Behavioral Positivity

Activity: Physical Activity and Well-Being

Title: Physical Activity

Activity: Exercise every day and reflect on how you feel before, during, and after.

Science: Physical activity psychology has increased in popularity over the years, now with multiple scientific journals dedicated exclusively to the topic. There have been numerous studies demonstrating correlations between physical activity and well-being — I’ll summarize just three of them here:

  1. Long-Term Effects of Aerobic Exercise on Psychological Outcomes: 82 participants completed a 12 week fitness program based on indoor cycling and were tested for depression, anxiety, among other psychological measures. Compared to a control group, all participants experienced both a fitness and psychological health improvement. Even after 1 year, the benefits remained above the baseline, demonstrating both short and long term effects.
  2. Effects of aerobic exercise on anxiety sensitivity: 54 participants with elevated anxiety sensitivity scores completed six 20 minute treadmill exercise sessions at either a high-intensity aerobic or low-intensity level. Based on a series of self-ratings (pre-experiment, post-experiment, and in a one week follow-up), both high- and low- intensity exercise were shown to reduce anxiety sensitivity. However, high-intensity exercise resulted in more rapid reductions in a global measure of anxiety sensitivity and only high-intensity exercise reduced fear of anxiety-related bodily sensations.
  3. Physical Exercise and Psychological Well-Being: A Population Study in Finland: 3403 participants of the Finnish cardiovascular risk factor survey completed a questionnaire focused on physiological (e.g. exercise habits) and psychological (e.g. Beck Depression Inventory) measures. The results showed that those who exercised at least two to three times a week experienced less depression, anger, cynical distrust, and stress compared to those who exercised less frequently, demonstrating a strong association between level of physical exercise and well-being.

Results: I focused on four primary types of physical activity: walking (low-intensity), running (high-intensity), yoga (low-intensity), and indoor cycling (high-intensity). For additional motivation, I also signed up for a half-marathon on April 30th — I find having a goal to work towards helps me push through any number of reasons I can make up to skip a workout. Finally, I engaged with a friend to enlist the benefit of social norms into the early stages of creating a physical exercise routine. Having encouragement from and responsibility to a friend resulted in additional motivation to exercise on a daily basis (more on this in a later post).

Thoughts:

  1. It became easier to exercise over time: Like many activities, it was extremely difficult to cultivate the motivation to exercise when I was just starting out. However, over time it became easier and easier as my level of physical fitness increased and the habit forming process began to take shape. I found it worked to start small and build up over time.
  2. Regardless of how I felt before, I always felt better after: There were times I was itching to put on my running shoes and get outside and other times when even just leaving my bed felt like an impossible task. What I found, however, is that regardless how I felt before starting to exercise, I always felt significantly better in the time after completing the physical activity.
  3. Different types of exercises had different effects: In all cases, the physical activity helped clear my mind. Just by being active, I found myself thinking with a greater sense of calm. While doing Yoga, I could feel the anxiety leaving my body and experienced a general peacefulness; while running, I found myself thinking more rationally about some top of mine challenges, seemingly cultivating a wider perspective.

Next Steps: I plan to continue my routine of physical activity, especially not wanting to lose the momentum I have been able to build up since making it a focus. To this effect, I purchased a yoga mat for my apartment to facilitate exercises at home for busy days and will be attempting a marathon later in the year. I also plan to directly integrate running into my process for decision-making.

Research: 

Psychology of Physical Activity: Determinants, Well-Being and Interventions.
By Stuart J. H. Biddle, Nanette Mutrie.

Effects of aerobic exercise on anxiety sensitivity. Joshua J Broman-Fulksa, Mitchell E Bermana, Brian A Rabianb, Michael J Websterc. Behaviour Research and Therapy
Volume 42, Issue 2, February 2004, Pages 125–136.

