13 October 2015

Cultivating Positivity

Testing around the new camera // Paris 2013

What does this title inspire you? Usually, there is one of two reactions: either “how naïve!”, or “what’s that crap?” We live in a society where too much positivity is seen as a weakness, a “feminine trait”, making people look soft and full of delusions. But it turns out science backs us optimists, and here is a bit of context, along with an exercise to cultivate positivity in your everyday life.

 Happiness is good for your health 

We have an intuition that being happy is good for our health. Aren’t happy, balanced, satisfied people “glowing”, in a way? Don’t we say lovers are beaming with well-being? It turns out this hunch is backed by science: a number of studies show how having a positive outlook on life opens up our mind and transforms us for the better.

 A study from Sonja Lyubormirsky, Laura King and Ed Diener from 2005 shows that happy people tend to live longer lives and have healthier bodies. This would be linked, among other things, to the neurophysiological changes that happiness produces. In other words, being happy has a very tangible effect on our brains and bodies.
Concretely, this translates by fewer chronic pain conditions, fewer strokes, a lower probability to get into fatal accidents and more. On a day to day basis, happier people tend to have a stronger immune system, a more robust cardiovascular profile…

This same study shows a better social profile too, which makes sense: happier people are more open, sociable and charitable, making them friendlier and helping them maintain stronger relationships. In other words, if you care for your physical and social health, being happy should be one of your goals. However…

Actively pursuing happiness doesn’t work 

Research shows that actively pursuing happiness, and making it a life goal, has the opposite effect of making one less happy. Is it because expectations are too high? Is it because we mistake happiness with feeling good every single minute of our life? In any case, science proves that people actively trying to be happy usually have a harder time actually becoming happier than those who just enjoy the positive moments of their life without pressuring themselves toward happiness.

 For years I’ve studied prioritizing positivity, and through scientific research, I’ve found that it goes hand-in-hand with optimal mental health. That is, the people who pursue happiness by seeking out pleasant experiences as part of their everyday lives are happier. In stark contrast, people who strive to feel good every possible moment, as if it were possible to will oneself to be happy, appear to be following a recipe for unhappiness. 
Laura Catalino

Well, that explains a lot about how unhappy we are in our society, surrounded by injunctions to be happier (usually with the help of this car or that pair of shoes). But that’s a topic for another digression. What interests me today is this idea: instead of pursuing the idea of happiness, it is by cultivating even the smallest positive feelings and moments in our everyday life that we slowly improve our mindset and indeed become happier.

Cultivating ordinary positive moments 

Today, I would like to present you the first interesting idea I came across during my science of happiness MOOC: in order to be happier, stop trying to be happier, and focus on the moments and emotions that are positive in your life.

This ties in with many other topics I wrote about in the past, such as the habit of meditation (specifically the one called loving kindness, which cultivates positive emotions) or the feeling of gratitude. Cultivating a more positive attitude is something that needs to be learned, honed through everyday habits. As they confirm in the MOOC, this is a lifestyle change, which can require as much effort as losing weight for example.

This sounds like a vast project, so let’s start with an easy evening routine, which can be the beginning of this lifestyle change. I have started this recently myself and will reports on its benefits. If you are doing a similar exercise or start on with me, I’d love to hear your progress as well.

The “3 things” evening routine 

This exercise is proposed by the science of happiness MOOC, and French readers might also recognize the French positive psychology researcher Florence Servan-Schreiber’s concept of the “3 kifs a day”. No revolution here, except for the fact that I’d like to start it myself and share it with you.

  • Every evening before bed, come up with 3 things you have enjoyed today, or for which you feel grateful today 
  • For each of these things, describe the scene, what happened, what emotions it created in you, why you chose this particular thing 
  • Describe also how it makes you feel now, at the end of the day 

And that’s it! Any support is fine for noting that down: your tablet or phone, a notebook and pen by the nightstand (of course I chose the notebook and pen myself).

Why does it cultivate positivity?
First, it forces you to think about 3 positive things during your day. It is sometimes hard to come up with, but it becomes easier with time. Then, it makes you realize the positive moments you actually had in your day, remember them, ending your day on a positive note. Finally, it makes you more aware of the positive moments as you live them over the course of the day, as you think of what 3 things you’ll include tonight.

You can read more on these techniques and more on the Greater Good online magazine. French speaking readers might want to grab Florence Servan-Schreiber’s book, 3 kifs par jour.

Those of you who follow me on Instagram may also have noticed that I joined the #100HappyDays project about 60 days ago. The idea is to take one picture every day or something that makes you happy, and post it on Instagram (or any other social network) with that hashtag. As easier way to start off the habits of positivity perhaps?

 What do you think? Do you already engage in that type of positive exercise, gratitude journal or similar activity? If not, are you in with me?

