17. THE POSITIVITY PROJECT – ONE EMAIL TO READ BEFORE WORK (DAY 9)

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Day 9 – Understanding self-compassion

From Highbrow:

Do you treat yourself as well as you treat your close friends and your family? People who find it easy to be supportive and understanding to others are often surprisingly self-deprecating. They beat themselves up for small failures like being overweight or not exercising.

One way to deal with this overly harsh self-treatment is to be more forgiving with ourselves. And that’s where we enter the realm of self-compassion.

It’s often easier to understand self-compassion when we first understand what it means to have compassion for others. Compassion basically involves three components: When we are compassionate, we first notice another person’s suffering. Then we respond kindly and caringly. And last, we remind them that they are not alone and every human being shares these experiences.

Let’s say you have a close friend who tells you about something that’s wrong in her life. If you have compassion you sense her suffering. You respond kindly and wholeheartedly to this suffering, give support, maybe even a hug. And then, you might tell your friend that she is not alone, that it’s an experience that everyone shares once in a while.

Self-compassion works in pretty much the same way. Rather than beating ourselves up when we don’t stick to a diet or get a bad mark on an important exam, it’s much more beneficial to respond in a self-compassionate way:

First, we need to notice that we are suffering. That can often be harder than we initially think. Because in a difficult or stressful situation we hardly ever take time to step back and recognize how hard it is for us in the moment.

Second, stop judging ourselves and start bringing kindness to ourselves. Often the reason for our suffering is that we judge ourselves too harshly. When we’re self-compassionate we remember that it’s really hard to feel inadequate or ashamed.

And thirdly, remember that suffering and imperfection is part of the shared human experience. Not everything in life is perfect – everyone on earth makes mistakes and experiences negative emotions.

Tal Ben-Shahar, former Harvard professor, gives the example that there are only two kinds of people who do not experience negative emotions. The first group are psychopaths. By definition, they do not experience emotions like shame or embarrassment. And the second group of people who don’t experience negative emotions are dead. So if we look at it from this perspective, it’s good if we experience negative emotions. Because it means that we are still alive and not a psychopath.

Often the initial reaction of many people sounds something like this: ‘Hmm I am not sure about this self-compassion thing. I need to be harsh with myself, otherwise I’ll never make the change.’

But in reality, this deprecating self-criticism is not at all helpful. We are not making ourselves a better person by beating ourselves up all the time. We are just causing ourselves to feel inadequate and insecure while we should be kind and supportive to ourselves when we most need it. Practicing self-compassion has now been researched for over a decade and by now there is a lot of evidence showing it’s a powerful way to open the door to real and lasting happiness.

16. THE POSITIVITY PROJECT – ONE EMAIL TO READ BEFORE WORK (DAY 8)

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Day 8 – Understanding Savoring

From Highbrow:

Today’s about savoring: Fully enjoying an experience or a memory. It is, as its name suggests, a sort of running the positive experience around in one’s mouth, really tasting, valuing and enjoying it. Savoring only requires us to pay attention and enjoy our experience. That can be the food we’re eating, the music we’re listening to, the comfortable feeling of lying in our bed on a Sunday morning or anything else that gives you pleasure. While mindfulness is about experiencing the present moment as it is, savoring is about the focus on the positive.

Think of a wine expert tasting an expensive glass of wine. She starts by looking at the wine, holding it against the light. She tries to notice its color and viscosity. The next step is to smell the wine; breathing the aromas in deeply. Only now she takes a sip. She rolls the wine around in her mouth in order to take in all the aromas, all the nuances of flavor. It is an indulgence and all her attention is focused on how the wine feels. After she finally swallows, she has focused intensely on the whole experience and enjoyed it thoroughly. What this wine expert just did, is what psychologists call savoring.

The key lesson is to ‘enjoy now’. We often imagine a happier future and tell ourselves things like, ‘Once I finish this project, then I can finally relax’. This causes us to focus on something that is going to make us happy in the future rather than the joy we can find in our lives right now. If we can enjoy the present, we don’t need to count on and live for the happiness that is in our future.

A decent amount of research confirms the positive impact of savoring on our happiness and satisfaction with life. People who savor frequently are also less depressed and more optimistic.

