Resolutions — figuring out how to improve and move on — are fine. But resolutions snap us into the mindset of getting on with our lives, thinking about how we’d like to be, and glancing forward toward happiness.
But there are new words in town. The positive psychology movement is all about savoring and flourishing. We know that negative thoughts seem to be stronger than positive thoughts and the tipping point in building up a critical mass for positivity is about 3 to 1 in favor of more positive thoughts.
At that point there is a shift in our brain and perception toward looking for, and savoring, positive thoughts and experiences. When we do this we flourish.
Savoring allows us to linger on the too-short-lived positive experiences that we have. The future always seems to be where happiness is waiting for us. The result? It is always in the future and we never quite seem to get to it: The happy carrot stick.
Savoring allows us the opportunity to let the good stuff really sink in. It allows the cognitive processes to be reactivated and a deeper memory of the experience to be recalled and highlighted. This does two things. It allows us to stimulate recall of the positive experiences, which seems to have a direct, positive impact on our body and our mood. It also generates a positive emotional piggybank that can be used to weaken and supplant negative thoughts.
If you contemplate this for a moment you will realize why this is so valuable. When we have a negative or depressing thought we ruminate over it and this keeps us in a down place. To combat this we need to savor – ruminate about the good.
So how does one savor a whole year? By being selective. Here is a guide to sorting though, selecting and savoring the best of 2010. To start, make a list of all the good by identifying things such as:
- new people you’ve met
- new places visited
- new experiences
- new things you’ve acquired
- treasured milestones
By allowing yourself to recall these good things you are awakening the positive memories and the neural and emotional pathways that brought you joy.
To make the point of how our memories can activate our senses in the moment try this experiment: Close your eyes and imagine biting right into a whole lemon.
Seriously. Before you read on, close your eyes and virtually bite into a lemon.
It would be the rare person who did not produce saliva. How could this possibly be? You had the actual sensation as if you had just bitten into a lemon—with no lemon present.
The same happens when we recall positive experiences. Our entire system responds in a fashion that mimics the experience as if it were happening. By dwelling on the positive experiences from the past year and bringing them to life again our being responds in a fashion similar to what happened during the actual event. Keeping positive experiences in the front of your mind makes them available for your wellbeing.
After you make the list, allow yourself to organize it by the months or the season so the memories can cluster around the timeline of the year. If new memories occur as you are creating this list add them in the approximate timeline. Now you are ready to fill the emotional piggybank.
One by one, take a moment and recall a vignette or scene from the experience that typifies the event. Let yourself recall the sensations, feelings and images that were associated with it and soak it in. You may want to write these down. With the recollection let the details highlight the memory, then move to the next one.
You might find that in picking up and savoring one image you may jump to another positive one. If you had a good thing happening in January with a person, and another good thing in August, your brain may want to go to that scene. That’s fine. The positivity police won’t come and get you.
Notice how different you feel after doing these scene recalls. You are likely to have a smile on your face. Keep this list available and use it when you start to have negative or depressing thoughts. Using real memories of positive experiences weakens the strength of the negative thoughts. In this way the balance of power shifts from the negative thinking to the positive.
As for the resolutions, I would encourage you not to make absolutes. It would be better to think of things in your life you want to increase, and things in your life you want to decrease, and to be mindful of this aspiration. Absolutes tend to create more stress than they’re worth. “I will lose 10 pounds in 10 days” runs the high risk of potential failure. And even if you lose 7 pounds, you don’t feel the accomplishment because of the setup. But if you allow yourself to think in terms of your intention to increase and decrease behaviors, you broaden your chances of making positive changes. “I will eat more fruits and vegetables and cut down on red meat” allows many more opportunities for success.
Finally, I encourage you to get and use a journal for 2011. Date each entry and write down your thoughts, feelings, images and dreams. This keeps your memories and your process more readily available. When you make an entry put a star by the positive ones. It will make it easy when you go back and savor 2011.
When life gives you lemons, remembering how the lemonade tasted will help.