Physical Exercise and Psychological Well-Being: A Population Study in Finland
Peter Hassmén. Preventive Medicine. Volume 30, Issue 1, January 2000, Pages 17-25

Long-Term Effects of Aerobic Exercise on Psychological Outcomes. Thomas M. DiLorenzo, Eric P. Bargman, Renée Stucky-Ropp, Glenn S. Brassington, Peter A. Frensch, Thomas LaFontaine. Preventive Medicine. Volume 28, Issue 1, January 1999, Pages 75-85

Lessons from: “The Book of Joy”

I am taking a step away from positive interventions to highlight some quotes from “The Book of Joy: Lasting Hope in a Changing World,” a new book authored by The Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams. The book is divided into three sections, The Nature of True Joy, The Obstacles to Joy, and The Eight Pillars of Joy. 

Compassion

  • “Too much self-centered thinking is the source of suffering. A compassionate concern for others’ well-being is the source of happiness.” – Dalai Lama.
  • “I mean simply to say that ultimately our greatest joy is when we seek to do good for others. It’s how we are made. I mean we’re wired to be compassionate.” – Archbishop Tutu

Hope and Optimism

  • “When bad things happen they become news, and it is easy to feel like our basic human nature is to kill or to rape or to be corrupt. Then we can feel that there is not much hope for the future. All these things happen, but they are unusual, which is why they become news. There are millions and millions of children who are loved by their parents every day. Then in school their teachers care for them… Then in the hospital, every day millions of people receive immense caring. But this is so common that none of it becomes news. We take it for granted.” – Dalai Lama
  • “Many people think of suffering as a problem. Actually, it is an opportunity destiny has given to you. In spite of difficulties and suffering, you can remain firm and maintain your composure.” – Dalai Lama
  • “Sometimes we get too angry with ourselves, thinking that we ought to be perfect from the word go. But this being on Earth is a time for us to learn to be good, to learn to be more loving, to learn to be more compassionate. And you learn, not theoretically. You learn when something happens that tests you.” – Archbishop Tutu

Perspective

  • “For every event in life there are many different angles. When you look at the same event from a wider perspective, your sense of worry and anxiety reduces, and you have greater joy.” – Dalai Lama
  • “So many people seem to struggle with being kind to themselves. This is really sad. You see, if you don’t have genuine love and kindness toward yourself, how can you extend these to others? We must remind people, as the Archbishop has said, that basic human nature is good, is positive, so this can give us some courage and self-confidence. As we said, too much focus on yourself leads to fear, insecurity, and anxiety. Remember, you are not alone. You are a part of a whole generation that is the future of humanity. Then you will get a sense of courage and purpose in life.” – Dalai Lama

Humor

  • “It is much better when there is not too much seriousness. Laughter, joking is much better. Then we can be completely relaxed. I met some scientists in Japan, and they explained that wholehearted laughter – not artificial laughter – is very good for your heart and your health in general.” – Dalai Lama
  • “When we learn to take ourselves slightly less seriously, then it is a very great help. We can see the ridiculousness in us… The humor that doesn’t demean is an invitation to everyone to join in the laughter. Even if they’re laughing at you they’re joining you in a laughter that feels wholesome.” – Archbishop Tutu

Acceptance

  • “Why be unhappy about something if it can be remedied? And what is the use of being unhappy if it can not be remedied?” – Shantideva
  • “We are meant to live in joy. This does not mean that life will be easy or painless. It means that we can turn our faces to the wind and accept that this is the storm we must pass through. We cannot succeed by denying what exists. The acceptance of reality is the only place from which change can being.” – Archbishop Tutu

Gratitude

  • “Every day, think you as you wake up, I am fortunate to be alive. I have a precious human life. I am not going to waste it.” – Dalai Lama
  • “It is not happiness that makes us grateful. It is gratefulness that makes us happy” Every moment is a gift. There is no certainty that you will have another moment, with all the opportunity that it contains.” – David Steindl-Rast

Education

  • “The only way out of this drunken stupor is to educate children about the value of compassion and the value of applying our mind. We need a long-term approach rooted in a vision to address our collective global challenges. This would require a fundamental shift if human consciousness, something only education is best suited to achieve. Time never waits. So I think it is very important that we start now.” – Dalai Lama

Activity: Disconnecting Before Sleep

Title: Disconnecting Before Sleep

Activity: Do not use your phone for 30+ minutes before going to sleep. To aid in this, set your alarm for the next day and charge your phone, ideally out of reach from your bed.

