Cultivating moments of positive awareness has been found to be a simple and quick practice with an abundance of health benefits. Researchers at the University of San Francisco have identified a set of skills and training in those skills that increase your ability to cultivate these moments and increase the positive effects they have on your life. The eight skills are:
- Noting daily positive events
- Capitalizing on or savoring positive events
- Positive reappraisal
- Focusing on personal strengths
- Setting and working toward attainable goals
- Small acts of kindness
The training to develop and habituate these skills is called Positive Affect Training because you’re practicing positively affecting your life. Even if you believe your natural state is a negative one, just like anything else in life, recognition of the positive is a skill that anyone can learn. Below are 6 training exercises that you can go through to increase your positive affect skills. You’ll get the maximum benefit if you practice them over a 5-week period, but feel free to go through them at any rate that is helpful to you.
When we talk about positive awareness, we’re not advocating a simplistic “don’t worry—be happy” approach. Rather, this is a structured, positive affect skills-building intervention. Our goal here is to help you give time and attention to your positive experiences and associated emotions. It’s perfectly okay to read through the exercises ahead of time, but make sure you sit down and do them; experiencing these exercises will be much more powerful than simply reading about them.
Get a blank notebook and a pen or pencil.
Exercise 1 – Noting, Capitalizing, and Gratitude
In the first exercise, we focus on noting positive events, capitalizing on them, and gratitude. Even under extremely stressful conditions, people have the capacity to experience positive events. The purpose of this exercise is to help you recognize positive events and the positive effect associated with those events. When you experience a positive event, you may capitalize on it by “turning up the volume” (i.e., increasing the intensity) of the associated positive effect by telling someone about it, writing about it, or simply reflecting on the event and re-experiencing it.
Your Exercise: Part A of your exercise is to simply note a positive event each day and write about it. Maybe you made all the green lights on your way to the store, or there was no line for the cash register, or you had a nice conversation with the cashier, or you noticed a beautiful light on the clouds on your way out of the store. List one or more of these positive events in your notebook. You can describe the event, but keep it short; this exercise is simply to notice, and to capitalize on noticing by writing it down.
Part B of this exercise is to also start a daily gratitude journal in your notebook in which you list at least one thing you are grateful for that day, but you can list more. For example, “Today I am grateful for friends, music, coffee, modern conveniences, and fair health.”
Do both parts each day for at least 21 days, but if you can go the whole 5 weeks, that’s even better. We encourage you to list small things (e.g., a good cup of tea, a smile from a stranger) as well as bigger things (e.g. love, peace, kindness).
Exercise 2 – Mindfulness
The focus in this exercise is mindfulness, a state in which one focuses on the present moment, accepting and acknowledging it without getting caught up in emotional reactions or ruminative thoughts about the situation. You can develop mindfulness through formal practice.
Your Exercise: Listen to this 10 minute, guided “breath awareness” recording and follow along with the instructions. Listen to this recording at least once each day for the remainder of the 5 weeks. If you’ve listened to the recording a bunch of times and you feel like you’ve gotten the hang of it, you can simply sit quietly for 10 minutes and focus on being aware of your breath.
For additional practice, pick a task that you normally do every day like making breakfast or doing dishes or eating lunch, and spend time focusing on what’s happening now. Feel the sensations on your hands and in your muscles as you do the activity, and feel yourself breathing as you do it. Notice the shapes and color of the items that are part of your task. Notice how you feel during the task. Don’t try to change yourself. Simply notice. Try to concentrate on the present during your task for 5 minutes.
During both the breathing meditation and focusing on the present during a task, your mind will drift. You’ll think about things you remember from the past, and things you’re planning or worrying about for the future. You’ll see pictures and stories you have stored away in your mind. Everyone’s mind drifts, and it’s okay. At some point you’ll actually notice that your mind has drifted away from the present, away from your breath and the feelings and sensations in your body. This moment when you notice that your mind drifted is a great moment, because it’s a moment of awareness, and you are awake. Now that you’re awake for a moment, kindly bring your attention back to your breathing if you’re listening to the recording or meditating, or bring your attention back to what you’re doing if you’re doing a task. You’re doing great. Cultivating awareness is simple but it’s also an effort, and it’s important to be kind to yourself about your effort. If you find judgements forming about how you’re doing, whether they’re positive assessments or negative, just let them float away because they’re not important.
The more you practice mindfulness, the easier you will find it to be present during your life events and activities, rather than ruminating over the past or worrying about the future. The past and the future are just stories. Your life is happening now, in the present. Don’t miss it.
In addition to mindfulness practice, continue the daily positive event and gratitude journal.
Exercise 3 – Positive Reappraisal
In this exercise, we focus on the coping skill of positive reappraisal. Because our appraisals determine our emotional reaction to an event, if we can change our appraisals, we can change how we feel. Positive reappraisal is a way of dealing with stress in which the individual makes a positive change in how an event is interpreted or appraised. Noting that the event may not be as bad as originally thought, was not as bad as it could have been, or noting something positive that may come out of the event are all forms of positive reappraisal that are likely to be related to increased positive affect in the face of stress.
