The Primacy of Positivity

Don’t wait until you succeed to feel good…get happy first and turbo-charge your chances of achieving your goals!

Having spent many years working with people trying to find happiness (and achieve various forms of success) I’ve discovered that one of the main obstacles to happiness is what I’ve come to call “the tyranny of when”. To what am I referring, you may well ask? Well, “the tyranny of when” is the phenomenon we’ve all experienced at some time or other when we say to ourselves (or to others) that “I’ll be happy when…when I have more money, when I have a bigger house, when I have a better job, when I lose some weight, when I find the love of my life, when ”.

Now although there’s nothing inherently wrong with aspiring to be and to have more, the problem for many people is that (for a variety of reasons) they never get there; and even if they do, they then think of something else that they “need” before they can really feel happy. In recent years positive psychologists have come to refer to this as the “hedonic treadmill” which is a great metaphor likening the experience to one where we’re constantly running, as though on a treadmill chasing that carrot, and never actually getting anywhere! As a result, we don’t every really get to experience as much joy or satisfaction as we’d like but, even worse than not experiencing positive emotions like happiness, such an approach to life can actually cause us to feel frustrated, disappointed and downright miserable (how else would you feel if you frequently imagined a wonderful reward or prize but never quite got your hands on it?).

But despite being relatively unsuccessful and unhelpful, it’s not really all that surprising that many people take this approach as this is what we’ve always been taught…that if you work hard you’ll achieve your goals, and if you achieve your goals you’ll then be happy. Except that as noted above this approach doesn’t always work.

With this in mind, and with a view to helping more people find happiness and success, I’ve developed a new approach…get happy first and then you’ll be more likely to achieve your goals (whatever they might be – losing weight, getting that promotion, finding the love of your life etc). And the good news is this isn’t something I just made up. Well, it is something I made up, or at least something on which I put a new twist, but it’s based on good, solid science. Technically, it’s based on a theory developed by an American academic, Professor Barbara Fredrickson, and it’s typically referred to as the “broaden and build theory of positive emotions”. Let me explain…

Traditionally, psychologists have focused on negative emotions and as a result we know quite a bit about how they affect us. In short, when we experience negative emotions (such as fear or anxiety) we close up. We tend to withdraw physically and psychologically and as a result, we tend not to cope as well. In contrast, broaden and build has come about through the investigation of positive emotions and what we’ve discovered is that positive emotions lead to improved performance, coping and resilience via the broadening of our minds and the increased capacity to build on previous experiences.

What this means is that positive emotions are not just nice; they are nice, but they’re also much more important than that. What they do is help us enjoy the good times even more and (and this is an important and) help us cope with the tough times. As a result, positive emotions are not just phenomena we should enjoy after we’ve achieved something of significance, they’re also tools we can use to increase our chances of achieving outcomes of significance.

This is a finding of profound importance because what it means is that rather than succumbing to the tyranny of when, we can utilise “the power of then” by which I mean that we can leverage off the idea that if we can create happiness first THEN we can achieve more of our goals. How great would that be? We get to enjoy the wonders of positive emotions both before and after succeeding in our efforts.

Accordingly, I encourage you to try the following tips (based on my book “100 Ways to Happiness: a guide for busy people”) for increasing your experience of positive emotions and, as a result, your chances of achieving your goals:

  • Set yourself a very small, achievable goal, something you can achieve within less than an hour (the sense of satisfaction you get will motivate you to go on and achieve something bigger)
  • Reflect not just on “what” you’re trying to do but also, on “why”; being more aware of your purpose will inspire you to focus
  • Engage in some form of exercise, preferably something you enjoy (exercise is a powerful mood enhancer and stress reducer)
  • Try a short session of meditation or relaxation
  • Laugh!
  • Listen to music and/or dance
  • Imagine yourself at your best in a world that’s just as you’d like it to be
  • List at least 3 good things about you and your life
  • Write down as many things as you can think of for which you’re grateful (because happy people focus much more on what they have and much less on what they don’t have)
  • Do something good to or for someone else; be kind and/or generous to someone (because happiness isn’t just feeling good it’s also doing good)
  • Give some thought to what you’re best at and how you can use this more in your everyday life

So there it is; don’t wait until you succeed before you find happiness…find ways to make yourself happy first and then discover real success!

Dr Tim Sharp (aka Dr Happy)

Join the conversation





Create an account

Your personal data will be used to support your experience throughout this website, to manage access to your account, and for other purposes described in our privacy policy.

Password Recovery

Lost your password? Please enter your username or email address. You will receive a link to create a new password via email.