Science: Recently, there’s been a lot of research and discussion around improving sleep patterns and our dependence on technology. For this intervention, let’s focus on the scientific overlap of these two topics. First, it has been shown that the blue light emitted from smartphones can inhibit the production of melatonin, that pesky hormone that helps you sleep and maintains your circadian rhythm. Second, the activities we tend to use our phone for (e.g. texting, social media, emails, and articles) tend to keep your mind engaged, making it harder to shut down and eventually fall asleep. And of course, it has been shown that the majority of us keep at least one electronic device in the bedroom creating a potentially endless loop of device checking.

Results: I succeed in disconnecting for the majority of the month — there were a few nights in which I slipped up (I’m not perfect!), but more often than not I was phone-less for 30+ minutes before sleeping. The actual impact was noteworthy.  By the end of the month I was drifting to sleep more easily, I mostly lost the urge to check my phone at night, and I never went to check my phone if I happened to wake up during the night.

Thoughts:

  1. Breaking (or reshaping) habits is hard: I didn’t realize quite how addicted to my phone I was until I implemented this intervention. The first couple weeks, and primarily the first few days, were really difficult. However, as my sleep became noticeably better, I was able to adjust the “routine” part of my habit loop by replacing the dopamine hits of social media before bed to the joy and restfulness of getting a good night’s sleep.
  2. I wasn’t missing much: On the occasional nights in which I knowingly broke the intervention and used my phone in sleep before bed,  I found myself asking “why am I doing this?” It became painfully obvious that I had never truly enjoyed, or benefited from scrolling through social media, checking emails, or browsing random news articles before sleeping.
  3. I read a lot more: I chose to replace the screen time with reading as much as I could. As a result, I began cruising through books at a pace I hadn’t really achieved since getting my first smartphone. Talk about your win-wins.

Next Steps: I purposefully started with “no phone 30 minutes before bed” knowing there were a bunch of opportunities to extend the habit much further. In the coming months, I plan to continue to focus on the 30 minutes before bed mission, while slowly introducing a similar morning routine, e.g. no phone 30 minutes after waking up. Ultimately, I hope this lifestyle change extends much further than a method to sleep better and eventually serves to lessen my phone dependence in a much more holistic way.

Research: 

http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/blue-light-has-a-dark-side

https://www.sleep.org/articles/ways-technology-affects-sleep/

Activity: Habit Forming

Title: Habit Forming

Activity: Decide on 3-6 habits you would like to form or goals you would like to achieve. Break down each habit or goal into a short title (e.g. meditate) and a short description (e.g. meditate for 10 minutes every day). Track each habit/goal every day for one month.

Science: Understanding the science behind habit forming is the first step to analyzing your own habits and figuring out how to implement or change them. Habits start with a “habit loop,” a three step process that involves a trigger (or cue), a routine, and a reward. A trigger may be going to a cafe or a certain time of day, a routine may be eating a brownie or going to the gym, and a reward may be the taste of dessert or release of endorphins. To form a habit, think about a habit loop that will work for you. To break a habit, first determine the trigger for the routine and then, using trial and error, start changing the routine to break the loop.  For example, if every day at around 3pm you go out to smoke, try eating a snack, having a coffee, or socializing with a friend instead. It helps to think about what is it about 3pm that triggers the routine — is it related to boredom? Higher stress after recurring meetings? Getting hungry? It may take some time to pinpoint the exact triggers and routines that work for you.

Keep in mind, forming (or breaking) habits takes time. Most people have heard the myth that it takes 21 days to form a habit. Unfortunately, this isn’t really the case. In fact, updated research has shown that it can vary form 18 to 254 days depending on the task, the person, and the circumstances.

Results: I focused on the following six habits: 1) out of bed by 7:45 AM, 2) Meditate for 15 minutes, 3) Exercise, 4) 1+ hour of Spanish practice, 5) No phone before bed, and 6) Floss.  I tracked my success rate for each habit every day and created a percentage score at the end of the month. [Results to be added].

