October 25, 2017
By Caroline Adams Miller, MAPP
When I entered the positive psychology field, one of the embryonic areas was called “positive interventions,” which was the identification of actions that could boost a person’s emotional flourishing. The list of proven interventions that worked for most people was small at that time, but ten years later, dozens of countries have produced thousands of pieces of research on what works to amplify our well-being. Now the popular terminology for this area is “wise interventions,” because the need to tailor these actions to a person’s strengths, talents, and interests is recognized. For example, a person like me who is high in zest and bravery will always respond favorably to physical movement and novelty, while a person who is high in self-regulation and critical thinking might do better with an intervention such as meditation.
“Positive/Wise Interventions”: the identification of actions that could boost a person’s emotional flourishing
Below, I’ve listed the areas of wise intervention that have the most robust research behind them and that should be considered for anyone who wants to up their well-being, life satisfaction, and outlook. How someone first responds to an intervention has been found to be predictive of whether that action will reliably work for them in the long term, so take note of the emotions you experience as you sample these and then build them into your life accordingly so that the positive emotions help you grow your grit.
1. Identify and Use Your Strengths
One of the reasons my new clients take the VIA Character Strengths Survey is that identifying our top strengths has been found to improve our well-being. When you pair strengths identification with challenging yourself to use those strengths in new and creative ways to accomplish goals and interact with others—and brainstorm combining these tactics effectively—you get an even more powerful burst of energy and well-being, and the impact can last as long as one year. Some research has found that educating a group about character strengths combined with having them do rigorous physical activity resulted in both greater personal self-awareness and awareness of the strengths of others. Strengths-based interventions are also effective in increasing life satisfaction.
2. What are you grateful for and why?
Another well-proven method to up well-being is to practice gratitude. Gratitude is one of the top character strengths associated with emotional flourishing, and one of the most publicized findings in the field of positive psychology has been about the importance of gratitude, leading to a glut of gratitude journals for purchase everywhere you turn. While noting that which you’re grateful for is a useful activity, a slightly more nuanced and powerful way to practice gratitude is to list that which you are grateful for each day, as well as why that thing occurred in your life. When you connect your gratitude with your own proactive behavior, it’s easier to see how you can generate more positive micromoments of well-being in your own life. Other popular ways to practice gratitude include a “gratitude visit,” in which you write a letter of gratitude to someone you’ve never properly thanked, and then deliver it to them in person. More research on gratitude has found that reflecting upon any of our past challenges and reframing them with gratitude has a powerful impact on increasing happiness, reducing depression, and offering closure on difficult experiences.
3. Write down your thoughts and feelings
For many decades, James Pennebaker has been researching the impact of writing down one’s thoughts and feelings, and he has found that keeping diaries, writing prompts, and doing similar exercises accomplish many positive things. They enhance well-being, improve immune-system function, and help create meaning in life, among many other beneficial outcomes. Newer research has found that blogging has a similarly favorable outcome, probably because getting feedback from others can be a validating experience. Learning how to write a new, positive narrative about your life instead of telling yourself the same limiting story can have a transformational effect as well. There’s even research showing that writing in longhand, as opposed to using a keyboard, may offer more benefits because of the part of the brain it involves. It’s also interesting to note that asking people to write about positive emotions has been related to enhancing happiness, as well as reducing illness, compared to a control group.
4. Get connected
Many different strands of research have found that having a sense of spirituality adds positivity to a person’s life, as long as the beliefs are not connected with narrow-minded religious practices. Specifically, believing that your faith is the only “right” way is linked to greater stress and more negative emotions, while using your faith as a positive coping tool, without judging other spiritual doctrines, is linked to greater well-being. Much research has focused on how faith-based gatherings can also offer protective benefits because of the social interaction, which often includes acts of gratitude and altruism.
5. Find a coach
The use of a trained coach who uses evidence-based tools for change also leads to increased well-being. Research from Australia found that solution-focused coaches who met with individuals and groups about goal accomplishment between three and twenty times helped to increase people’s hope, hardiness, and happiness, while also reducing their depression. Executive coaching that focuses on personal transformation and the cultivation of leadership qualities also leads to increased goal attainment, resilience, and workplace well-being, along with a reduction in disengagement and stress. Overall, coaching interventions have been found to succeed in groups that vary from high school students to high-level executives, contributing to greater success, more flourishing, and less negativity.
People who are hopeless often have no goals and have stopped trying to make progress toward feeling better, so having hope is a key indicator of emotional flourishing, resilience, and striving for goal accomplishment. Hope and optimism are often tied together in the research because both are connected with seeing one’s life and the world generally as a place where one can succeed and be happy. Enhancing hope has been found to change thinking, which leads people to see more potential pathways to goal accomplishment as well as to believe they can carry out those solutions. People with high hope tend to persist longer in goal pursuit, have better outcomes, and deal with stress in more resilient ways.