Today, take an experience and savor it for at least a few minutes. There is an infinite number of things you can choose to savor: going for a walk, reading a book, eating dinner, listen to your favorite song, playing a game… It doesn’t need to be anything unusual. Just remember that savoring is a process, not an outcome. Pay full attention, indulge with your senses. And if you want, follow this process:

  1. Slow down
  2. Pay attention to what you are doing
  3. Use all your senses
  4. Stretch out the experience
  5. Reflect on your enjoyment.

15. THE POSITIVITY PROJECT – ONE EMAIL TO READ BEFORE WORK (DAY 7)

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Day 7 – Writing a Gratitude Letter

From Higbrow:

Gratitude can help build flourishing relationships and establish new ones. When we become truly aware of the value of our friends and family, we treat them better. This can start an upward spiral, in which strong relationships give us something to be grateful for which in turn strengthens those very same relationships. That’s why today’s email is all about one of the most well-researched happiness exercise we know of. It’s writing a so-called gratitude letter. Ideally you find some time alone today (maybe about 15-30 minutes). When you’re ready, move on:

Close your eyes and think of someone who did something important for you that changed your life in a good direction but who you never properly thanked. It could be that you’re really grateful to a teacher who inspired your love of acting and who persuaded you to try for drama school when everyone else was dead set against it. Maybe you’d like to thank your boss or a colleague for helping you with a particularly tricky project at work. Or perhaps you choose to write a friend who helped you through a tough time.

In this exercise you will have the opportunity to experience what it is like to express your gratitude in a thoughtful, purposeful manner. Take your time to write a letter telling the story of what the person did for you, and how it contributed to where they are now in your life. Describe specifically what they did and what influence it had on you. Let them know what you are doing now, and mention how you often remember what she did. Make it sing!

You don’t actually have to send the letter but if you want to share the benefits of this activity with the other person, arrange for a visit with this person (but be vague about the purpose of the meeting). When you visit them, read this letter to the person. This is a powerful part of the experience and I highly recommend doing this.

14. THE POSITIVITY PROJECT – ONE EMAIL TO READ BEFORE WORK (DAY 6)

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Day 6 – Practice Gratitude

From Highbrow:

Practicing gratitude reminds many people of saying ‘thank you’ for a present. But being grateful can be much more than that. The leading gratitude researcher Robert Emmons defines it as a feeling of wonder, thankfulness and appreciation of life. His research from the last decade has shown a host of benefits; from stronger immune systems and better sleep to more happiness and better relationships.

Human beings like novelty and we adapt fast to new circumstances such as a new apartment or the last promotion. Gratitude helps because it allows us to benefit from the things we usually take for granted. There are many things in our lives, both large and small, that we might be grateful for. When we are grateful for something, we appreciate its value. And that’s why practicing gratitude on a regular basis allows us to notice the positives more and that magnifies what’s good in our lives.

But gratitude does even more good to us! It also blocks toxic emotions such as envy and resentment. You can’t, for example, feel gratitude and envy at the same time. Try to be truly grateful and at the same time envy someone for having something that you don’t have. It’s impossible, they are incompatible feelings.

If you want something to engage in, take this easy exercise: Throughout today, take notice of things you can be grateful for. Make a list of these things – no matter if small or big. And in the evening, take some time to revisit the list. You can ask yourself what your life would be like if those things were missing. And you can try to experience a bit  of gratitude for things that you probably haven’t noticed in a while.

12. THE POSITIVITY PROJECT – ONE EMAIL TO READ BEFORE WORK (DAY 5)

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Day 5 – The Impact of Positive Emotions

From Highbrow:

Positive emotions have a very interesting impact on the human brain. This impact is explained by the so-called ‘broaden and build theory’. To understand this theory, it’s helpful to first understand how ‘negative’ emotions work. Emotions like fear and anger close down your mind and heart and narrow down the number of possible reactions for the brain to only very few choices.

Think about our ancestors in pre-historic times. When a wild animal was about to attack them they felt either fear or anger. In response to this life-threatening situation, their brain triggered what we call the ‘fight or flight or freeze’ response. This instinctive reaction was responsible for their survival at times of danger. In these situations, the brain had only three options to choose from:

  1. They could fight the animal
  2. They could try to run away as fast as possible or
  3. They could pretend to be dead.

