Sundays and you decide to join him. And so on. The butterfly effect is real and documented, and yet it is also magic.
My Austrian friend Robert decided to bring his niece some fairy dust as a present from his travels in Australia. After she had excitedly opened the gift, he explained how it works: “You blow it into the air and make a wish at the same time – this is how your wish can come true.” The little girl did not delay; she blew the dust into the air and closed her eyes tightly. When she opened them she had a big smile on her face. “Do you know what I wished for?” she whispered, “I wished for a bunny.” Well, thought my friend, where the hell are we now going to get a bunny from? That afternoon they all took a walk along the town promenade, when Robert’s sister realised she needed something from the pharmacy. They entered and stood waiting at the counter, when they noticed a cute plush bunny perched on it. “That’s my bunny!” the little girl suddenly cried. This was indeed her plush bunny, which she had lost a few months before and had long given up hope of finding again. Magic exists; just ask a psychologist, a mathematician or a little girl.
One of the ways to increase positive emotions is to make the most out of the good in our lives. This is called savouring. It is about using our mind to consciously generate, intensify and prolong our good fortune. It means to relish and deeply appreciate every aspect of a pleasant experience in the present moment, anticipating future events with excitement, and remembering and re-living pleasant memories. For some people savouring is quite natural; others need to learn the habit. Note though that savouring is not mental analysis, which in fact deflates positivity.9 (Don’t try to figure out why that nice man talked to you. Just remember that he did, and let yourself smile.) Psychologist Christopher Langston stresses that we all should be capitalising on positive events, and suggests that we remind ourselves of them, maximise their importance, and most importantly, share them with others .10 So enjoy your coffee, relish your food. Appreciate the breeze, and shower with glee. Celebrate even small achievements. Look at the photos of your best holiday. Remember a magic moment. If something good happens to you today, tell someone about it. Savour as much as you can.
© Natalie Lydia Barker 2015
Please note all stories are true, and I use other people’s personal stories with their full permission.