Your Exercise: Pick one relatively minor difficult/stressful event from your life today—for example, being late to work; encountering a rude person on the street; getting stuck in traffic; running out of a food you like at home; or stubbing your toe on the coffee table. In your notebook, briefly write down the event, and then list ways in which the event can be positively reappraised. For example, if encountering a rude person on the street is the event you’ve chosen, you could list the following ways that this could be a positive event:
- The person who was rude was probably having a really terrible day, or perhaps even a terrible week or year, so venting their anger or frustration probably helped them to feel better.
- This unusual situation helps me appreciate how nice most people usually are in my life.
- This situation helps me appreciate how nice a person I am to others.
- I’m happy that I live in such a peaceful location that experiencing rudeness was the extent of the interaction, and it didn’t escalate.
With continued practice, an individual can learn to positively reappraise virtually any event. Do this exercise once per day for the remaining of the 5 weeks, and continue the daily formal mindfulness practice (10 minutes of mindful breathing), and the daily positive event and gratitude journal.
Exercise 4 – Personal Strengths and Attainable Goals
In this exercise, we focus on your personal strengths and the process of setting (and attaining) achievable goals.
Your Exercise: In your notebook, make a list of your personal strengths or positive qualities. For an extra powerful version of this exercise, ask a family member or friend to tell you some of your personal strengths or positive qualities that they see in you, then write them in your notebook.
- I’m fairly organized (or good at being at peace with my clutter).
- I’m good at figuring out what the first step of a big task is.
- I have fun easily.
- I make good breakfasts.
- I’m good at telling jokes (or telling stories, or explaining how things work, etc.).
- I’m good at finding cheap deals on groceries (or finding the best inexpensive restaurants, etc.).
- I’m good at tennis (or bridge, or backgammon, or yoga, etc.).
- I’m loving (or kind, or smart, or easygoing, or grateful, or compassionate, or generous, or happy, or content, or adventurous, or joyful, or rational, or discerning, or musical, etc.).
Next, in your notebook, write out one or a few attainable goals for the week. We define attainable goals as having four characteristics:
- They are realistic and can be reasonably completed in the allotted time (a week in this case).
- They are clear and specific.
- They are challenging but not impossible or too global.
- They have a clear end point so it is obvious when the goal has been successfully completed.
A few examples:
- I will empty one box in the basement by the end of the week and either donate the items in it to a thrift store or bring them into the house for use.
- I will hang the picture on the living room wall I’ve been meaning to hang.
- I will sew the button back on my jacket.
- I will spend 15 minutes researching my vacation destination for next year.
- I will spend 30 minutes researching what type of new job I might want to get.
- I will spend 30 minutes at the gym one time.
- I will cook one new recipe.
Then, each day for the rest of the week, write down one of your strengths and how it was “expressed” behaviorally that day while working toward one of the goals you set. Also note any progress you’ve made on your goals. When you complete your goals, note that in your journal.
- I used my strength in finding cheap deals on groceries to get a piece of fresh salmon for the new Seared Salmon recipe I’m going to make this week.
- I used my strength in being organized to go through half of the box in the basement. I’ll use my strength again tomorrow to go through the other half.
Then each day continue the Positive Reappraisal exercise, the 10-minute mindful breathing, and the daily positive event and gratitude journal.
Exercise 5 – Kindness
The focus of this exercise is on altruistic behaviors or small acts of kindness. The previous four exercises encouraged you to focus on yourself. The purpose of Exercise 5 is to intentionally focus on other people. Even if you may be going through a very difficult time in your life, you can still help other people through small acts of kindness (including expressing gratitude to people who performed acts of kindness or helped care for you).
Your Exercise: Engage in 1-5 small acts of kindness each day. Some examples:
- Hold the door open for someone.
- Thank someone for something they did for you, and tell them you appreciate them.
- Leave a complimentary note for someone.
- Leave a generous tip.
- Make a small donation, even if it’s just a few dollars.
- Put a coin in an expired parking meter.
- Tell someone you love them.
- Give someone flowers, even inexpensive ones from the grocery store.
- Let a fellow driver merge ahead of you, or let someone go ahead of you in line.
- Give someone a book you loved.
- Smile at someone on the street.
- Do a chore for someone without them asking.
- Cook a meal for someone.
During or after the act of kindness, try to feel the feeling of kindness that comes along with the act. If the feeling makes you want to smile, go for it!
Also continue your strengths and goals journal, the Positive Reappraisal exercise, the 10-minute mindful breathing, and the daily positive event and gratitude journal.
Exercise 6 – Review and Plan
Your Exercise: At the end of 5 weeks of practicing the exercises, sit for at least 15 minutes and write in your notebook about your experiences and feelings doing the exercises. Think about each of the eight skills listed at the top of the page, and how your practice has changed your abilities in these areas.
Finally, write down a plan for how you intend to continue practicing these skills going forward. Maybe you want to continue all the daily exercises. Or maybe you commit to doing just the exercises that were most meaningful to you every day. Or maybe you can do at least one of the exercises per day, going forward. One helpful way to stick to your commitment is to tape or hang a small calendar on the wall, and mark an X on every day that you do your exercise. You’ll start seeing a chain of Xs that you don’t want to break.