Fear and Panic are making headlines these days, as though they were members of a godly pantheon come down to Earth, crushing economies, sowing chaos and seducing the most virtuous among our women. But fear and panic are not great external forces; they are powerful internal ones, generated deep in the brain. Day after day our headlines tell a story of sympathetic nervous systems gone wild. (See Wayne Jencke’s recent article about the sympathetic nervous system.)
During this election season, I have been particularly aware of political ads and ploys meant to scare or anger us, tapping into that flight or fight response. I have found myself more reactive and anxious, more prone to ruminating about environmental, financial and food crises, and to waking with worry in the middle of the night. I know this isn’t useful, to myself or others. In Spiritual Evolution, George Valliant notes, “negative emotions are often crucial for survival—but only in time present. The positive emotions are more expansive and help us to broaden and build.”Three weeks ago I got a full-feature demo of exactly what Vaillant means and it put my worries and rumination in perspective.
Her primordial warning ignited an ancient recognition and response by my sympathetic nervous system. It chose flight. Thank you reptilian brain! Takes one to know one!
The system worked perfectly. Something about the elegance and power of the survival response made me more respectful of its value and role in life, and protective of its resources.
We can’t control world events or prevent catastrophes, but we can broaden and build and serve one another through what Vaillant has called the limbic pleasures of human connection. A growing body of research shows our that neural mechanisms for such pleasures, including compassion, gratitude, nurturing, and community building evolved as powerfully and as long ago as the instinct to freeze, fight or flight.
Today’s challenges are a call to positive action. Barbara Fredrickson (2007) makes an excellent case that doing something is the key to increased well being and presents strong research supporting the following four action strategies:
Find Positive Meaning
Studies have shown that individuals who experience positive emotions such as love, compassion, and gratitude, in addition to the natural negative emotions experienced during and after a crisis or painful life event, are less like to suffer from depression and more likely to develop and achieve future goals and better psychological functioning. Keeping a gratitude journal and writing about one’s daily blessings has been shown to increase positive emotions in the short term, and may contribute to long-term well-being.
Focusing on the present moment and being open to sensory experience can increase positive emotions and build resources, challenging negative affect and rumination. Studies show that practicing mindfulness and loving-kindness meditation, actively savoring pleasant experiences, and going outside during good weather increase openness and well-being.
Helpful, kind behavior generates and reinforces positive feelings. Fredrickson notes, “Counting one’s own kindnesses” may function like “counting one’s blessings.” Both strategies have been shown to increase positive affect. A second area of research shows that actively working to solve problems by setting and pursuing goals to address adversity can reliably increase positive emotions even in the most difficult of circumstances.
Research demonstrates that the happiest people are those with the strongest social relationships. A recent series of studies show that individuals who are randomly assigned to “act extraverted” experienced more intense positive affect than individuals assigned to “act introverted.” According to Fredrickson, “beyond doing good for others, simply interacting with others appears to be a reliable strategy for increasing positivity.”
Extraordinary times call for extraordinary pleasures. Positive psychology research shows that practicing the limbic pleasures of love, connection, kindness, and appreciation can make us happy in time-present, foster resilience through difficult times, and build a more positive future.
Fredrickson, B. (2007). Promoting positive affect. In M. Eid & R. J. Larsen (Eds.), The Science of Subjective Well-Being. The Guilford Press.
Vaillant, G. (2008). Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith. Broadway Press.
Western Diamondback Rattlesnake courtesy of Charles and Clint