We’ve spent the summer months in my Happiness Club creating new goals and finding ways to be resilient. We’ve been writing novels, planting gardens, and supporting each other through life’s challenges.
Over the months we’ve become firm friends, which is good news, because one of the recurring themes in most of Action for Happiness’s 10 keys to happiness is that connection and friendship will only enhance our lives.
This Happiness Club, we’ve realised that being more positive is a learned skill. Recent research shows that regularly experiencing emotions such as joy, gratitude, contentment, inspiration and pride creates an ‘upward spiral’, helping to build our inner well of wellbeing. But what about when we’re feeling sad, mad and bad? ‘Yes, we need to be realistic about life’s ups and downs, but it definitely helps to focus on the good aspects of any situation – the glass-half-full rather than the glass-half-empty,’ says Vanessa King, positive psychology expert at Action for Happiness.
The purpose of positive emotions has long been a puzzle. Although they’re nice to have, it doesn’t appear they’re vital for the survival of our species.
Negative emotions, on the other hand, are essential – triggering our fight-or-flight response if we face threat. For example, when we see a predatory animal charging at us we feel fear, and rapid changes occur in our brain and body. We instinctively focus on the source of danger and escape routes, driving us to immediate responses – in this case, to get the hell out of the way.
However, recent groundbreaking scientific work is showing that positive emotions can broaden our perceptions, in much the same way that negative emotions can narrow them. This broadening helps us to see more, respond more flexibly and in new ways, and be more creative. It makes us more open to different ideas or experiences and we feel closer to and more trusting of others, King explains.
And it doesn’t stop there. ‘Feeling good in the short-term can also help us feel good in the long-term. The new experiences and greater openness that result from positive emotions can lead to lasting changes in our lives,’ says King. Here, she gives a few simple examples:
- A feeling of interest in something we read can lead us to learn more about a subject, resulting in a fulfilling hobby or even a rewarding life’s work.
- Finding the same things funny as someone else can lead to them becoming a close friend or even a partner.
- Feeling joy from seeing beautiful trees in the park can put us in a positive frame of mind and make us more enthusiastic about an opportunity that comes our way.
‘Over time, positive emotions can help us to build the resources that lead to happier lives, such as friends, knowledge, better problem-solving and even better health. What’s more, they can act as a buffer against stress and help us cope when we face difficulties,’ she says.
But isn’t it unrealistic to expect never to feel negative emotions? ‘Yes, of course, these are part of life, but we need to get the balance right,’ says King.
She suggests that we need to have more positive emotions compared with negative ones. ‘This is called our positivity ratio. And science is now giving us some clues as to a good balance to aim for. It seems that to get the benefits of positive emotions in the longer term, we need to have around three times as many of these as we do negative emotions. These don’t need to be huge surges of joy; small instances of gently positive feelings count,’ she says.
But, of course, it’s not so easy. Our brains are naturally wired for a negative bias, which stems from when early humans had to be on alert for signs of danger, and we developed negative emotions as an internal warning system to keep us safe. In modern times, we obviously don’t need to be on high alert for animal predators, but our brains have not caught up. ‘We need to put conscious effort into the positive side of life. The good news is that small efforts over time can make a lasting difference. Recent research even suggests that this might lead to lasting changes in our brains, which help to maintain the increase in our wellbeing.’
Other good news is that positive emotions are contagious and that when we feel good, it can have a knock-on effect on those around us. Which, I suppose, is what our happiness clubs are all about. Have you started yours yet?
QUESTIONS TO DISCUSS AT YOUR HAPPINESS CLUB:
How to set up your Happiness Club
For more details on how to set up your own Happiness Club, see psychologies.co.uk/get-your-happiness-club-started. For video interviews with Mark Williamson, the director of Action for Happiness, and positive psychologist Vanessa King, and to see the highlights of the first ever Happiness Club meeting with Psychologies’ Suzy Greaves, click on: lifelabs.psychologies.co.uk/channels/154-the-happiness-club