7. Get your body moving
One of the most natural mood-boosters available is movement. Exercise enhances vitality and has long been touted as one of the best ways to clear your head, circulate oxygen and blood throughout the body, get stronger, and become better, but more of us need to take advantage of its natural benefits. In fact, the average American child now spends half as much time outdoors as did his counterparts in previous generations, and often spends as much as eight hours a day watching television or using a screen of some kind.
Getting our youth, as well as more adults, to exercise has long been a goal of fitness activists, but the research from positive psychology has found that exercise also has a powerful effect on the brain when it comes to reducing anxiety, depression, and hopelessness, while increasing energy, self-efficacy, and happiness.
Some research points to the value of interval training, which consists of raising one’s heart rate to maximum levels for short periods, and then cycling back and forth to less vigorous levels. This type of activity not only improves fitness levels quickly and effectively, it also elevates mood for longer periods of time. Other research finds that combining physical exercise with being outdoors raises vitality levels within twenty minutes, and this lowers worry and depression as well. Hiking outdoors also boosts mental focus, creativity, memory, and self-confidence. Even better, combining meditation with aerobic exercise substantially increases the production of new brain cells in the hippocampus, reduces the ruminative tendencies associated with depression, and improves concentration and attention. Think various forms of flow and power yoga.
8. Give to others
The “helper’s high” is what we feel when we give to others, and much research points out that when we choose to give to others, we actually gain more from the exchange than the person who received the aid. Giving to others—whether it’s our time, money, or energy—can distract us from our own worries and put our struggles in perspective, particularly when we give to those less fortunate than we are. Adam Grant, the author of Give and Take, did a revolutionary fundraising study as an undergraduate psychology major at Harvard University. His study showed that when fundraisers are briefly exposed to gratitude from the recipients of scholarships, they spent 142 percent more time on the phone and brought in 171 percent more revenue, even when using the same sales script. When we are giving, we feel more motivated, passionate, and engaged. It’s also possible for the behavior to create a virtuous cycle. In US states where subjective well-being is high, people are more likely to donate a kidney to strangers, and in turn, being more altruistic generates more well-being.
I often call meditation the silver bullet of interventions because of the extraordinary number of studies that show its positive impact on rewiring the brain, as well as other innumerable positive outcomes. Loving-kindness meditation (sending positive emotions to yourself, your loved ones, and everyone else) seems to have longer-lasting outcomes for building positive emotions, improving relationships with others, and experiencing less depression than do simple mindfulness practices. Some of the most exciting research on meditation has shown specific changes in the brain, in the areas associated with self-regulation and ecstasy, and these changes come about after just a few weeks of short daily meditation practice. There are a large number of apps and websites these days to help people learn a variety of meditation techniques, and a growing number of retreats and courses exist all over the world as well to provide shared learning and experiences. It’s especially interesting to note that a 2011 study found that people who meditated for eight weeks greatly improved their control of the brain rhythms that block out pain—so if you’re looking for a technique to help you learn how to remain gritty when difficulties make you want to quit, meditation can be a great intervention.
In addition to the wise interventions I described above, here are a few more suggestions to explore, to help you find what else helps boost your happiness:
- Check out web-based platforms such as those from Happify and the Greater Good Science Center. They provide and update numerous articles, online courses, and audio tracks on improving well-being. They also cover a range of topics—altruism, goal-setting, grit cultivation, stress reduction, combatting negative thinking, positive parenting, and much more—and it’s all from an evidence-based perspective. Take a look!
- Eat more fruits and vegetables, because doing so has been found to correlate with not just better health but also greater happiness. Researchers have found that eating more fruits and vegetables is predictive of experiencing higher life satisfaction and well-being—in fact, doing so has been found to produce as positive an impact as moving from unemployment to employment. How about that?
- Spend time around people who do good work—for example, by volunteering. Professor and psychologist Jonathan Haidt says that we become “elevated” when we are in the presence of awe-inspiring behavior. It causes us to experience “tingly” and “warm” feelings within and also makes us more likely to engage in prosocial behavior ourselves. A win-win dynamic!
- Write a thank-you note to someone every week—maybe make Thursdays “thank you Thursdays.” Expressing gratitude has a huge impact on well-being, and when it becomes a habit, it will naturally lift your spirits on a regular basis.
- Fill your calendar with planned activities to enjoy with people who uplift, energize, and fill you with positive emotions. Happy people are often anticipating events that they know will allow them to relax, laugh, reminisce, and enjoy themselves. So plan ahead for this proven mood-booster.
This post includes excerpts from Caroline Adams Miller’s book “Getting Grit,” which has numerous footnotes supporting the research cited here. Click here to download the introduction and first chapter of “Getting Grit.”
If you’d like to learn more about upping your grit game, feel free to direct message me or leave a comment below.
Photo credits (in order of appearance): Ambreen Hasan, Cathryn Lavery, Ben White, Emma Simpson, and Dingzeyu Li on Unsplash
Copyright © 2017 Caroline Adams Miller. All rights reserved.