Things do not change; we change. – Henry David Thoreau
At the core of positive psychology is the research on intentional activities. The effectiveness of deliberate positive interventions has created a platform from which many people are transforming their lives for the better. Purposeful, conscious activities — such as committing acts of kindness, expressing gratitude, and reviewing the good things happening in your day — have an additive effect. The more we do, the better we feel, and the more we seek intentional activities to supplement these good feelings.
Barbara Fredrickson, one of the leading researchers in the field, coined this progression “broaden and build.” Intentional activities run the gamut: meditation, exercise, expressive writing, or the proverbial “count your blessings.” Researchers and applied practitioners are constantly seeking new interventions to add to our emotional piggybank.
But how does it actually work? How does transformation happen?
Although he spoke of a negative phenomenon, Hemingway’s famous quote from The Sun Also Rises offers insight:
“How did you go bankrupt?” “Two ways, gradually and then suddenly.”
Rule No. 1: Change takes time.
Positive transformation follows a similar arrangement. It begins with a nearly imperceptible launch, and then gains momentum. The first rule is to realize true change takes time.
Consider this glass bucket analogy. When we are born, we are given a massive glass bucket to be filled by life’s assorted thoughts and experiences. These events are colored drops of water. They are different. Some are dark yellow, some red, some navy blue, and some orange. Yet, over time the colors combine to form a give the bucket a particular hue. While each experience tints us, any one drop in the ocean of life experience doesn’t change the color of our bucket very much.
By the time you are a young adult with millions of thoughts and experiences, lets say, you’ve gotten a dark yellow-colored bucket. Let’s also imagine that this color bucket is known for being more negative than positive; more pessimistic than optimistic.
Once our buckets have a color, they tend to seek out more of that color. More often than not, they find it. The stray orange or royal blue events drip in, but they aren’t enough to change our tint. The dark yellow buckets stay, more or less, dark yellow.
So when we begin doing intentional positive activities, the expectation should be for a gradual change. Yes, the intervention should initiate a process, but it is the regularity of the intervention that will make the difference.
To go back to the bucket analogy, if royal blue is a positive intervention, one drop won’t make much of a difference in the color of the bucket. Yet, as many royal blue drops trickle in through intentional activities, the hue of the color transmutes into another tint. In this metaphor, it becomes greenish rather than the usual dark yellow.
Rule No. 2: Notice and allow the changes.
Now the green color bucket is drawn to ‘green’ (better) thoughts and experiences. The normal tendency is to for this to feel somewhat peculiar. We’ve spent decades living with less-than-optimal thoughts, and even when good things come to us, it can be unsettling.
This is the challenge. Recognition that change is under way is important. To acknowledge this means to accept that the new activities and experiences will take time to adjust to. The Beat poet, Allan Ginsburg, offered sage advice for this process when he said: ‘Notice what you notice.’
At the risk of mixing metaphors, taking on intentional positive activities is like starting a new exercise program. Your muscles might ache when you begin working out. Yet if you can tolerate the change, it ultimately leads to feeling better.
Rule No. 3: Be the change.
As more royal blue drops come into your life-bucket, the rich deep blue color becomes the standard. The dark yellow drops still make up the volume of your life, but they are no longer perceived as stand-alone experiences — you see them differently now.
In positive psychotherapy we have an intervention where we ask clients to think of times when one door closed and another, better door opened as a result: The relationship that ended only to lead to you finding a better one; a job termination that nudged you to finding a better position; the divorce that opened the door to a fulfilling marriage.
This change in perception allows us to absorb the inevitable yellow drops that will dribble into our lives and see them as capable of turning a deep, rich, royal blue. We continue to seek out more royal blue experiences.
We began with a quote by Henry David Thoreau, and he can bring us full circle. Thoreau was a failed writer in New York City. He returned to Walden Pond to write what is often considered one of the top 100 nonfiction books ever written. Perhaps better than anyone his words capture the nature of change, and the spirit of positive transformation:
“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you’ve imagined.”