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February 7, 2014

Positive Experiences: What Psychologists Recommend. ~ Edson Senna

Enjoying the sun

Positive psychology seeks to describe how humans create “the good life”: a fulfilling life that fosters creativity, talent and intelligence.

Positive psychology claims that the good life can be taught—and if we understand the thoughts, attitudes and actions that lead to the good life, we can change the way we think and thereby change our level of happiness.

Some people associate positive psychology with positive thinking, but there are distinct differences between the two.

Positive thinking is a practice that can be a part of positive psychology, but positive psychology is a branch of applied science. Positive thinkers say we should shun negative thoughts, while positive psychology recognizes that negative thoughts actually serve a purpose in our well-being and happiness.

Furthermore, positive psychology builds upon traditional psychology to add information about strengths and weaknesses to what we have already learned about remedy, distress and disorder.

Positive psychology is focused on: (1) positive experiences (2) enduring psychological traits (3) positive relationships and (4) positive institutions. For the purposes of this article, we’ll just focus on positive experiences.

Studying positive experiences entails “the study of contentment with the past, happiness in the present and hope for the future”. Here are three aspects of experience that psychologists have studied and believe contribute to the positivity of our experiences and to our overall happiness.

Labels

We have an inherent tendency to label experiences as either “good” or “bad.” Labeling an experience limits how we view that particular event. Calling an experience “bad”—which we do three to ten times as often as calling something “good”—is especially detrimental in our search for the good life.

Labeling an experience as “bad” turns that experience into baggage. It leads to thoughts such as: “Why do bad things always happen to me?”

It can also undermine our attempt to think positively when we notice that all of our positive thinking doesn’t prevent “bad” things from happening.

This does not mean that we should never acknowledge the negative aspects of an event. For example, we may have had a negative experience when we took our baby to swimming lessons. Labeling that experience as “bad” diminishes our opportunity to learn from it. Simply accepting that the baby cried or that we had a headache acknowledges the negative parts of that experience without turning it into a burden. Additionally, we promote thought about how to improve that experience in the future.

Flow

Experiencing flow means being completely immersed and engaged in a chosen activity and is key to having positive experiences. According to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, when we experience flow we concentrate intensely on the present, lose our self-consciousness, have a sense of control over our chosen activity and experience distortion in our sense of time.

A swimmer, for example, who experiences flow becomes completely absorbed in the act of swimming. He is not paying attention to who might be watching, how he might look, or to the passage of time. He focuses only on the feeling of swimming and his control over his motions.

The ultimate result of flow is joy.

Mindfulness

Closely related to flow, mindfulness is the act of focusing our awareness on a present experience and simply observing. Mindfulness acknowledges what is happening without trying to change it. It is the antithesis to daydreaming, which focuses on what is not happening now, what doesn’t exist, or anticipates future events as preferable to the present.

If we were to be mindful while swimming, we would observe how we feel while swimming and how our body is moving and working, without wishing to be stronger or thinking about what we would change. Studies show that daydreaming leads to unhappiness, while mindfulness leads to happiness and positive experiences.

In our search for the good life, we should strive to banish labels and incorporate flow and mindfulness into our daily lives. Our goal is to change the way we think, in order to change the way we feel.

We might not be able to change our experiences, but changing our approach to them will lead to positive feelings about the experiences we have, thus improving our overall happiness.

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 Assistant Editor: Bronwyn Petry/Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Elephant Digital Archives

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Edson Senna