Source: The Science of Happiness MOOC, by the University of Berkeley


  1. I haven’t yet made up my mind about these ideas. A while ago, I read ‘The happiness project’ and the author also kept a gratitude journal. Since then I’ve toyed with the idea. My mindfulness exercises have already made me stop more in my daily life to appreciate small things. Maybe I’ll ask for a gratitude journal for Christmas :).
    On the other hand, sometimes I may notice beauty around me but feel so stressed out that it doesn’t spark joy. Then I can beat myself up over not being able to let go of feelings of sadness, worry etc. to enjoy the moment. Whereas this cannot be the idea. So I’m a bit worried that with a gratitude journal I would start noting down things I think I should be grateful for even though at some moments there’s not much heartfelt gratitude going on.
    All in all I might start this practice anyway, because,well: if it’s hard, that’s why we practice.
    PS: not that I'm depressed or anything, just really stressed out at work :p.

    1. Maybe you are setting the bar too high, if you feel guilty for not being grateful for something you should? One of the things they say in that science of happiness MOOC, is that the most common mistake we make is believing that happiness is to feel good every single minute of our life. This is what make us less happy, because we then feel guitly or disappointed because we don't feel good each minute. It's normal to feel stressed out, sad or nervous sometimes, these feelings are part of life.

      From what I gather from the 3 things exercise, the goal isn't to find "perfect" moment for which we should feel grateful, but rather to go from our feelings and see if we can find some moments. Then we note down the moment in question, remember how it made us feel. They do say it's hard at first, to really find moments of gratitude in our day. But they also say it gets better with time. I'm only starting myself, and not imposing myself a daily practice (such obligation is precisely what makes me drop such habits, too strict!), so I wouldn't say if it has become better yet, but I surely feel a bit less down than before, I tend to see the bright side of things a bit more easily... But yes, as you say, the practice is here because it's hard at first :)

  2. I have a 'spend at least 20 seconds feeling the good' practice from "Hardwiring Happiness" which I am currently reading. I am really enjoying the practical ideas it contains and I love reading about neuro-plasticity.
    When I notice that focusing on the good seems impossible I remind myself that all humans are wired to focus on the negative as a survival skill and then I try to be gentle with myself... and sometimes it helps. :)

    1. Oh interesting, if this book is about neurosciences and how to change our perception of things! I also read indeed, that we are hardwired to focus on negative things for survival reasons (notice and evade threats and such). But I also find it comforting somehow, that science proves it is possible to bypass this with some exercises :) Thanks for sharing, and that's a good tactic, when it's hard to feel the good!

  3. I used to think happiness was the most important thing, that all I should want out of life is to be happy. But a few years ago when I was going through a difficult time and happiness seemed an impossible goal, I decided to strive to be a "whole" person, not a happy person. And by whole I mean personal growth and development in all areas of life, whether that's at work, school, fitness, hobbies, practical skills, etc. I decided I wanted to become a well-rounded person with skills in as many different areas as possible. For me, some of this was practical, like learning how to drive standard and learning how to hem a shirt (because I didn't want to have to rely on someone else to do it for me), but some of it was for fun, like learning Spanish and taking a trapeze class.

    To this day I still work towards being a whole person rather than a happy person, because to try to be happy all the time sets the bar too high for me. If I work towards my own personal growth and development, then happiness (and those positive moments you're talking about) will come out of that, whether it's from the new experiences, the accomplishments of learning something new, or the people I meet along the way. And believe me, driving a standard car for the first time without stalling is the best feeling ever! I still remember the feeling of joy and accomplishment that day.

    1. That's interestings, thanks for sharing! It makes me think of this debate between happiness and meaning. Especially recently as the quest for happiness seems to have become a general affair, there are more and more articles and studies about the actual notion behind "happiness", and the importance of adding "meaning" to our lives. For example, is it better to spend an evening watching TV or playing games (which brings immediate happiness), or writing that novel/learning that skill that is not necessatily pleasurable here and now, but brings a sense of meaning and achievement on the longer term? Some studies start also proving that finding meaning does bring happiness.

      Int he MOOC I'm following, they say that there are different "sorts" of hapiness: the one you derive from immediate pleasures (that we cultivate with gratitude and appreciation of the small things of life), the one you derive from meaning and purpose (that we cultivate by learning skills, investing in a personal project for example...), and the one you derive from making a difference, helping people (donating time or money, helping close ones or associations...) It seems we need a bit of all of these to be, as you say, a "whole" person.

      Another interesting element of your story is that this is something you started doing during a difficult time, perhaps this is the occasion to want more meaning, or growth, in our life? thanks for taking the time to share, in any case, it's really an interesting food for thought :)

    2. What a lovely comment! Although I can very much relate to people seeking happiness (who doesn't want to feel less lousy less of the time ;)), I agree that it can be pressuring. I suppose in your striving to become a whole person, you have made it more about the process than the result? Because every endeavor that is clearly goal-oriented seems possibly pressuring to me ...