Black woman with arms oustretched in a joyful pose wearing a green velvet jacket and black trousersI get asked all the time how to heal and free ourselves from worry, doubt, anxiety, and pessimism. Too often we schedule something enjoyable for ourselves only to find that when we go to do it the enjoyment of the event is overshadowed by creeping thoughts about events in our lives that aren’t going as we’d like.  It might be work, a fight with a partner, or just general blah about needing to get up and get going on household chores. We manage to sap the fun out of situations for ourselves with our negative ruminations.

When we try and talk to others about it we often hear phrases like “Don’t worry, be happy” or “Just try not to worry”; even though everyone knows it’s silly and tiresome, it’s still difficult to put to one side and enjoy the current situation. Although these words are well-meaning, they often dismiss and oversimplify our complex emotions, shutting us down from expressing ourselves.

In the past, pop psychology categorised individuals into two camps: “glass half full” and “glass half empty”. However, it’s entirely possible to shift your attributional style and shift your thinking to become more optimistic and happier without having to actively force negative feelings aside. This technique is part of a set of tools known as ‘Positive Neuroplasticity Training’ (PNT).

Researchers from the University of California Berkeley have found that it is possible to learn new ways to activate positive emotions to enhance our overall well-being. The idea behind the psychological resources model is that by learning to engage more deeply and stay with positive experiences, we develop a greater sense of resilience and self-worth. The researchers theorise that the savouring of positive experiences helps to create an “upward spiral” in which we learn how to learn about having good experiences and how to remember them more clearly, further enhancing our happiness.

In simpler terms, we can teach ourselves to be happier by learning to savor positive experiences like we would savour a particularly delicious piece of chocolate. Hanson and his colleagues summarise this approach through the “HEAL process”, which involves: Having a good experience, Enriching it, Absorbing it, and Linking it to related “negative material” to keep the positive feelings front and center when stress arises.

How to HEAL

Wheel graphic breaking down positive emotions into greater complexity

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The researchers have identified four distinct steps in their HEAL model to enhance positive experiences:

  1. Have the enjoyable experience: This can be done physically – going somewhere and doing something fun or enjoyable.  It can be as small as sitting on a park bench, enjoying the spring sunshine on your face, or as extravagant as a trip to Disneyland.  The experience can also be mental, such as thinking about someone who cares about you who you have positive feelings towards.
  2. Enrich the experience: The key is to make the experience long-lasting and keep it active in your consciousness. Think about it, recall it – focus on multiple aspects of the experience, including its meaning, your perceptions, and sensations, and the way it feels when you recall it. Try and find something new about the experience, what did you learn that was particularly good and noteworthy?
  3. Absorb the experience: Make a deliberate effort to internalise it so that it feels like a part of you. Sometimes when something good happens we can have a habit of dismissing it as happening by chance or as a one-off. Explore your emotional reaction to the event; give yourself permission to really dive into what happened and think about all of the ways that the experience made you feel good. If you don’t have great emotional literacy you can consult an emotions wheel to help you figure out all the different emotions you experienced as a result of the experience.
  4. Link positive and negative material: Give yourself permission to hold all your emotions within yourself at the same time.  you don’t need to try and push aside any negative feelings or worries, but acknowledge that you’re still able to have fun. The researchers state that this step is optional, as it can be uncomfortable or too intense for some people to deliberately focus on the negative in a situation when they’re actively attempting to switch themselves into ‘enjoyment mode’. They make a point of saying that people will still experience the benefit of the heal model, even if they don’t always actively do this last step. For the people who do embrace this step, learning to let emotions co-exist will allow for the positive emotions to gently overtake the negative in your mind over time.  All you need to do is loosen the death grip on trying to force it out of view.

The research participants reported significant increases in savouring, self-compassion, emotional reappraisal, gratitude, positive rumination, joy, contentment, love, and decreases in depressed mood during the time the research took place. There were also small improvements reported in self-esteem, pride, happiness, and satisfaction with life.

Even two months later, the participants still saw modest improvements in their cognitive resources, negative emotions, and total happiness. These positive changes were maintained over the four-month period from when the participants began the course to their final assessment indicating that participants had learned how to increase their learning and satisfaction from positive experiences. So, if you’re interested in improving your mental engagement factors and enhancing your well-being, this might be how to HEAL!

How to Become Happier in Your Own Life

It is important to note that this research is not a magic bullet to improving well-being, tackling depression, or even regulating our emotions during difficult times. When life is tough, there’s really no decent alternative to spending some quality time with a good therapist. However, it does offer the possibility of learning new ways of experiencing the good times in our lives. By remembering the acronym, we are being ourselves a powerful nudge to help us understand how to heal ourselves of those worries and doubts that stick in our minds, dampening our enjoyment of life. By allowing enjoyable experiences to stay with us at a deeper level, we can experience greater fulfillment and happiness.

So, whether you are practicing self-care or planning some time off from the chaos of the world, make sure to stop and smell the roses from time to time. We can all benefit from taking a moment to enrich our positive experiences and absorb them for a deeper sense of fulfillment. I’d love to hear what you’re using HEAL for and how it’s helping you shift your thinking!

Pretty lights that make me happy when I stop to look at them