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How to capitalise on the positive moments in your day

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Research psychologist Paul Jose says we should take the time to smell the roses.

Audience-participation time. Think about how many nice things happened to you in the past 24 hours. Mentally run through these events and take a moment to reflect on what made them pleasant, how strongly positive they felt and what you did afterwards.

You might have heard that you “need” three good things to undo the harm to your well-being of every not-so-good thing. Forget it – that three-to-one ratio is an artefact of how it’s calculated, a product of mathematics. There’s no need to count the roses as you smell them.

But those good events are important. Paul Jose, a colleague in the Victoria University of Wellington psychology department, argues that a good rule of thumb for peak happiness is to maximise the positive things that happen to you and minimise the bad. Words to live by.

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But in themselves they are not enough. Unsurprisingly, what you do with these experiences is also a vital part of the equation.

Ever met someone for whom life seems a doddle? They have great kids, win on the occasional scratchie, don’t have to worry about where the next mortgage payment is coming from, and yet … they’re miserable sods? Not to mention the killjoy, the person who stifles your pleasure in the things that happen to you. Almost as annoying, perhaps, are those at the other end of the continuum: life has handed them lemons and they continue to chirpily (and honestly) proclaim with a smile, “It could be worse.”

Jose, like many psychological researchers, has done his time trying to understand the bad stuff – depression and whatnot. One thing he and a lot of others around the world have looked at is the role that such things as rumination play in depression.

Rumination is that shoe banging repeatedly in the tumble dryer of our minds at 3am; that haunting idea we can’t seem to let go of. It’s a big oversimplification, but women generally ruminate more than men, and women tend to develop depression more than men, so maybe one of the mechanisms that leads to depression is rumination.

But Jose has drunk from the well of positive psychology, seen the light and turned from the dark side to try to understand not what makes us sad, but how to maximise happiness.

Paul Jose. Photo/Supplied

If ruminating can make us sadder, might we find balance in mechanisms for enhancing happiness? The answer is savouring – returning to the good things that have happened to you recently, which is what I hope you did at the start of this column.

Some of us, however (the killjoys, for instance), are just low-savourers, with a tendency to dampen positive experiences. “Nothing lasts forever,” they say, or, “It wasn’t as good as I hoped it would be.”

But there are also the high-trait savourers, people who pause to enjoy something and can’t wait to share what’s happened.

Savouring does work. Jose’s research shows two things: positive events make us happier (not rocket science); and savouring explains a portion of our good cheer. In other words, we should take time to smell the roses.

But high-savourers are also generally happier regardless of what’s happening to them.

So, suppress the inner killjoy and fill your well-being prescription for today. Find time to reflect on something good (Who did it involve? What emotions did it inspire?) and “capitalise” on it by sharing it with someone or holding on to it for the rest of the day.

It doesn’t have to be big, and it doesn’t have to be something that happened to you. It could just be feeling good. Pay attention when something good happens and feel grateful for it; give it meaning. And focus on the positive – imagine that good things lie ahead.

Here endeth the (evidence-based) lesson.

This article was first published in the June 8, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.