Many of us wake up wondering how we are going to make it through the next day. We view our work and responsibilities as a necessary evil to endure so that we can afford the costs of living. We have difficulty moving beyond negative events that we've experienced that cloud over the many positive things that are present in our lives. If we don't actively respond these feelings can lead to overwhelming feelings of despair.
This ongoing struggle has been exacerbated in recent times by the Covid-19 pandemic and the waterfall of resulting effects to career and life. Statistics Canada released research in September, 2021 that indicated depression and anxiety had increased in the population and one in four Canadians were struggling with depression or anxiety.
In his book, Lost Connections, Johann Hari suggests that the reasons many of us struggle with depression and anxiety have more to do with the context of our lives than with our brain chemistry. He recounts many studies from psychology and psychiatry that suggest the circumstances of our lives have disconnected us from each other and our own sense of agency and purpose. This disconnection leads to feelings of isolation, hopelessness, and self-defeat.
If we are going to recover our sense of purpose and rediscover the well of positivity that will help us encounter our days with optimism and hopefulness, how can we begin to reconnect?
In his 1989 address to the American Psychological Association (APA), Martin Seligman sounded a siren call: to shift the focus of psychological research away from the myopic fascination with dysfunction and turn its attention toward well-being. Through his influence, research into positive emotion and "the good life" exploded into what we now identify as positive psychology.
You will readily notice this shift in psychology if you survey the titles in your local book shop's self-help/psychology section. No longer are they all books about trauma, addiction, depression, and anxiety. They also contain titles that focus on Happiness, Love, Hope, and Flourishing.
Positive psychology is not just encouraging us to think more positively about our situations in order to feel relieved. Rather, it involves rigorous scientific investigation exploring the essentials of well-being. Instead of focusing on what causes or cures depression, researchers investigate and conduct studies on what contributes to hopefulness, happiness, and fulfilment. If depression is a result of being disconnected then positive psychology has focused its lens on the well-connected.
The Benefits of Happiness
In her lecture, The Science of Happiness, Catherine Sanderson suggests that "happy" people are different from unhappy people in some fundamental ways that we should pay attention to:
Happy people are more helpful.
Happy people are less hostile.
Happy people are more productive at work.
Happy people experience better health.
Happy people live longer.
The research shows that there many important benefits to nurturing positivity in our lives. The problem is that we are often mistaken about what will make us happy. We think money, popularity, or status are the things that will ultimately satisfy our malaise. But the reality is that we quickly adapt to an increase in wealth and greater fame or status usually increases the pressure and responsibility we feel. Aiming for greater status or wealth also commits us to a structure that can work against the things we really need to be happy, such as meaning and connection with friends and family.
Recognizing that we have agency in creating positive moments in our day leads us to take responsibility for our well-being that can guard against disconnection and depression.
In his book, Flourish, Seligman suggests 5 essentials of well-being the first of which is positive emotion. People who experience positive emotions every day build a solid foundation for the good life. These people are not necessarily the most cheery, bubbly, upbeat personalities. They might be more quiet, stoic, and introverted but they look forward to significant moments of their day that bring them joy.
When we come to realize that most of our day doesn't bring us good feelings like satisfaction, fulfilment, happiness, hopefulness, or love, we begin to lose our motivation to engage and this can lead to further feelings of isolation and depression.
It is important to recognize that we not only experience good things that happen to us each day, but that we can also create good experiences and intentionally invest in moments that lead to positive emotions. There are so many ways that we can inject positivity into our day and they are as varied as our personalities.
Some of the ways that people intentionally create these positive moments are: by going for a walk in nature, taking time to sit with a coffee and a book, connecting with a good friend, looking at pictures of family, running, thinking about a favourite memory, practicing gratitude, organizing their desk, going for a drive, writing thank you notes, giving a gift, etc...
The real trick to happiness is to realize that simple things make the difference and we can access them right now.
Becoming positive means getting clear about the everyday moments that can make a difference in our mood. These moments add up and help us build lives of well-being. They aren't sustained by substantial financial windfalls or great achievements (in fact it is often in the struggle towards our goals that we experience more satisfaction). It is the daily experience of good things in our lives that help us nurture a sense of satisfaction and well-being. Ultimately, focusing on meaning and connection helps us move away from the false goals of wealth and status.
Nurturing positive emotions can also mean reducing the ways we feed negative feelings. For example, sometimes we might catch ourselves thinking in ways that reinforce a negative conclusion. Martin Seligman noticed that optimists and pessimists explained bad events in very different ways. While pessimists overestimated the effects of the event and thought that they were personally responsible, optimists responded by underestimating the effects and didn't blame themselves.
"The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault. The optimists, who are confronted with the same hard knocks of this world, think about misfortune in the opposite way. They tend to believe defeat is just a temporary setback, that its causes are confined to this one case. The optimists believe defeat is not their fault: Circumstances, bad luck, or other people brought it about. Such people are unfazed by defeat. Confronted by a bad situation, they perceive it as a challenge and try harder.” - Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism
This is just one example of the way that we can nurture positivity by recognizing that the way we talk, think, or act is contributing to the way we feel. When we drop our smartphone and the screen cracks we can say, "You're so stupid, this is ruined forever!" Whereas an optimist may explain the same incident with, "Ooops, that person distracted me, I hope I can get this fixed."
Depression and anxiety can be seriously debilitating and we shouldn't assume that a little more optimism will magically cure us of these conditions. But, many of us would benefit from looking at the things that contribute to feeling disconnected. Recognizing and appreciating the good things that can happen in our lives each day can lead us to a greater sense of well-being. Maybe we can move toward more meaning and connection and recognize how we might balance negative ways of thinking about the world by becoming positive.
Calvin Black, MA, RCC, counsels teens, young adults, individuals, and couples. He periodically uses Gallup's CliftonStrengths personality assessment to help individuals and organizations identify their areas of greatest potential.