Back in college (ok, waaay back), I worked in an autism research lab. Traditionally, children with autism had been taught behaviors (like making eye contact, saying "hello") one behavior at a time with lots of repetition and reinforcement. The researchers with whom I was working were testing a new intervention that involved teaching two "pivotal" behaviors that were thought to affect a wide range of behaviors. So instead of painstakingly addressing many behaviors discretely, we were focusing on two behaviors and expecting them to create positive change in many other behaviors. I bore you with these details because this principle can make your life much simpler and much better.
What if, instead of trying to remember a bunch of guidelines for your life (like how to best think creatively, approach a new task, train your dog, raise your children, motivate yourself, make money, lose weight, manage difficult co-workers, be a great friend, take care of yourself...), you could remember a couple of things that would positively affect all areas of your life?
What if there were one or two goals that would help you reach all of your other life goals? What if you could remember one thing and the rest would take care of itself?
My friend, I think it's possible.
Here it is: If we make our goal to feel good and stay in the present moment (two phenomena which overlap so much they may actually be the same thing), we will be our best selves.
I know, feeling good doesn't sound productive. It sounds more like a luxury, especially in this economy. But my new belief is that feeling good is a necessity, and the only way to not only survive, but thrive. When you feel good, you do good.
Let me explain.
By feeling good, I am referring to the experience of positive emotions like peace, serenity, love and joy. (Incidentally, the feeling of excitement, while positive, hasn't proven to be as useful).
Let's start by thinking about what you do when you feel the opposite of good - so you're feeling anxious, worried, stressed- what do you do? Avoid people or situations? Yell at innocent bystanders? Accidentally injure yourself? Try to control everything and everybody? Drive dangerously? Make quick decisions? See few options (Researchers agree that people narrow their choices of action when feeling negative emotions, so we see limited possibilities of what to do. This makes me think of kids who can find nothing to do when they're feeling "bored")? As a result of these actions, we may drive friends away, become sick, miss opportunities, and regret decisions. And the dominoes keep falling: With less friends, we feel lonely and angry which leads to further isolation and bad decisions which leads to... I want to point out that negative emotions do have their purpose. Feelings of sadness prompt us to rest and conserve our energy. Fear stimulates adrenaline and helps us run or fight (Although I don't know about you, but it's been a while since I've been chased through the African wilderness by a rhinoceros).
Now consider what you do when you feel good - full of deep peace, hope, love, joy. Do you really listen to yourself and others? Take small steps toward your goals? Garner confidence? Think of creative ideas? Set a good example? Make sound, healthy decisions (Have you ever made a bad decision when feeling calm and peaceful)? Approach people and new situations? The opposite of negative emotions, positive emotions actually expand the scope of our attention (which comes in handy while driving, playing games, life guarding...) and increase the number of thoughts and actions that come to mind. This means more possibilities. This "broaden-and-build" theory by researcher Barbara Fredrickson posits that positive emotions' short term effects (increases in problem-solving ability, awareness and openness to experience) build long term social, psychological and intellectual resources. These resources help us better cope with difficulties, develop closer relationships and even increase the functioning of our heart and immune system. Building resources leads to increases in positive emotions, which build more resources and on goes the "upward spiral." Several studies have even found a correlation between feeling good and living longer.
Sounds good to me.
So how do we increase our experience of positive emotions? Ah, that's many more blog posts (some already written). But I can't resist mentioning a few ways. Eckhart Tolle would say that the key is to align yourself with the present moment. Conscious breathing helps us do this. Life coaches would tell us to do more of what we love and think thoughts that are useful, truthful and create good feelings. Positive psychology researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky lists twelve "happiness activities," all supported by science, to increase happiness. One of my favorites is practicing gratitude by keeping a gratitude journal.
This blog/website is all about feeling good. As it turns out, it's also about productivity and reaching your goals. So take a look around and stay tuned.
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Thanks to Geoff Captain for the photo.
Thanks to you for reading.