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  • Dr. Lorraine Gahles-Kildow

MOMs POPs and PIPs of Positive Psychology

There is an unheralded importance to the MOM’s, POP’s and PIPs of our life. This sounds like giving homage to the importance of mothers, fathers and little ones as part of a well lived life, and, I do applaud them, but I am talking about the moms, pops and pips of positive psychology. I am referring to the strategy of inducing moments of meaning and purpose (MOMs) and pockets of positivity (POPs) to increase well-being. Using these strategies also builds resources that serve as protective factors to our mental, emotional and physical health. These well being resources can be psychological, intellectual, physical and social (PIPS).

Let me start with the POP’s (pockets of positivity).

Barbara Fredrickson, a research psychologist, has been investigating the benefits of positive emotions for the last 20 or so years. She posits that positive emotions have an adaptive function and therefore have survival value. Although not as readily seen as the survival value of negative emotions, you fight, freeze, or flee a predator, positive emotions help build resources which enable us to survive and thrive.

Negative emotions produce specific, narrow actions and also narrow our thinking. There’s one option- run, attack or freeze up. On the other hand, positive emotions broaden our cognitions, we see the “big picture” and many possibilities for action. Fredrickson calls this ability, pathways thinking and it engenders broad minded coping strategies. Problem solving, and strategizing, allows to choose how we WANT to act, rather than be governed by our immediate emotional reaction. This helps us to adjust in a healthy way, survive, and perhaps even to flourish.

Let’s examine our PIPS. (Psychological, Intellectual, Physical and Social resources)

Norrish and colleagues reviewed some of the scientific literature on positive emotions. Experiencing “interest” and “curiosity”, for example, facilitates exploration, investigation, and enhances our knowledge and understanding of ourselves and others. These are psychological, intellectual and social resources. These, in turn, can lead to self-confidence and resilience, a psychological resource. Flexible thinking and self-understanding can promote better self-regulation (an intellectual, psychological and social emotional resource) and better self-regulation also adds to better social relations. Lyubomirsky and colleagues suggest that being in a state of positive emotions, for example, hope, allows us to prepare for future challenges by setting new goals thus expanding our potential and our future sense of self efficacy and self-confidence. This is a psychological resource of ego resilience and produces broad minded coping. Broad minded coping enables us to navigate through obstacles by thinking through all possibilities and outcomes. Too often we use emotional coping or avoidance coping to deal with the stressors of life.

Positive psychology research has also focused on how positive emotions contribute to our physical health. Fredrickson and others in a seminal piece of research showed that positive emotions have an “undoing effect” on cardiovascular reactivity. In other words, when we get “stressed” our heart rate increases. When subjects experienced amusement or contentment, their heart rate went back to normal faster than if they experienced sadness or had a neutral emotion. The implication for this research is that positive emotions can be used as a way to “bounce back” from the effects of negative emotions.

It has long been known that negative emotions (depression, anxiety and the “hostility factor” in the Type A personality) are risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease. In a review by Sin (2016) it was suggested that positive well-being (positive emotion, positive affect, optimism and life satisfaction) can serve as a protective role in cardiovascular disease. In a British study, optimism and vitality (life’s energy) were associated with decreased risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) by 20-30%, and reported life satisfaction was also associated with decreased CHD risk, especially angina. In the US, results were similar: optimism predicted decreased incidence of heart failure at 4 years, and, purpose in life and emotional vitality were associated with decreased stroke risk. A Canadian Survey found that positive affect was protective against 10 year incident CHD. These findings remained even after controlling for variables such as depression, anxiety, hostility and other biological and behavioral risk factors. Interestingly, optimism but not gratitude, in another study, decreased the risk of re-hospitalization and increased health behaviors.

What about MOMs? Social resources are our bonds of connectedness that we form with others. These create momentary happiness but also build a longer lasting emotional support network. Emotionally attached families, friends and communities thrive and survive utilizing these social resources. Flourishing occurs when one can “tend and befriend” or be the recipient of this meaningful gesture. We can soothe our distress, thereby regulate our emotions by having a “secure base” (our family, our community, etc.) and we can broaden our ability to meet challenges through expanded thinking and perception of more divergent pathways to a goal. Positive emotions, like love, for instance, increase oxytocin, often called the love hormone, which makes us feel closer to others and also physiologically regulates our cardiovascular system, the heart. Lovingkindness meditation is a method that helps us engage in relaxed breathing which triggers the “rest and digest” system, which replenishes our nervous system. But, it also sets an intention to love and the purpose to care for all. (This is our MOM or moment of meaning and purpose that can be experienced instantaneously). It seems that when we call upon this resource, we are immersing ourselves in both MOMs and POPs! In one of my favorite studies by Barbara Fredrickson and colleagues, “Open Hearts Builds Lives”, Lovingkindness meditation increased momentary positive emotions and generated more positive emotions spontaneously over time. People also reported less depression, less headaches and congestion and more satisfaction with life.

