Build Capacity for Positive Emotions

Here’s a quick and reliable exercise to shift into a positive mind state. This has always worked best for me as a partner exercise but you can also do it as a journaling exercise.

  1. On a scale of 1-10 note how happy you feel with 1 being absolutely horrifically miserable and 10 being wonderfully content.
  2. Use the following, “Questions for Daily Practice,” as a spoken exercise with a partner or as a journal exercise on your own. Further directions for the partner or journaling exercises are found below.
  3. After 10 minutes of journaling or working with your partner note how happy you feel again on a scale of 1-10. How did it change?

Questions for Daily Practice

Regarding today:

  1. What inspired you?
  2. What made you grateful?
  3. What did you enjoy?
  4. What gave you a sense of awe?
  5. What was exciting?
  6. What did you love?
  7. What was funny?
  8. What gave you a sense of hope?
  9. What did you find interesting?
  10. What gave you a sense of pride?
  11. What gave you a sense of peace?
  12. Tell me about something did well?
  13. Who helped you and how did that affect your day?
  14. What did you appreciate about someone?
  15. What made you come alive?
  16. What was fun?
  17. What was relaxing?
  18. What gave you a sense of wonder?
  19. What was interesting?
  20. What did you learn?

General Notes for Daily Practice

This exercise is especially important on horrible days. It might take a bit more work, and you may not feel like having a good feeling. However, exercising your ability to have good feelings each day helps you become more resilient both physically and mentally. Do this exercise especially when you don’t feel like doing it for best results.

Partner Exercise:

  • Find a partner and take turns asking each other the questions below.
  • Decide who will answer and ask first.
  • The “asker” picks a question and asks their partner to answer it.
  • When you’re asking a question do your best to listen to the answer without interjecting or leading your partner in any way. If you’re attention wanders, bring your attention back to their answer.
  • As the asker, if you don’t understand their answer, you can make clarifying statements like, “Can you repeat that?”, “Can you clarify that?”, “Can you summarize that?”, or “Can you expand on that?”
  • Make sure you actually understand their answer. This is important.
  • When you’re answering a question spend at least 1 minute answering it. Do your best to relive the whatever it is that’s being asked of you in the moment as vividly as you can:
    * Who was with you?
    * Where were you?
    * When was it?
    * What were you doing and how were you doing it?
    * What were you thinking? How were you feeling?
    * What made this experience special?
  • If no answer comes up after a while when you’re asked a question, ask your partner to pick another question.
  • Keep a roughly equitable balance between you and your partner in terms of how much time you spend on your answers.

Journaling Exercise:

  • You can use a paper and pen/pencil or use your computer.
  • Pick a question below that sounds provocative for you
  • Write at least 1/2 page about the experience:
    * Who was with you?
    * Where were you?
    * When was it?
    * What were you doing and how were you doing it?
    * What were you thinking? How were you feeling?
    * What made this experience special?
  • As you write immerse yourself in the feeling of the original experience. Relive the good feelings.
  • As time allows, choose another question below and repeat the exercise.

Why does it work?

Human beings have a negativity bias. It’s easy for our nervous systems to slip into protect mode which doesn’t know anything about happiness. I often think of protect mode as our inner protection agency that we often mistakenly hire as our life coach. Protect mode’s job is survival. It goes by the rule, “Better safe than sorry.” This has an evolutionary advantage because it keeps us from making the same mistake twice.

But staying in protect mode deteriorates our quality of life. It promotes the production of stress hormones like cortisol that gradually erode our ability to think properly, feel good, and for our body’s systems (i.e. digestive, circulatory, lungs) to function properly.

As neuropsychologist Rick Hanson said, “Our brains are like teflon for the positive and velcro for the negative.”

Shifting into positive emotional states engages our nervous system’s connect mode which enables feel good hormones such as oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins to be produced. This makes us happy.

Our nervous system’s connect mode has important survival advantages as well. When we’re in connect we’re more able to make plans, take a broader view of the situation, act from a moral compass for the benefit of the group instead of covering our own asses, and our bodily systems regulate in a way that’s more sustainable over the long term.

Protect mode is designed for short bursts. Connect mode is designed for the long haul. Over the last several years having students ask these questions of each other has been one of the most reliable ways to shift the mood of the class. I personally ask myself these questions regularly as a resilience practice.

You need to exercise the connect part of your nervous system so it becomes less teflon-like and more velcro-like for positive thinking. It’s no different than martial arts, macrame, or mammoth tusk carving. You get better with practice.

If you run into blocks with this practice hypnotherapy can help. Sometimes there’s an idea stuck in our subconscious that keeps us from experiencing the good feelings we want.

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