When I was about two or three years old, I was at a beach with my family, and I was playing in the sand where shallow waters gently lapped when a wave came suddenly and nearly washed me away. My mother, who was sitting a few meters away, dashed into the water and was able to save me, though she lost her watch that day.
Some 40 years later, it occurs to me that many of us in life today are very much like that child in shallow water nearly swallowed up by a powerful wave. The pace of life is so very fast, each day so very full—of texts and tasks, and sweat and meetings—that life itself becomes stretched thin. What’s more, we’re bombarded with headlines full of gloom, symptoms of a global melancholia. As psychologist Shawn Achor puts it, “on the news, the majority of the information is not positive. In fact, it's negative.”
In these shallow waters of busyness, what’s to keep us from being washed away by negativity? It’s easy to opt for the quick text with one friend and all the while not listen to the friend who’s talking to us right there. It’s easy, too, to stand by and list the ailments of the world. But what if it’s also easy to live life better? After all, we have a choice. That’s what positive psychology reminds us. To start with, three of the practices to help us live our lives more positively, fully, and meaningfully are gratitude, random acts of kindness, and human connection.
First, taking just two minutes each day to reflect on three things we’re grateful for can lead to a more positive outlook. After 21 days, a person’s “brain starts to retain a pattern of scanning the world not for the negative, but for the positive first” (Achor). Having a positive outlook leads to a “happiness advantage”, the benefits of which include an increase in intelligence, creativity, energy, productivity, and accuracy.
Second, regularly engaging in random acts of kindness can lead to a wonderful range of benefits for ourselves and the people around us, and like gratitude, kindness can be cultivated. It’s also contagious. “The positive effects of kindness are experienced in the brain of everyone who witnessed the act, improving their mood and making them significantly more likely to ‘pay it forward.’ This means one good deed in a crowded area can create a domino effect and improve the day of dozens of people!” Other benefits of kindness include increasing self-esteem, optimism, and energy, while decreasing pain, stress, and depression. (“Did You Know?”)
Third, taking the time to develop our relationships with our family, friends, and community leads to more meaningful living. An ongoing Harvard study begun in 1938 has found that “Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy
throughout their lives”; the gist of it is that good relationships help us emotionally, mentally, and physically. (Mineo)
As children, we may depend upon our parents and elders for safekeeping. As we grow older, though, we can care for ourselves, as well as for our families, our friends, and our communities. Practicing gratitude, random acts of kindness, and human connection can help us do this, and live life more positively and deeply, even in a busy world. Who knows? Instead of texts, we might sometimes write letters. Instead of looking at our phones, we might give our full attention to the friends that are beside us. Instead of looking away, we might recognize each other—and ourselves. Let’s explore the deeper waters without being swallowed up, and help shape the waves that wash over us: lighter, brighter, more buoyant, and more fulfilled.