There are a lot of books on happiness these days, and thank goodness for that, right? I'm glad that this is a topic that people are thinking and writing about, because it is so important. Among the crowd of books, one of the most well-informed and practical books I've read is one that I picked up about six years ago, Positivity by Barbara L. Fredrickson, PhD. At that time, I had been living in Morocco for three years, long enough to see many friends come and go each year from our expat environment. Most recently, a beautiful foursome had grown-- two friends, my husband, and me-- and the two friends had just moved on to other jobs and countries. My husband and I had just gotten married, and the flurry of the wedding, visitors, and excitement was done. The honeymoon was literally just over. I was not in love with my job, and still had at least another year of it while we worked on all that it was going take to be able to get a new job and move. I was deep in some stage of culture shock.
And I was negative, so, so negative. I spent ages complaining about my job and the people around me. I would isolate myself in my apartment for much of my free time. I'd nag and be sensitive and pick fights with my dear new husband. I was in a downward spiral, pretty near the bottom of it...and books were my lifeline out.
I started my investigation into topics like happiness, positivity, and mindfulness, which led me to Positivity. This book made a big impression on me that lasts up till now, and I'm due on for another reading of it-- it is so full. The first part is full of research findings and conclusions, and the second half is very practical in helping to put these findings to work. Fredrickson talks about about upward or downward spirals that can happen in all sorts of settings to lead to positive or negative outcomes. An upward spiral in our heart/soul/life leads to a condition of flourishing. This thought of flourishing sounded amazing, and so far from my current experience. I knew that I was nowhere close to flourishing.
"Seek out and savor all manner of goodness, beauty, and excellence. Treasure these moments and you'll unlock recurrent waves of gratitude, awe, inspiration, and more. Become like a plant and turn toward the light, in all its spiritual, earthly, and human forms. Feed on it.
The more you train your eye, mind, and heart to the positivity in your life, the more of it you'll find. Remember that the intensity of your positivity matters far less than its relative frequency. This means that even mild positivity, experienced often, can lead you to your higher ground. Gratuitous negativity, which once grew out of control, will no longer control your destiny.
By cultivating positive actions and positive thinking, you seed more positivity into your life. The more positivity you seed and harvest, the better become your prospects for flourishing."
(From Positivity p. 231 by Barbara L. Fredrickson, Ph.D.)
Fredrickson gives a map of how to induce the upward spiral in our lives-- by intentionally creating and savoring positive moments, states, activities. I took copious notes-- I still have my little homemade folio of notecards from all of the book I read during that time. I took the general principles that she mentions and brainstormed my own lists-- things I could do in my life to shift the balance just slightly from the negative to the positive. Each week, I would create a set of little goals for myself, for example:
- Gratitude-- notice and write down little things and moments of beauty that make me thankful.
- Go outside!
- No complaining, and don't participate when others are complaining.
- Do something special for a friend.
- Do a household task.
- Smile at someone.
- Try to make my husband laugh.
On one hand, this list sounds almost heartbreaking simple-- it shows how far gone I was at that time. Just a smile was an effort. At the same time, these types of simple things are the key to feeling better, to creating conditions inside us for feeling better. For me, weeks and months of this-- reading about these topics and trying my best to put small steps into practice-- did make a noticeable difference. My sister would marvel at how much more positive I sounded on the phone. I fought less with my husband. I just felt better-- less angry.
As I started remembering and looking back at the book and my notes from my first reading, I am inspired to go back to these basics with a little list of positive intentions for the week:
- Sleep early.
- Be thankful for things, and tell people.
- Take walks.
- Get up from my desk every hour.
- Savor experiences-- notice and revel in goodness.
I feel like it might be important, especially in light of the “I am enough” stuff, to add that this list is not a list of “shoulds” intended to hang over my head and make me feel like a failure if I forget to do them. For me, this list is just a welcome reminder or suggestion of small things that I can make it a point to try out for my own benefit. Each of the items is not just a “get it done” item-- each is a practice that plants seeds for more wellness to come.