The very same mechanisms still work in our brains today. In the face of danger, we respond to threats either by mobilizing our energy for combat or for flight, or by freezing in helplessness, collapsing in the face of an overwhelming situation. Speaking scientifically, those (negative) emotions limit our thought-action repertoire.

Positive emotions, however, have a different function. Instead of narrowing down the possibilities available to us, they open our minds up to new ways of thinking and acting. In the moment, they help us be more creative and think outside the box. When we feel positive emotions we become more open to new experiences. We feel more comfortable making connections with other people, consider alternative solutions to old problems and are able to zoom out of a situation. Positive emotions flood our brains with dopamine and serotonin, chemicals that not only make us feel good but also make our brains function at higher levels. All in all, these emotions broaden our thought-action repertoire: the results are short-term increases in creativity, problem-solving ability, and attention.

What all this does for us in the longer-run is transform us for the better. Over time, positive emotions allow us to form new friendships, develop new skills and gain new knowledge. These ‘resources’ last much longer than the emotion itself and are the reason why positive emotions can gradually transform our lives. This transformation does not happen overnight. It needs continuous reinforcement and dedication. The brain can only be changed gradually.

10. THE POSITIVITY PROJECT – ONE EMAIL TO READ BEFORE WORK (DAY 4)

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Day 4 – Benefits of Happiness – The Nun Study

From Highbrow:

Probably the most influential and mind-blowing study done that demonstrates the power of positive emotions is the so-called ‘nun study’. It started in the 1930 when a group of almost two hundred nuns were about to enter a convent. Back then, they were asked to write autobiographical sketches of themselves, reflecting on their lives and thinking about what will lie ahead.

About 70 years later, psychologists decided to go back to these diary entries and analyzed them. The researchers wanted to find out if what these 20-year old nuns wrote in their diaries could predict how the rest of their lives turned out. In particular, they were interested in predictors of longevity. They looked at how complex their sentences were – an indicator for their intelligence. They also looked at where the nuns lived. They also looked at how much they expressed their beliefs in good, measuring their devoutness.

None of these factors had an impact on how long the nuns went on to live. But there was one factor which did have an impact – a very significant one! The nuns whose journal entries had more positive content lived nearly ten years longer than the nuns whose entries were more negative or neutral. At the age of 85, more than 90% (!) of the happiest nuns were still alive, whereas only about a third of the unhappiest nuns.

The research community was amazed by these findings. Clearly, the nuns who were happier when they were young lived longer because of their happiness; not the other way around. Their conclusion is very relevant for everyone going through this course. Putting effort into becoming happier will not only make you feel better. It has the potential to literally prolong your life.

8. The Positivity Project – One Email to Read Before Work (Day 3)

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Day 3 – Myths of Happiness

From Highbrow:

Nearly all of us buy into what Sonya Lyubomirsky – one of the leading happiness researchers – calls the myths of happiness. Those myths are beliefs that certain achievements in our lives will make us forever happy and that certain failures will make us forever unhappy. People believe they will be happy once they’re married or have a certain job or income. At the same time, many people tend to believe that having health problems or having only little money will leave them forever unhappy.

The beliefs are called myths because research has convincingly shown that they are wrong. There is no ultimate life event that changes people’s feelings forever. The myth is not that achieving those dreams won’t make us happy. They almost certainly will. The myth in this belief is that we tend to think the happiness we get will last forever. The problem, though, is that the happiness we get is not as intense and by far not as long-lasting as we believe it will be.

So here are the two kinds of happiness myths: The first myth of happiness is our mistaken belief that we need certain events or situations in our lives to finally become happy. It is the notion that I’ll be happy when ____ (fill in the blank). I’ll be happy when I get that promotion, when I have a baby, when I’m rich, and so on.

Similarly wrong is the other kind of happiness myth. This myth is the belief that I can’t be happy when ____ (again, fill in the blank). For example, I can’t be happy as long as I don’t have a partner. I can’t be happy when I’m broke. Or I can’t be happy as long as I’m so much overweight.

When something negative happens in people’s lives, they often overreact. They feel that they can never be happy again, and that their life as they know it is now over. That’s the second type of happiness myths and it’s equally wrong. People adapt to almost all circumstances over time. Lottery winners for example are just as happy as people who never won the lottery. Even many people with paraplegia return – after some time – to the level of happiness they had before they became disabled.