Recently, while browsing through the stationery section of a big department store, I was struck by the number of notebooks and journals with messages written on the front. The research on priming demonstrates what happens when we're faced with the same message regularly: our thoughts, feelings and behaviour can all be influenced. There’s plenty of evidence for how athletes use this idea of priming to their advantage.
Some of the inscriptions on the journals said ‘Be Happy Always’ or ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’. They were beautiful, pastel-coloured journals, embellished with gold pineapples. But something about them made me feel a little uncomfortable. I wondered about the effect of these messages.
I’m a big advocate for positive psychology and ways to enhance well-being. My training in clinical psychology has also allowed me to study the importance of the (so called) ‘negative emotions’.
We can’t be happy all the time. This just isn’t a realistic goal and, while I imagine that the makers of these beautiful journals understand this, they also know we're seduced by the idea that a permanent state of happiness is attainable.
We've been gifted with such an amazing spectrum of emotions, and they all have an important place in our lives. Imagine if we didn’t allow ourselves to feel all those emotions. If we weren't sad when someone shared devastating news, or weren't worried when our teenagers didn't come home after a party.
When we try to aim for 'happy all the time' I think we can also open ourselves up to self-criticism - and close the door to self-compassion. I loved the editorial in the latest Flow magazine (Issue 15), where Irene and Astrid talked about aiming for ‘good enough’ and not trying to be superhuman and brilliant at everything.
Barbara Fredrickson’s groundbreaking research on positive emotions revealed the importance of negative emotion in our lives. She has found enough data to support the idea that there's an optimal ratio of positive to negative emotions. Achieving this ratio makes it more likely that we can build positive relationships with others and strengthen our resilience and well-being.
The magic number is 3. If, on average, we can achieve 3 positive emotional experiences to every negative 1, her theory suggests we are building our well-being. Notice that she doesn't suggest a ratio of 3:0. So, perhaps the Be Happy Always journal could have a little sub-heading "Except on the 1 out of 4 occasions that you aim not be happy"?
After some searching in that shop, I came across a journal with ‘I’m doing my best’ on the front cover. To me, this seems like one of the most important messages to use to prime my brain. There is comfort and compassion in this phrase, since it allows for the good days and the not-so-good ones. It motivates me when needed, but also quietly sits alongside me on the days when "my best" might not feel very productive.
I handed the journal to the cashier. ‘Cute’ she said, scanning the item. I smiled, ‘Cute... and realistic’ I said.
If you want to discover your positivity ratio you can take Fredrickson's evidence based assessment here. If it's not as high as you'd like, be gentle with yourself (perhaps even try saying 'I'm doing my best'), stick with me and find out what the research says about how journals can improve our positivity in my next blog post.