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Light in the Darkness

January and February can be difficult months to navigate.  The twinkly sparkling lights of Christmas have gone along with the midwinter celebrations and we are thrown into two months of darkness thanks to shorter days; often with illness and exhaustion to contend with as well as the lack of light.  It can feel like forever that we wait for the snowdrops to arrive and we can easily lose track of the positive parts of our lives in that period where we wake in the dark, work, return home in the dark and pray for the Spring to arrive.

We can also turn against ourselves and those we love as we grapple with our new year resolutions and struggle to maintain the new version of us we so wanted to embrace with the first of January.  Our expectations may well have been unrealistic but instead of reframing our aims and taking a gentler approach we may slip into disappointment.  This disappointment can spiral down into despair, leaving us in the grip of a shame that tells us we are not worthy of joy.

I am here to tell you that you are worthy of joy as well as the other positive emotions studied by Barbara Fredrickson and discussed in her book “Positivity”.  We all stumble from time to time but we don’t need to stay down.  We can stand back up again.  Sometimes we need a little help, a hand to hold as we scramble back to our feet, a shared smile before we continue on our journey, a recognition that we are not alone in our challenges or our triumphs.

Positivity is not about being positive all the time.  Barbara Fredrickson’s research in fact deals in ratios of negative to positive emotions rather than absolutes.  The experimental results suggests that the following ratios are a guide to thriving:

1 to 1  indicates a level of depression and helplessness;
2 to 1 is the ratio for someone who is surviving but feels a little under water most of the time;3 to 1 is the magic balance that will lead to us thriving, engaging in an upward spiral where each pleasant encounter with a little touch of happiness builds on the next.
11 to 1 is the ceiling for positive encounters versus negative emotions, simply because life isn’t always sunshine, but then if it were there would be no space for rainbows.

We don’t have to be walking around, blind to the things that make us uncomfortable, angry, sad, or bewildered, we just need to foster a little perspective, a healthy balance.  And from a positive place where we are thriving we have so much more energy to right some of those wrongs that leave us fuming.  Instead of embracing negativity and hopelessness we can recognise our own agency, our own potential for improving the situation.

The emotions that we don’t enjoy are there for a reason.  They are signs to us that something needs to change and the discomfort is there to encourage us to take action.  Boredom, frustration, anger, guilt, all warn us that something is awry that requires our attention and by taking steps to relieve them we can move towards a more positive outlook again.

In her research Barbara Fredrickson has identified ten positive emotions that we will want to foster and invite into our lives to help us thrive.  These are:

  1. Joy – Those moments of happiness where we smile and feel warmed by the good fortune we are experiencing, whether holding our child, being surrounded by friends or finding ourselves at a concert we’ve been dreaming of.
  2. Gratitude– The feeling of being thankful for something we have received, either simply through being alive, through our own actions or through the generosity of others.
  3. Serenity – A sense of contentment and calm, the type of feeling that comes from meditation, a gentle walk along a beach or sinking into a warm bubble bath.
  4. Interest– The spark of curiosity that encourages us to ask questions, to find out more, to learn and grow.
  5. Hope– The flower that blooms in the darkest despair. Hope is what guides us when it feels as if life is working against us.  The light of hope helps us believe in a better tomorrow and can give us the strength to continue through the bleakest of days.
  6. Pride– A sense of achievement at a task well done, the glow of succeeding at a challenge we have set ourselves.
  7. Amusement– The thing, people or pets that make us laugh or smile, lifting our lips and our hearts in the process.
  8. Inspiration – This comes from the stories of people who have gone before us and risen to the challenges they faced to become more than anyone every expected or believed they could.
  9. Awe – These are the things that take our breath away, a glorious sunset, the sight of a mountain range or a rare and beautiful work of art.
  10. Love– The greatest of all positive emotions, the reason we are, the reason we struggle and the reason we are willing to let go of what we want to satisfy another’s needs.

Some of these are highly active emotions but many can be expressed or sensed in a calm and gentle way.  They can be sparks that ignite a burning flame or more of a sustained flicker.  It does not take much light to remove darkness, a tiny candle spreads its aura way beyond itself and such is true of the positive emotions as well.  They can flood us with warmth and excitement or gently remind us that light has not left, even when we feel we may drown in the dark.

If we want to light that candle in our lives this winter we first need to bring our attention to how we are feeling before taking a small step to brighten the flame we are carrying.  Here are two simple steps to try over the next two weeks

  1. Test your positivity ratio by doing Barbara Fredrickson’s questionnaire: POSITIVITY RATIO. Taking this short quiz every day for two weeks will give you a good idea of where you are.
  2. Begin a gratitude practice. At the end of each day, for the next two weeks, write down three things that have gone well during the day and why.

In the next blog we will look further at how to increase your positivity and turn that flickering candle into an eternal flame.

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