Thoughts:

  1. Technology helps: To help me keep track of my goals and progress, I downloaded and used the app “way of life” on a daily basis. I found myself more encouraged to complete each habit, knowing that I would feel better marking it complete.
  2. Some habits are easier than others: Science tells us that not all habits are formed in the same amount of time (see reference to the 21 day myth above). I have had no issue incorporating flossing into my daily routine and failed pretty miserably to wake up at 7:45am on a daily basis.
  3. Knowledge is power: After reading about habit forming on a daily basis, I realized I was applying the science behind habit loops to my life outside of this activity. For example, I realized I had a habit of ordering pastries every time I went to a cafe to work. I wasn’t particularly craving something sweet, I just did it out of habit. Upon realizing this, I was able to order healthier foods instead and leave the cafe much happier.

Next Steps: I plan to think about the habits most important to me (e.g. no phone before bed, exercising in the morning, and maintaining a healthy diet) and work on creating habit loops to automate the process. The more I can accomplish in 2017, the better off I’ll be in the future.

Research: 

Duhigg, Charles. The Power Of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life And Business. New York: Random House, 2012. Print.

Activity: Three Good Things

Title: Three Good Things

Activity: Every day, write down three good things that happened before going bed; briefly reflect on each thing – why did it make you happy?

Science: Gratitude has been proven to be an important factor of happiness and well-being. The general idea is simple: when we experience gratitude we are focused on positive facets of life, rather than the negative. Unfortunately, it is extremely easy to focus on negative events and thoughts; in fact, it has been argued that we are evolutionary wired to do exactly that. The good news? Gratitude isn’t fixed, we can actually cultivate it. And that’s the exact idea behind this exercise: by recounting three good things that happened every day we are actively refocusing our brain to think positively, or more specifically, to be grateful for the positive facets of our lives.

Results: Each night in January I wrote my three good things in a journal before going to bed. Some days it was extremely easy to think of three things that made me happy, while other times I found myself digging deep to find that 3rd thing. The variance in relative importance between days was pretty significant, with big things like “spent the day with my two best friends in Cuba,” to relatively smaller things like “found time to enjoy coffee and a good book,” to “got a text from a friend I hadn’t talked to in a while.”

Thoughts: I had a few interesting realizations after completing this exercise:

  1. It was surprisingly easy to stick to: The relative ease and enjoyment of this activity, coupled with the habit forming routine of always doing it right before lights off, made it easy to follow-through on a daily basis.
  2. I have a terrible memory for good feelings: Often, I experienced some truly positive feelings during a day, but by the time I was in bed I had essentially erased them from my memory. Only when forcing myself to think back did I remember that feeling after a good run or that hilarious conversation I had with a friend.
  3. I started noticing trends: For instance, I realized that I have been underestimating the importance of staying in touch with friends and family. Time and time again, friend and family related activities made it into my three good things, even simple things like texting with friends living in other cities.

Next Steps: Nothing unexpected here – I plan to continue the exercise for the foreseeable future. It’s not every day you discover a low cost (a few minutes every night), high reward (increased gratitude and well-being) activity like this.

Research:

Seligman, M. E., Steen, T.A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive Psychology progress: empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410.

Welcome!

Hi and welcome!

Positive psychology is a relatively new scientific study focused on understanding and cultivating happiness and well-being. Over the last few decades there has been an abundance of positive psychology research produced by academics from all over the world. Within this research are numerous simple-to-implement interventions that are actually scientifically proven to increase well-being. How cool is that? Unfortunately… these academic findings are not always published in an easy-to-access or understand manner, making them difficult to implement. On top of that, even when we know about positive interventions, we still sometimes fail to incorporate them into our lives in a consistent way.

That’s where this site comes in — the overarching idea is to introduce you to some of these academic findings and detail how they can be incorporated into your life. To this effect, I will personally attempt scientifically proven interventions, detailing the process, the science, and the end results. I’ll also throw in one-off articles detailing additional research related to happiness and well-being that I hope you’ll find interesting. Feel free to comment or ask questions as you please.

P.S. please reference the “resources” tab to see other sites, articles, and books that have much more information than this site!