Positive psychologists have developed a number of techniques (Positive Psychology Interventions, or PPIs) that can make us feel happier pretty much instantly. PPIs include such wellbeing-enhancing activities as writing a gratitude journal, being kind to others, identifying personal strengths and replaying happy memories. These are simple self-help strategies, but they can require a substantial effort because such activities as expressing gratitude or positive self-talk may not come naturally to a lot of people. However, PPIs are well worth learning and using in daily life. In addition to immediately boosting mood, they are also remarkably effective in improving physical and psychological health in the long term by encouraging resilience, insight, sense of purpose, optimism and altruism. This is true for people who have a diagnosis of a mental illness, as well as those who do not.
The research that I have carried out looks at the role of positive emotions, induced using Positive Psychology Interventions and other methods, in improving emotion regulation in eating disorders. Emotion regulation concerns the usual ways people choose to manage their emotions; for example, some people may lash out at others every time they are angry, whereas others may express their indignation constructively and relatively calmly (e.g. go for a walk). Some emotion regulation strategies can be unhealthy and unhelpful in the long run, and if used continuously, may have a serious negative effect on psychological and physical health. For instance, someone who always shouts and screams when she is angry may gradually lose her support network of friends and do physical damage to her heart. Emotion dysregulation (or habitual use of unhealthy regulatory strategies when managing negative emotions) is a common feature in psychopathology, in particular, in eating disorders.
There is evidence that individuals engage in disordered eating (e.g. overeating) as a way of managing their negative emotions. Individuals with eating disorders may feel so bad that they need to control and manipulate their eating in order to feel better. For instance, some may overeat in an attempt to cope with the feelings of sadness, whereas others may starve themselves to supress their anger. Because disordered eating has this emotion regulation function, eating pathology is very hard to treat. Quite understandably, eating-disordered individuals may not want to give up the only thing that makes them feel better.
However, my findings suggest that positive affect and in particular, PPIs, can help improve emotion regulation. My research shows that PPI-induced positive affect (e.g. happiness resulting from expressing gratitude and from recalling happy memories) can significantly improve emotion regulation choices in short and long-term; in particular, by triggering an ‘upward spiral of development’ it makes individuals less likely to regulate their emotions by self-harm (e.g. disordered eating) and other dysfunctional regulatory strategies (e.g. dwelling on negative thoughts, making others feel bad, comparing oneself unfavourably with others), and more likely to use healthy strategies (e.g. sharing problems with others, asking for help, positive self-talk, putting the situation into perspective). In other words, if someone feels happy frequently (or more frequently than is usual for them), it makes them more likely to take proper care of their negative emotions and address them more constructively when they arise. After PPIs individuals felt more positive, empowered, valuable and reassured, and began to take better care of themselves and their emotions.
These findings can be effectively applied in clinical practice in treatment and prevention of mental health problems where emotion dysregulation is an issue(e.g. depression, eating disorders, substance abuse problems) as well as in daily life by people who struggle to manage their emotions well. By expressing gratitude, recalling happy memories, listening to uplifting music, reading positive literature and creating other opportunities for feeling happy in our daily lives, we can increase our sense of well-being as well as help ourselves cope better with negative emotions in the future.
Emmons, R. (2007). Thanks! How practicing gratitude can make you happier. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company;
Emmons, R. and McCullough, M. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 377-389;
Fredrickson, B. and Joiner, T. (2002). Positive emotions trigger upward spirals toward emotional well-being. Psychological Science, 13 (2), 172-175;
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Lyubomirsky, S. (2010). The HOW of happiness. A practical guide to getting the life you want. Piatkus.