Positive Emotions Tiny Engines

How's your happiness level today? High, medium or unmentionable? Most people are now into the new working year, with bright shiny summer holiday happiness just a distant memory...so are you shouting joy from the top of your mountain or are you sitting in the post-holiday blues? The good news is, wherever you are, it's not the end of the story. In fact, happiness, researchers in the field of Positive Psychology tell us, is mostly an impermanent state of being, which results from lots of different life conditions. And yet, we all run around chasing the HAPPY, when it's very nature is that when we forget about HAPPY, and get engaged doing other things, is often when we are at our happiest! Nearly the moment we attain HAPPINESS (cue choir of heavenly angels as you bask in the glow of HAPPINESS for 5 minutes, a couple of hours, or if you're lucky, a few short days...), then we quickly tire of that set of conditions and start looking hungrily to the horizon for the next "thing" that will make us happy. How exhausting!

So many of my clients and colleagues have started the year with the goal of being "Happy at Work in 2018" and are busily running around trying to find the happiness in everything they do...but they're missing the point. So I tell them to look to the Tiny Engines instead.

The researcher

Several years ago I was lucky enough to stumble across the research of a phenomenal professor named Dr. Barbara Fredrickson. She works out of the University of Chapel Hill in North Carolina, specialising in Positive Emotions research. It's not too much of a stretch to say that reading her books and research has changed my life! It's all so fascinating, but there's one thing in particular she said in an online class, which has made the most impact on my daily life. She said that "Positive Emotions are the tiny engines that drive the quality of our lives" (apologies to Barbara if my paraphrasing doesn't do the concept justice). A simple enough statement perhaps - but in that instant, my worldview shifted forever! 

She explained the value of the smaller, quieter positive emotions...like gratitude, awe, sere​nity, inte​rest, hope, pride and joy. She explains that filling up our days with as many micro-experiences of positive emotions, rather than holding out for the BIG ONE (happiness), is the approach that will actually lead to the long-term, deep, satisfying happiness that we all crave.

Time for an experiment

So I tried an experiment. I stopped searching for HAPPY in my days, and constructed a life filled with opportunities to enjoy quieter, more subtle but meaningful positive emotions:

  • I carved out time to walk the beach quietly at sunrise and bask in the awe of nature;
  • I found volunteer work with the local community that was challenging but helped me to feel more connected, and enjoy a sense of contribution;
  • I took care each morning to find three things in my life I was truly grateful for, and started my days feeling blessed (not messed!);
  • I made a priority of connecting with dear friends in far-flung places more often and made a point of noticing the love, laughs and inspiration I gained from their lives;
  • I constructed my days to guarantee a minimum of 15 minutes of "me" time - morning meditation, lunchtime with my dog in the sunshine, an evening stroll with my beloved.

Slowly but surely, this combination of intentional, purposeful tiny moments of positivity shifted my world. I began to experience a sense of deep happiness, fulfilment and peace in ways I'd never imagined were possible. I discovered that even on the toughest days - yes, there are still plenty of those - that I might not feel "happy", but I can feel a moment of hope, or serenity, or gratitude for something small. I realised that even in the most mundane, repetitive workday tasks, I could take a moment of joy in a shared smile across the room, or pause for a moment to enjoy the feeling of satisfaction at a hard task, done well.

Happiness crept up on me, carried by all the tiny engines of laughter, or love, or inspiration chugging through my days.

So, if you're annoyed about not being able to hold on to that last fleeting bubble of holiday-brand happy, or lamenting the lack of sunshiny days of laughter and friends and wine now that everyday life has resumed, don't worry. Happiness is always available...if we just remember to look to the Tiny Engines.

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About the author 

Catherine Bell

Catherine is a true believer in the power of people to transform organisations - and the world. An inspiring Speaker, Facilitator and Coach, Catherine has spent more than 18 years of her career leading teams and individuals to extraordinary performance. She has worked as a Consultant, Trainer and Human Resources Manager with some of the largest service organisations in the world, both in Australia and internationally.