Jer’s Easy Steps to Happiness #1: The Magic Scrapbook of Puppies & Sunshine & Yogasms

For my graduate program, I am on site for three 10-hour class days and then in 3 weeks of distance learning.  Each distance learning period, we will be doing a positive intervention of some kind, and I will try to share it with you.  This time we did a positive portfolio, which is not magic and may or may not have to do with puppies, sunshine, or climactic yoga experiences.

A positive portfolio is a collection of poetry, quotes, pictures, music, anything really, all designed to engender in you personally some sort of positive state.  It might be serenity, inspiration, awe, joy, love, gratitude, security, safety, pride, empowerment, ebullience, etc.  Obviously many of these emotions overlap, but, after picking one, you try to create a portfolio that creates that positive emotion in you.

It does not have to be big portfolio, and putting it together is half the fun.  Students were asked to spend 15 minutes a day for a week going over them and record how we felt.  Across the board, we expressed powerful changes to our psyche, and apparently this is typical.

The rationale behind the Positive Portfolio is Barbara Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build theory of positive emotions.  It’s a big one in the literature, so let me describe it briefly.

Positive emotions tend to cause positive emotions.  They do this by broadening our horizons (Fredrickson has done numerous studies that indicate that a positive primer, such as a video of smiling children, tends to make people more creative, at ease, mentally alert, socially aware, kinder, etc.) and building resilience.  Resilience is the art of bouncing back from any bad thing, such as a casual insult, getting laid off, or even having all your family members killed in a car crash.  (One study found that after priming speakers before giving stressful presentations, their physiological response during the speech was the same, but those primed with a positive emotion bounced back quicker.)

In order get the upward spiral working, a certain threshold of positive to negative thoughts is required.  Fredrickson thinks it is 3:1.  Currently, my own ratio of positive to negative thoughts is just over 2:1.  Some of my classmates are as high as 6:1.  Depressed people tend to be about 1:1.  You can find out what yours is roughly at (sign up and take the PANAS test).

At one level, I agree with Fredrickson entirely.  It makes sense empirically, and it is a sort of self-reinforcing spiral that we see as a typical dynamic in all sorts of different contexts.  We see it in negative emotions (e.g., insecurity engenders insecurity), in the stock market, in ecosystems, etc.  Most pronounced for me professionally is the cyclical disinvestment in inner city neighborhoods.  People do not invest in their properties because the block is going downhill, and the block is going downhill because people do not invest.  This is also true in reverse, for blocks that are improving (e.g., I’m planting flowers because my neighbor put in a fountain).

The Positive Portfolio is an intervention that injects us with positive emotion in order to jump-start the positive feedback loop.

From top and left to right: Martin Luther, David Pollock, Socrates, Plato, praying old man (anonymous man who for represents the future & the past and our connection to a community beyond our moment in time), John Adams, Jesus, Hannibal, & Winston Churchill. I also would like to add the Napoleon, the Apostle Paul, Ahmad Shah Massoud, and Alcibiades, and the list keeps growing.

Initially, I designed my own positive portfolio to effect inspiration.  I chose it because, frankly, I am swamped right now with moving (we found an apartment!) and sickness, and I thought it would be easy; I have several heroes, and for Christmas last year my wife put together pictures of 9 of my favorite heroes/historical figures.  For various reasons, I feel a connection with these people and they inspire me.  If you ever make it to my house, you will see it above my desk.  However, I have never spent any time meditating on these images, so I thought this might be the perfect chance to do that.

But this backfired for me.  My problem is that I am possibly too driven.  I can be incredibly hard on myself and those around me.  I can treat myself and my abilities too seriously, and, frankly, piss off my wife.  Three days into my “positive intervention” she kindly suggested a change, “Let’s try serenity.”  So we did.  She helped me put the new portfolio together, and it had a much better affect on me.
First, I learned that I did not really know what serenity was.  The philosopher in me immediately set about trying to distinguish what it is from other states of mind.  I thought serenity would be engendered by things that reminded of who I am, where I come from, etc.  However, it seems to me more likely that serenity is a state of mind that does not need security or identity.  It is calmness irrespective of everything.  So my portfolio included some quotes about acceptance, some Winslow Homers, Turners, a few songs, quotes…here is a sample:

Boys in a Pasture — Winslow Homer, 1874

Anonymous photo that I found on the internet a while ago that I find deeply meaningful.

Jack Johnson’s Banana Pancakes

“To be human is to give up on perfection.” – Shoshanna, Americorps Trainer

The effect of spending some time with this portfolio everyday was powerful!  So here are my tips for those who want to try this:
  1. Do it.  It’s fun.
  2. Take your time making the portfolio, and make it with loved ones.  You can do it in less time than it takes to watch a movie.
  3. No need to spend 15 minutes a day.  5-7 minutes is likely enough.
  4. Pick the right emotion.  Overly serene people should probably not do serenity…you know who you are.  And like me, overly inspired people should not do inspiration either.
  5. You might make a digital version of this to put on your smart phone.  This way you can use it throughout the day as needed.
  6. A fun (albeit cheesy) project would be to make a short personalized video (slides and video set to music) that is meant to strengthen a specific emotional state that you struggle with personally.   You could have a number of them that help reinforce or strengthen certain aspects that you need.

In sum, I think there is something to this one, and in no small part because I did this before I even knew about positive psychology (Therefore Joy led me to do something similar, and also led me to want to study human happiness because of the profound affect it had on me personally).

However, I think Barbara Fredrickson’s Broaden and build theory might be tragically flawed.  Tune in next time to “Jer Thumbs his Nose at Brilliant Research Psychologists.”  It is going to be great!

About Jer Clifton

Look up, friend. The world is too beautiful for my eyes alone. View all posts by Jer Clifton

One response to “Jer’s Easy Steps to Happiness #1: The Magic Scrapbook of Puppies & Sunshine & Yogasms

  • Whit

    You smegma brained buffoon. Your voice is the second leading cause of dysmenorrhea: facts. Once again you’ve managed to be utterly repellent, and completely forgettable, like Haiti; you remember Haiti, how the fricking levees broke?

    Welcome back 🙂

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