7 Ways to Create an Upward Spiral of Positive Emotions

Seven ways to impove your feelings of subjective well-being.

Posted Nov 07, 2015

Christos Georghiou/Shutterstock
What can you do to create an upward spiral of positive emotions and well-being?
Source: Christos Georghiou/Shutterstock

"I read the news today — oh boy..." I couldn't help but hum The Beatles song,  A Day in the Life, when I read the headlines yesterday morning that researchers led by San Diego State University professor Jean M. Twenge had found that adults over age 30 are not as happy as they used to be.

The November 2015 study, "More Happiness for Young People and Less for Mature Adults: Time Period Differences in Subjective Well-Being in the United States, 1972–2014,'' was published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. In a press release, Twenge said, 

"American culture has increasingly emphasized high expectations and following your dreams — things that feel good when you're young. However, the average mature adult has realized that their dreams might not be fulfilled, and less happiness is the inevitable result. Mature adults in previous eras might not have expected so much, but expectations are now so high they can't be met."

Just a few days ago, another headline reported that in the past decade, mortality rates for middle-aged white Americans have jumped dramatically due to suicide, drug and alcohol poisoning, chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis. What is going on in our society that is making so many people over 30 both unhappy and self-destructive? 

Last week, I wrote a Psychology Today blog post, "Why Are So Many Middle-Aged Americans Dying Young?" in response to the first study. I was thrilled this morning to see a PT blog by Twenge, "Why Adults Are Less Happy Than They Used to Be," about her recent study as an essential read on the Psychology Today home page. 

Immediately after realizing that Twenge and I are colleagues at Psychology Today, I emailed her this morning to introduce myself and ask if she saw a correlation between these two studies. In her email response to me, Twenge wrote, 

"It's so funny that you mention the study of white Americans dying young, because that was my first thought too: I bet the increase in mortality and the increase in unhappiness have the same roots. Then when I read the paper and saw that the mortality was mostly caused by suicide and substance abuse, I became even more convinced. As you saw in my blog, I think the high expectations and relationship breakdown of our individualistic culture are the main culprits."

In my email, I said to Jean, "This is such a complex and important issue for so many people. I'm optimistic that subjective well-being (SWB) is never set in stone. How do you think someone who is over 30 and unhappy, as reflected by low subjective well-being, can turn his or her life around and create an upward spiral of positive emotions and well-being?" In response, Jean Twenge said, 

"Of course, I can't claim to have any easy solutions to the problem. I think the research on gratitude is informative, though -- it suggests focusing on what you have instead of what you don't have, and writing a "gratitude letter" to someone who helped you. Making commitments to relationships is also good advice -- we need other people to be happy, contrary to the modern mantra of "you don't need anyone else to make you happy." And my friend Sonja Lyubomirsky, who co-authored the paper, has lots of solutions in her book The How of Happiness.

Feel free to quote me, and let me know when your post is up. Such an important topic and I'm glad you're addressing the "what can we do about it" question."

Jean, thank you for getting back to me so quickly and for sharing these valuable insights with me and for permission to share this with other readers. Much appreciated! 

After our e-mail exchange, and the encouragement from Jean to address the, "what can we do about it question?" I went for a long run this afternoon and compiled a list of 7 ways I believe that each of us can create an 'upward spiral' of positive emotions and well-being regardless of how low you are currently feeling. 

Seven Ways to Create an Upward Spiral of Positive Emotions by Bergland

  1. Love what you do. Pour your heart into something you love at every stage of life regardless of subsequent fame or fortune.
  2. Create flow most days of the week by constantly matching your level of challenge with your level of skill in the pursuit of mastery. 
  3. Make your quest for some type of 'holy grail' also the pursuit of superfluidity and the elevated state of existing with zero entropy, friction, or viscosity. 
  4. Expect nothing. Live frugally on surprise. 
  5. Maintain a sense of wonder and awe through a spirit of adventure and mindfulness.
  6. Balance work, love, and play. Also, strive for generativity beginning in midlife by making contributions to the well-being of future generations that will outlast you. 
  7. Stay physically active throughout your lifespan. 

If you'd like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today posts,

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