- People often restrict their ability to get the most out of even the most positive experiences in life.
- New research tests a four-step model for learning how to change the way you process events that have the potential to make you happier.
- Try going through the four steps of experiencing, enriching, absorbing, and maximizing the next time something good happens to you.
Being able to take advantage of positive life experiences isn’t always as easy as it may seem. How many times have you looked forward to an upcoming event that was 100 percent guaranteed to be fun only to find that once at that event, you couldn’t stop thinking about an unpleasant work task awaiting you the next day? For example, perhaps you’ve finally managed (pandemic and all) to get tickets for a movie whose release you’ve been eagerly awaiting for months.
One hour into the action, though, your mind wanders to that next day's project. The dreaded future doesn’t have to be work-related; it could be any situation other than the one you’re in that makes you anxious and distressed. Making matters worse, you become angry with yourself for letting those thoughts creep into your mind, further detracting from your emotional equanimity.
Even if you’re not given to chronic fretting, it’s possible to drift away from a pleasant experience by being unable to jump deeply enough into it. Once the drifting begins, it may seem almost impossible to stop. Or is it?
According to the University of California, Berkeley’s Rick Hanson and colleagues (2021), you can learn new ways to activate your feelings of engagement in a positive experience. Not only can these feelings of engagement make you feel good, Hanson et al. proposed, but they can also help you acquire the psychological resources to allow you to “heighten the internalization of specific beneficial experiences many times a day.”
The idea behind the psychological resources model is that by learning to engage in a positive experience, you develop a greater sense of resilience and self-worth. These feelings help to create an “upward spiral” in which good times build on themselves, further enhancing your happiness. Just as importantly, even when “external supports and familiar activities are less available,” such as those restrictions in effect during the COVID pandemic, you “are left internally with whatever psychological resources” you’ve managed to acquire.
The Four-Step “HEAL” Framework for Building Psychological Resources
Countering the idea that people are either born optimistic or they’re not, the Cal-Berkeley research team believed that it’s possible to help strengthen people’s ability to get the most out of positive experiences through training.
Thus, in a 2013 book, Hanson developed what he called the “HEAL” framework, an approach that systematically gathers “individual engagement” factors already existing in many forms of psychotherapy and personal growth programs that can help people to become active agents in building “durable inner resources.”
Hanson maintained that the kind of learning that takes place is based on changes occurring at the neural level; in other words, your brain literally changes as it gains information from the positive experience.
The HEAL model breaks down into these four steps:
Step One: Have the enjoyable experience. You can do this by actually going through the experience or by mentally conjuring it up such as thinking about someone who cares about you.
Step Two: Enrich the experience through these sub-steps:
- Make the experience as long-lasting as possible, keeping it active in your consciousness by staying with it.
- Intensify the experience through “up-regulating” your emotions, or reliving the parts that feel good.
- Focus on multiple aspects of the experience, including its meaning, your perceptions and sensations, the way it feels, and taking action such as closing your eyes or sitting in a relaxed posture.
- Increase the novelty of the experience so that it sticks out more in your mind- this might include having a "new" thought, such as noticing that someone cares about you.
- Heighten the personal relevance of the experience by delving into your feelings about it.
Step Three: Absorb the experience, a process involving these sub-steps:
- Make a deliberate effort to internalize it so that it feels like a part of you.
- Turn attention inward to your emotional state.
- Highlight the reward value of the experience.
Step Four: Link positive and negative material.
Focus on something positive even while you’re aware of negative material in the background. Returning to the earlier example, become more involved in the action of the movie while still noticing that your dread of the coming workday continues to persist. The positive should ultimately drown out the negative in this step.
Testing the HEAL Model
Putting the HEAL model to the empirical test, the Cal-Berkeley research team recruited 46 adults (average age of 55 years old; 84 percent female) to participate in a 2-month long “Taking in the Good Course,” whose materials you can see here. The study design consisted of a pre-post evaluation of the effect of the course on a range of 21 self-report instruments, comparing the treatment group with a wait-list control treatment group.
One interesting theme within the course was the author's introduction of the term "paper tiger paranoia." By this, Hanson meant that people often use a "negativity bias" to see the worst in a situation—"thinking that there is a real tiger when there is only a paper one, or a baby one, or one securely locked up, or one you could readily deal with." (p. 68 of the course materials). Teaching people to turn from negative to positive is a crucial piece of the HEAL approach.
The self-report instruments were divided into the four categories of “cognitive resources” (e.g. mindfulness and self-esteem), positive emotions (e.g. joy, contentment, pride, love, awe), negative emotions (e.g. anxiety and depression), and “total happiness” (e.g. subjective well-being). In addition to immediate post-treatment assessments, the authors also included a two-month delayed assessment measure. Thirty-three participants completed the immediate post-course assessment; Thirty provided data from the delayed follow-up.
Turning to the findings, the measures showing significant course effects after two months included the following three of the cognitive resources scales: savoring beliefs, self-compassion, and emotion regulation through reappraisal. Within the positive emotions scales, the course had favorable effects on the measures of joy and contentment.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, two-month delayed scores were lower on items from a standard depression inventory. If you’re keeping score, this means that participants improved on 30 percent of the assessment instruments over the four-month course of the study.
One qualification worth noting in examining these results, which may seem less than impressive, is that the participants may have already entered into the course with reasonably high scores on a number of the measures, which would create what’s called a “ceiling” effect. In other words, they couldn’t get higher if they already had high scores.
Additionally, as the authors pointed out, the course may have moved too quickly at the beginning of each session when participants were at the point of switching gears from their everyday lives.
Can You Use HEAL in Your Own Life?
The good news from the findings is that they reflect a stringent test of the course as a way to implement the HEAL framework. The authors employed a rigorous method in which they used a wait-list control, which means that they didn’t stack the deck in their favor in terms of reporting a positive outcome.
Furthermore, the participants in the sample were adults from the community and not the more typical college student sample used in many happiness studies. Finally, the use of a two-month delayed assessment meant that the authors weren’t just capitalizing on a post-test positive haze of good memories from having had the experience of being trained by the technique’s developer.
Looking specifically at the findings, the most lasting effects of the course seem to fit with the HEAL framework’s underpinnings in that to learn from your positive experiences, you need to be able to “savor” them. The other two cognitive resources measures also tap into the HEAL’s unique approach in that it works to help people readjust their emotions and also to gain more acceptance of their own negative emotions (i.e. self-compassion).
Even if you don’t go through the actual online materials, you can gain some handy pointers from this brief description of the four steps. See where you tend to get derailed when you’re involved in a positive experience. Do you stop short at step two, and not put your mental resources to work at trying to savor the good feelings? Maybe you get up to step three, but then things go south when you try to look inward at the joy the experience could potentially provide you.
To sum up, the HEAL framework points to the possibility of being able to learn new ways of experiencing the good times in your life. Fulfillment may not come naturally to you, but by letting the enjoyable experiences change you at a deeper level, those good times can become both more frequent and more long-lasting.
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Hanson, R. (2013). Hardwiring happiness: The new brain science of contentment, calm, and confidence. Harmony
Hanson, R., Shapiro, S., Hutton-Thamm, E., Hagerty, M. R., & Sullivan, K. P. (2021). Learning to learn from positive experiences. The Journal of Positive Psychology. https://doi-org/10.1080/17439760.2021.2006759