I am sure there will be people who read today’s post who will feel like giving me a bit of a slapping. “How”, they will say, “Are you supposed to get happy when you’re feeling bad?” And I would have been one of these people a few years ago too, given my history of low mood and love of whining. Seriously, it’s completely counter-intuitive to think that when you’re feeling flat and low, all you need to do is get out and enjoy yourself!
It goes a bit like this, I think. When someone is feeling a bit flat, maybe having done too much and started to feel fatigued, it’s normal to stop doing quite so much and rest up. But if resting fails to increase energy – maybe because of a chronic condition like fibromyalgia, or really any of the chronic pain conditions – then the next most sensible thing to do is to keep doing less. This means there is not only less happening each day making it quite possible that life gets boring, but also reducing the opportunity for positive emotions to be generated. Where is the flush of achievement? The pride of completing something? The excitement of a new experience?
This can lead on to having less to talk about, less to get up in the morning for, and less reason to need to be energised.
“Emotion regulation refers to the attempts to influence the types of emotions people experience, when they experience these emotions, and how these emotions are expressed and experienced (Gross, 1998).” I’ve written before about the way in which chronic pain can deplete the executive functioning that supports and maintains appropriate emotion regulation. The process of needing to use brain circuits that were designed to regulate emotion, attention and action in order to respond to temporary situations – but use them for chronic situations – can lead to depletion of capacity to regulate, and ultimately leads to fatigue.
Most of us don’t really want to stay in a negative frame of mind. An enormous industry exists to help people avoid negative mood and maintain or enhance positive mood. Time for some jargon: the hedonic contingency model developed by Wegener and Petty (1994) suggests that people learn to associate benefits with positive emotional experiences over time, and as a result, they look for activities and thoughts that will allow them to maintain (or even elevate) their positive experiences.
One method of maintaining positive emotions is to savour them – think about them, either in anticipation of a good event (thinking about that birthday surprise you’re springing on your loved one maybe?), appreciating what is happening right now (sipping on that gorgeous Gisborne Gewurtztraminer?), or recalling something from the past (remember last summer’s barbecue with friends?).
Savouring seems to be quite important for feeling good and coping over the lifespan. Bryant, a researcher into positive affect found that ” savoring is positively related to favorable advantages in well-being, including self-reported optimism, internal locus of control, self-control behaviors, life satisfaction, and self-esteem; it is negatively correlated with hopelessness and depression (Bryant, 2003).” It’s probably also associated with gratitude, something I wrote about recently too, but is a little different because it’s specifically about maintaining a positive emotion.
How can we increase savouring? Meditating specifically on enjoyable experiences or situations springs to mind. Looking through old photographs and reminiscing. Spending time planning pleasant events for the future. Journalling, or making a scrapbook of events that we’ve enjoyed. Being mindful as we eat, drink, even clean our teeth! Really being present when we’re doing something – these can all extend and increase savouring.
Another set of strategies involves finding positive meaning in ordinary events. Folkman and Moskowitz identified these strategies as one way to buffer the effects of stress: People find positive meaning in daily life things like (1) positive reappraisal (i.e., finding a ‘‘silver lining’’), (2) problem-focused coping (i.e., efforts directed at solving or managing the problem
causing distress), and (3) infusing ordinary events with positive meaning (e.g., appreciating a compliment).
It looks like intentionally planning to look for positive things acts as a buffer to stress – so planning to enjoy a meal, being thankful for friendship, taking the time to smell the roses(!) all make for small oases of positivity even in everyday life.
I’ll write more tomorrow on the ways in which positive emotions can both be generated – and the effect of doing so on coping. In the meantime, enjoy this week’s picture!
Tugade, M., & Fredrickson, B. (2006). Regulation of Positive Emotions: Emotion Regulation Strategies that Promote Resilience Journal of Happiness Studies, 8 (3), 311-333 DOI: 10.1007/s10902-006-9015-4