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Writing your way to happiness

03 Dec 2014 | Mary Turner

Writing Diary

The positive psychology movement provides a wealth of evidence to helps us understand what really makes for a happy and meaningful life. Martin Seligman, the movement's founder, extended his work on Authentic Happiness to propose that we can 'Flourish' by increasing the "positive emotion, engagement, positive relationships, meaning and accomplishment" (PERMA) in our lives.

Barbara Fredrickson has identified a range of positive emotions which enhance our wellbeing when we experience them. They include joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe, and love. These positive emotions don't just feel good; they also broaden our capabilities and build our resilience. Fredrickson suggests that we should ideally experience a 'positivity ratio' of three positive emotions to every negative one.  So creating more positive emotional experiences - and taking the time to notice and savour them - is really important.

We are a social species and our happiness is also interconnected to others. For example, spending money on others makes us happier than spending it on ourselves. It has also been found that giving to others, whether by buying gifts, volunteering, or simply being supportive and kind, not only helps the recipient, but also makes us happier as well. Acts of kindness have been shown to have a 'ripple effect' - people tend to pass them on. You can find out more about ways to spread kindness via the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation and World Smile Day, which is about smiling and encouraging others to smile. A simple, genuine smile brings positive emotions to ourselves as well as to others.

In 2008 the New Economics Foundation produced the Five Ways to Wellbeing, a '5-a-day' for wellbeing, as part of a government-backed Foresight Mental Capital and Wellbeing Project.

Five Ways To Wellbeing

The final report of the Foresight project identified that there are clear health, financial and social benefits to policies that contribute to people's happiness and wellbeing. It concluded that policies should take account of their impact on wellbeing. rather than simply on GDP. This has been followed by activities at both the United Nations and OECD to encourage a shift to focusing on wellbeing. In the UK this resulted in the introduction of a programme to measure national wellbeing. So when you hear news items about how happy (or unhappy) we are, this is where it all comes from.

How can we enhance our own wellbeing?

Positivity and positive thinking may sound easy, but they're not! As Oliver Burkeman pointed out in his book The Antidote, trying to think positive can, perversely, have the opposite effect. Daniel Wegner found that when people are asked not to think about a 'white bear', they find they are automatically scanning their minds to check that they are not thinking about white bears... and so, of course, they find that they are.

Positive thinking is not about avoiding negative thoughts, or about suppressing our anxieties; that simply doesn't work. It is about recognising and accepting them, but checking that they are reasonable, realistic and not over exaggerated. We can then turn our attention towards some of the positives around us and focusing on those things that help to improve our mood, rather than on those that drag us down.

Research by Pennebaker showed that writing can really help us to do this as it encourages us to examine our thoughts more methodically. Journal writing has also been shown to be beneficial to wellbeing when it focuses on the positives.

The good news is that, thanks to 'neuroplasticity' we can retrain our brains, and teach ourselves to look for and notice positives we might previously have missed, and to avoid dwelling unnecessarily on the negatives - we may even be able to look for and find the small, silver clouds when negatives do come along. It is ideal to find a way to record those moments we wish to savour in life - and writing something about them can be a good way of doing this.

I designed the Wellbeing Diary around the Five Ways to Wellbeing and the simple idea that it would be good to look back on each week and think about those events, moments and activities that had helped me to "Connect, Be active, Take notice, Keep learning and Give'.

Each week, alongside the appointments page, is a space devoted to reflecting on the positives of the week. These can be small or big events - a chance meeting with a friend and a 2 minute chat; a special birthday celebration; getting a new job; soaking up the sunshine for 10 minutes at lunch-break.

The purpose of the diary is to help us focus in on these positives, to notice them and just savour them a little. I have been keeping a diary in this way for three years now, and I find I am much more aware of these small positive moments, and much more able to balance my negative thoughts, when they come along, with my positive emotions.

I don't write about any of the negatives in my diary - only the positives make it in there (after all, I have no difficulty focusing on the negatives so I don't need to practise that). I don't write reams either - usually just a little reminder to myself - and I don't always write something each day. I certainly don't write in all 5 sections every single day!

Each week I also write down my 3 best moments for that week on the reflective diary page (one of my favourite Sunday activities). I enjoy writing in my diary - it doesn't take long (I don't want it to be a chore!) and it works well for me.

Wellbeing Diary


Mary Turner is a supporter of Action for Happiness, writer about wellbeing research and creator of the Wellbeing Diary. You can order the diary from Amazon or from the publishers Lulu.com. All profits this year go to Action for Happiness.

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POSTER #8: EMOTIONS

Look for what's good

Emotions 200

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Positive emotions make us more resilient

Our emotions affect our long term well-being. Research shows that experiencing positive emotions in a 3-to-1 ratio with negative ones leads to a tipping point beyond which we naturally become more resilient to adversity and better able to achieve things.

Action for Happiness

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