As we move away from thinking of positive emotions as a hedonistic escape plan, we begin to understand the immense power that they have to transform our human experience and to galvanize our capacity for taking action.
Over the last few days, I’ve run into a number of women who I deeply admire and are connected with on a soul level, but hardly ever see because our lives are in different orbits. There’s been a common thread in those deep conversations; you know the ones - you see each other in the health food store and ½ an hour later, you’re still there, having slipped into some kind of friendship time warp. The common thread is this sense of anxiety and overwhelm, of a kind of spinning energetically; busy, yes, but beyond that. There are intense feelings of needing to unplug, captured beautifully in words by a delightful new friend Amanda Robson, creator of Feast Hawaii:
“With the presence of social media, we have instant access to everything going on at every minute. One lesson I learned this winter was that it does not serve me to spend too much time ‘plugged in’ to all the news and everyone’s feelings about it. I felt guilty about being so sensitive, then I realized our time calls for a diverse set of light-warriors. Some will be activists, some will be meditators, and some will be combinations of many things in between. I learned the importance of creating quiet space for my heart’s work to call me into action.”
We know from research in the field of positive psychology that negative emotions,(fear, sadness, anxiety, anger, and the like), stick around with us much longer than positive emotions. It’s an evolutionary adaptation that has allowed us to survive as a species. In these new times, complete with the constant white noise of social media and information overload, we need to adapt. We need to consciously seek out ways to build our resilience, and find space in our hearts and in our minds. We have to settle our nervous systems back to a baseline as part of the fullness and frenzy of our busy lives. When we are resilient in this way, we are able to be more agile, adaptive, creative, and inspired in our daily lives.
When we hear, or think, of positive emotions, we immediately go to happiness, and that skippy-di-do-da feeling of joyful exuberance. However, the spectrum of positive emotions is as vast as the spectrum of negative emotions. Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist and author of Hardwiring Happiness, teaches that different positive emotions can be used most effectively when you are in the grip of certain negative emotions. For example, when you are overwhelmed by worry and tension, you’d be most helped by accessing feelings of safety, relaxation, and strength. For emotions in the realm of sadness and frustration, you’d be best served by gratitude, pleasure, and satisfaction. And then there’s hurt feelings, being left out, lonely, and envious. For those, Hanson suggests connection, friendship, kindness, and assertiveness.
As a way to harness the power of these positive emotions, Hanson writes about the practice of “Taking in the Good” and offers these four steps:
- Have a positive experience. This can be an actual experience, or it can be a thought or memory. The key here is to experience that emotion, don’t just think about it.
- Enrich it. This is an invitation to stay with the positive experience. Let the feelings sink into your body and enjoy the sensations. Feel for the nuances and gently let the feeling intensify.
- Absorb it. This exquisite step is about intentionally letting the experience settle into you on a deep level. Hanson writes, “Perhaps visualize it sifting down into you like golden dust, or feel it easing you like a soothing balm. Or place it like a jewel in the treasure chest of your heart. Know that the experience is becoming part of you, a resource inside that you can take with you wherever you go.”
- The fourth step, which Hanson says is optional, is to link the positive and negative together. I think of this as an advanced step; to be tried once the first three have been mastered. To do this, begin to bring past negative experiences into your awareness at the same time as you are experiencing the positive. Hanson suggests this is a way of healing past experiences and helping to train your brain to move toward the positive.
Hanson offers various ways to get better at taking in the good. He suggests letting the little things really matter. Savor the fact that you finished your email or made that phone call. After a full day, those little celebrations can add up. Do it in your own unique way and really enjoy it.
Finally, Hanson suggests “Being for Yourself”. He writes, “Being for yourself, not against others but on your own side, is the foundation of all practices of health, well-being, and effectiveness.” Often we feel selfish thinking of our own needs, especially when there’s so much to be done, in our homes, our communities, and our world. If we take the time to refuel, to nourish ourselves and return to our own center, we can bring more of our light to the world, and the world will certainly be better for it.