Happy happy! Joy joy! Increasing positive experiences to improve mood

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



  1. I do feel like slapping you even though I believe you.
    I also want to point out the Ignatius, long heralded by Jesuits in Spiritual Exercises, uses just this savoring skill. I have been glad that I had that intensive exercise because when my life started unwinding I was able to remember that.
    However, being able to feel thankful at times when the pain was so great and tenacious that I began believing that being dead would be better just wasn’t possible for me alone in my house at 3am.
    So I still think ongoing levels of maintenance care offered to persons with chronicity of pain and support systems is more than appropriate. Our skills need to be polished and upgraded with the new information that our specialized medical teams accrue.
    I just wish there were ways our medical insurance could include personalized and appropriate care in their rationing of services.

    I would appreciate skills in wearing away the barriers to care.

    The longer my life goes on, the economics of my situation slide and it’s hard to achieve a sense of balance.

    1. LOL! Yes, gratitude and savouring have long been parts of spiritual training in many religions, so it’s not a new suggestion – just different in that there is some empirical support for the approach.
      I also agree that there needs to be some periodic individual support/back-up for people as part of maintaining a sense of wellbeing. It’s incredible that preventive maintenance is a requirement for a vehicle (Certificates of fitness etc) but not funded or supported in health!

  2. No slapping from me. More like clapping.

    Over the thirty-three years living with rheumatoid arthritis I have tried an alphabet of things to help me manage my disease.

    It wasn’t until four years ago that I learned about stress (negative thoughts and emotions) and how simple heart-based techniques could change heart rhythms. Seeing the difference was pretty powerful, which led me to training so I could coach people in these techniques. The things you mention in this post affect us in a positive way, triggering a different set of chemicals than when we are doing the “stinking thinking”.

    The differences I noted in my own sense of health and well-being were powerful. Better lab results, fewer medications, greater resilience, improved mood and less worry (I come from a long line of worriers!). Best of all, I had more time – previously I was visiting my MD, on average, once a month for something. Love that it’s a once a year trip now.

    Being human (yes, I am) I fell away from doing these techniques. Funny how, because we feel better, we stop doing what made us feel better in the first place.

    What happened to me? A major flare-up – the likes of which I haven’t seen since before learning and regularly practising these techniques.

    It was a terrific learning opportunity for me. I’m back to consistently practising my techniques and am thrilled to report that things have settled down!

    Just like taking a pill, it won’t work if you don’t do it. It’s interesting how we slip into a better mood by balancing our nervous system. Its wonderful to the changes in my clients (and myself)! The tightness in the face seems to dissolve, the voice becomes less edgy and there is more suppleness to the posture.

    Continue doing what you’re doing., Bronnie. This is valuable information that is also actionable.

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