The annual Psychotherapy Networker symposium was held over the past few days, and I attended some fascinating and thought-provoking talks. I’ll share a couple of the ideas that surfaced in today’s posting.
Readers of my blog know that I have long emphasized the importance of noticing the positive things that happen in life, things which are often overlooked or overpowered by negative experiences. But noticing these positive events is only a first step – to have them make a real impact on your mood and on your overall outlook you need to register them in a deeper way than merely noticing them provides. This is in part due to the fact that evolution has primed us to be much more attentive to negative (i.e. potential harmful) occurrences than to positive ones. Twenty thousand years ago being alert to the manifold dangers in the environment (predators, adverse weather, poisonous plants) was essential to insure survival; stopping and smelling the roses was a lot less so.
To demonstrate this bias to yourself, think back over the past week and take one minute to list (mentally or, better, in writing) the positive things that have happened to you. Then do the same thing for the negative ones. Unless you’ve had a particularly good week, the negative list is sure to be significantly longer.
Research shows that the evolutionary bias we have inherited is so strong that we need to experience at least three, and more commonly five, positive events in order to balance the impact on mood of just one negative one. The utility of that negative bias, however, has evaporated. Defensively dwelling on the dangers in the environment is of far less value than seeing and seizing opportunities, which is much more likely to occur when you’re in a positive frame of mind.
How to counteract the bias? One way that is particularly effective is to institute a daily practice of writing down three things that have happened that day for which you are grateful. They can be things of particular significance (“I’m grateful that I got a raise”), things that are somewhat out of the ordinary (“I’m grateful for the delicious dinner my wife cooked tonight)) or things that are less extraordinary (“I’m grateful about how sweetly my little girl kissed me good night”) or even ordinary, quotidian things like a sunset. The key is to do this daily for at least several weeks. Undertaking this practice will begin to prime your brain to be more attentive to the positive occurrences in, and elements of, your life.
Another way is to spend 20 – 30 seconds focusing on the memory of a recent positive event. Again, because of evolutionary bias, pleasant experiences fade more quickly from awareness than do unpleasant ones. Close your eyes and bring to mind an occurrence during the last few days that brought you some pleasure. Immerse yourself in the experience. Let’s say that you’re recalling a compliment that a friend paid you. Where were you when it happened – was it on the phone, face-to-face, in an e-mail? What was the phrasing of the compliment? Can you recreate the feeling that you had when you heard it? Other examples: you recall savoring a delicious dessert, or noticing the cherry blossoms on the tree in the park when you were walking the dog. What were the sights, the sounds, the sensations (I remember how dark and creamy the chocolate mousse was and how it sort of melted in my mouth; I can recall the feeling of the breeze as it gently carried the petals to the ground, the laughter of the kids playing Frisbee and the smell of the pine trees nearby).
Do try to make time in your day for these very brief exercises. The cumulative impact of the couple of minutes you’ll spend doing them will be surprisingly strong.
One other quite unrelated mood-raising idea that was raised at the symposium that I want to share with you – most people are deficient in levels of vitamin D, particularly at this time of year, and studies have demonstrated a link between low levels of vitamin D and depression. The deficiency can be traced to less time spent outdoors and, in warmer months, to the increasing use of sunblocks, which filter the ultraviolet rays that are a primary source of the vitamin. Consider getting your vitamin D levels tested and, if they’re low, supplement them with vitamin D3. But, even if they’re not, there will certainly be mood-elevating benefits to more time spent outdoors, particularly if that time is spent at least in part with moderate exercise like walking.