Lovingkindness is like a megavitamin for life. It increases love, which in turn increases oxytocin which benefits the heart both literally and figuratively. Oxytocin, released through love, suppresses inflammation and higher levels are linked to reduced hypertension. The meaning and purpose component of Lovingkindness increases cardiac vagal tone (a heart health marker), which in turn, increases the intensity of positive emotions when being with others and allows one to connect with something (or someone) larger than oneself. Positive emotions combined with purpose create an “upward spiral dynamic” of emotional, psychological and physical health and well-being. Only purpose though, emerges stronger in decreasing inflammation and increasing antiviral responses.

MOMs and POPs create a sense of vitality in our life. Richard Ryan states that Vitality is physical energy (I feel alive, vigorous!). It is an activated positive emotion (I am enthusiastic, interested and feeling full of zest!). It is also a positive mindset or intention (I’m going to live my life to the fullest with transcendent mindfulness and optimism!). Vitality is the opposite of Vital Exhaustion, a condition that depletes our energetic resources often felt as “fatigue, emotional exhaustion and cognitive weariness as stated by Melamed and colleagues. In the beginning of vital exhaustion, we experience anxiety in trying to cope, but then over time, we experience depression and physical illness, especially inflammation, immune disorders, allergies, viral infections and often cardiovascular events.

Perhaps we can strategically induce MOMs and POPs so that we can nourish our heart. (PIPS)

How can we induce vitality?

“Vita” = life. There are many routes to vitality. Some say physical exertion and movement aids this journey, while others say psychological wholeness (reducing intrapersonal and interpersonal conflicts) gives us vitality. Ryan and Deci postulate that one needs to be autonomous, competent and socially connected in order to feel vital. An interesting study done by Martin-Cuellar and colleagues, found that therapists that used mindfulness were more likely to report feeling more vitality. Mindfulness (being self-attuned in the present moment) improved a sense of psychological well-being (purpose in life, autonomy, personal growth, environmental mastery, positive relationships and self-acceptance) which in turn improved one’s vitality. However, when mindfulness produced psychological well-being and compassion satisfaction, vitality increased even more. It seems that mindfulness is a way to achieve psychological well-being and this becomes a “lens” (think “purpose”) through which one can perceive compassion satisfaction and thus vitality in our work/life ( an antidote for compassion fatigue and vital exhaustion). Ryan was correct when he stated that we can strategically induce vitality (the opposite of burnout and vital exhaustion) by actively engaging in that which invigorates us. Finding our unique MOMs and POPs may help us do just that!


References



Fredrickson, B.L. (2018) Biological Underpinnings of Positive Emotions and Purpose. The Social Psychology of Living Well. Edited by Joseph Forgas and Roy Baumeister.


Fredrickson, B.L., Cohn ,M.A., Coffey, K.A., Pek, J, Finkel,S.M. (2008) Open Hearts Build Lives: Positive Emotions, Induced Through Loving-Kindness Meditation, Build Consequential Personal Resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol.95, No.5,1045-1062.


Fredrickson, B.L., Mancuso, R.A., Branigan, C., Tugade, M.M. (2000) “The Undoing Effect of positive emotions”. Motivation and Emotion, 24:237-258.


Lyubomirsky, S., King, L., Diener, E. (2005) The Benefits Of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success? Psychological Bulletin, 131, pp. 803-855.


Melamed, S., Shirom, A., Toker, S., Berliner, S., Shapira, I. (2006). Burnout and risk of Cardiovascular Disease: Evidence, Possible Causal Paths, and Promising Research Directions. Psychological Bulletin Vol. 132, No. 3, 327-353


Martin-Cuellar, A., Lardier Jr., D.T., Atencio, D.J. (2019): Therapist

Mindfulness and Subjective Vitality: The Role of Psychological Wellbeing and Compassion Satisfaction. Journal of Mental Health, DOI: 10.1080/09638237.2019.1644491


Norrish, J., Robinson, J., Williams, P. (2011) Positive Emotions. Institute of Positive Education.


Ryan, R.M. (2004) Vitality. Character Strength and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. Edited by Christopher Peterson and Martin E. P. Seligman.


Ryan, R.M. & Deci, E.L. (2000) Self-determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.


Sin, N.L. (2016) The Protective Role of Positive Well-Being in Cardiovascular Disease: Review of Current Evidence, Mechanisms and Clinical Implications. Current Cardiology Reports, 18(11) 106.



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