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P is for Positive Emotion

Today we are introducing a series of blog posts from Anita Marsden- Clinical Psychologist, lover of life, member of Sunday Assembly Brighton’s organising committee, and one of the founders of A Festival Called WONDER.
Thanks Anita!

If I asked you to tell me one thing you wanted for your friend, child, partner, sibling, parent, what would you say? I’m guessing most of you would give me a variation of ‘happiness’; to enjoy their life, to be content, to not suffer, to do well at whatever they choose to do. It’s what we want for ourselves too, but all too often we struggle to know how to do it.

What if I were to tell you that there are ways to feel happier, more content, to flourish in life. Over the next few weeks I’ll be writing five guest blog posts to help you understand a scientifically based model of our wellbeing developed by an eminent American Psychologist, Martin Seligman. The acronym for the model is PERMA and  I’ll explain each one of these five elements in turn.

P is for positive emotion

The first of the five areas is positive emotions. Think pleasure, joy, comfort, excitement, euphoria. The feelings you get when you settle down in front of a good movie with a bowl of popcorn, buying a new gadget, stroking your pet, having a massage or a second slice of chocolate cake, or fourth glass of wine, steady on…

But there are a couple of problems with positive emotion, which I’d like to propose, and why our wellbeing cannot only be made up of this alone. Firstly, we’re quite good at finding short cuts to experiencing these positive emotions, some innocuous enough and some not very healthy at all; shopping, masturbation, drinking, watching TV, taking drugs. And we can 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 life experiences and better at focusing on the negative. Imagine the last interview you went to, I bet you remember the things that went wrong, rather than things that went well (even if 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 are prone to anxiety and depression.

I’m going to leave you this week with an exercise you can practice that will help you focus on the positive things in your life, savour them more, and get more of that positive emotion which goes a small way to helping us flourish in life. It’s called ‘three good things’ (aka ‘three blessings’ or ‘what went well’ exercise)*. Each night, before you go to sleep, set aside 5-10 minutes to think over your day and identify three good things, write each of them down and try to elaborate on them. Write what it was about them that was good, how you felt, who, if anyone else, was involved, perhaps what it means about you as a person. They don’t have to be huge things, they can be as simple as enjoying a good meal, the sun shining, or your friend making you a coffee, but it’s important to elaborate on them, to savour them. Then after you’ve done this for a week, look back over what you’ve written and see how you feel about the good things in your week.

Happy hunting!

*For the science lovers amongst you out there, Seligman et al., (2005) carried out this exercise in a randomised placebo controlled trial and found that those allocated to this exercise for one week were more happy and less depressed after 3months and 6months, than those in the placebo condition, and how long the participants continued the exercise after the one week period predicted how long the increases in happiness lasted.