Start the new year on a positive note

By James Mol, Ph.D., psychologist, director of Providence Behavioral Health Professional Services

Are you ready to kick off 2014 on a truly positive note? The developing field of positive psychology may offer the tools to help you experience a deeper sense of well-being and a more fulfilling life. And the beauty is that you don’t have to go through years of psychotherapy to benefit from it – tools are available that you can apply on your own, right away. I’ll give you a couple at the end of this article.

While the field of psychology historically has focused on treating illness, positive psychology addresses the other end of the spectrum: nurturing well-being. And what, exactly, is well-being? Well, according to psychologist Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, it goes deeper than simply feeling happy all the time. In his book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being, Seligman uses the acronym PERMA to outline the five pillars of well-being as follows:

Positive emotion: Contrary to popular belief, this is the least important factor in having a sense of well-being. In fact, according to Seligman, it is not even necessary to well-being – instead, it’s the icing on the cake. Rather than that giddy, nearly euphoric feeling that we as a culture have come to think of as happiness, positive emotion is more accurately described as a sense of serenity, gratitude and love. Ultimately, positive emotion is an outgrowth of the other pillars of well-being.

Engagement: This is the feeling of being totally engrossed in what you are doing, to the point that time seems to stand still. Some call it being in the zone, or in flow. People feel most engaged when they know their highest strengths, and they craft their lives to use those strengths as much as possible in their work, play and love. 

Relationships: Humans are pack animals at our core, and positive relationships play a very large role in our sense of well-being.

Meaning: You could talk about meaning for days – it’s hugely important to well-being. Seligman summarizes it as finding purpose in using your strengths in the service of something larger than yourself. 

Accomplishment: Mastering a skill, achieving a goal – we’re all capable of finding something that we can do well, something that gives us a sense of accomplishment.

So how can you enhance these aspects of your life? Seligman offers numerous articles and tools on his website to help you learn more. Here are two exercises that can help you get off to a positive start in the new year:

Gratitude journal: Seligman’s research tells us that of all of the tools he has studied, this simple exercise has the greatest impact on developing a sense of well-being – and it takes only a few minutes a day. For two weeks, at the end of each day, write down three things for which you are grateful. They can be anything, from coffee with a friend to a beautiful sunrise. Even on our worst days, most of us can think of three little things that went well, even if it’s simply that we had food to eat, got a good parking spot and saw a pretty bird outside the window. Research has shown that people who do this for just a couple of weeks feel more positive, even months later. Many report that they become more keenly aware of the positive things going on around them as they are happening. Don’t be surprised if you feel so much better after two weeks that you choose to continue the practice. 

Actively and constructively savoring with partners and friends: Practice being more active and constructive in the way that you share important moments with the people you care about. For example, say your partner tells you that she got a promotion. There are many ways you could respond depending on your own frame of mind, but to actively and constructively savor the moment, you might respond by congratulating her and asking her to tell you all of the details about how it happened and how it made her feel. In addition to savoring your own moments through the use of a gratitude journal, helping others savor important moments in this way helps to build strong connections, closer relationships and positive emotion. 

We all have opportunities to try to make our lives better. Even if we feel pretty good in general, we may just want to feel more fulfilled, or to find more meaning in our lives, or to feel stronger connections in our relationships. With new insights, like those offered through positive psychology, many people can change their lives for the better, on their own. If you feel unable to – or if you simply prefer to start with some knowledgeable guidance – the best thing you can do for yourself is to ask for help. Consider connecting with a good therapist, or with a close friend who seems to have the personal qualities, wisdom and contentment that you admire. Take a small step today. It couldn’t hurt, and it could be the first step toward a very happy new year.

Reference assistance for this article was provided by Amelia Wilcox, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology, Lewis and Clark College.