Last updated on 15th February 2009
Ten days ago, on this blog, I wrote about "Reducing negative states" as one aspect of a simple model entitled "Four aspects of helpful inner focus" (see below). The model is a method I've evolved to help me organize and think about the many facets of deliberately induced altered states of consciousness. I'm using terms loosely here. I remember a hypnotist I came across many years ago, calling himself a "de-hypnotist". He claimed that we walk around "hypnotised" most of the time and that he saw his job as trying to help us "wake up" from this hypnosis. I mention this to illustrate how terms in this field - for example "inner focus" and "altered state of consciousness" - tend to creak rather a lot if one pushes at them for precise meanings.
So, accepting that the "Four aspects" diagram is only a model, today I'd like to start talking about another of the aspects - "Nourishing positive states". I'll unpack this into a further four overlapping subdivisions - Peacefulness, Coping, Enhancement, and Compassion - and focus in this blog posting on the value of inducing Peacefulness and other related states.
Clearly many meditation and prayer practices strive for deep inner states such as peace, ecstasy, joy, and contentment. One of the first times I remember experiencing such a (non-drug induced) state was at university, eating a bowl of muesli in the sunshine. I had what felt like an extraordinary, physically "melted", ecstatic experience simply deeply being with the sunlight, colours, textures, peacefulness, joy that went on for minute after minute. Various meditation traditions speak about such states in precise and extensive detail. Personally I moved from an emphasis on obtaining "enlightenment" or "extraordinary states" in my early meditation practice to a later focus that worked much more on how the practice could nourish how I was in the world from day to day. At its extreme, this move away from trying for deep states of contentment, peace and joy had, for me, quite a puritanical "work ethic" feel to it. I was pretty suspicious of "indulging" in such states unless it could be shown that they had more value than simply giving me a "good time". I wondered what the difference was between getting high on meditation and getting high on alcohol and drugs. More recently - quite largely due to the work of researcher Barbara Fredrickson - I'm more open to the value of moving into such positive emotional states.
In modern scientific research on positive emotion, Barbara Fredrickson's broaden-and-build theory is of key importance (see below). I introduced her work and the value of "positive emotions" in an earlier blog post on "Savouring, mindfulness, flow and positive emotions". What current research stongly suggests is that positive emotional states have at least three beneficial effects. One is that they are enjoyable and welcome in their own right - all things being equal, most of us would choose to feel happy rather than unhappy. A second beneficial effect of positive emotional states is that they both protect us against slipping into less welcome states like anger and depression, and also help us bounce back more resiliently when we do become stressed (Tugade and Fredrickson 2004; Tugade, Fredrickson et al. 2004). Recent work by Paul Gilbert and colleagues (Gilbert, McEwan et al. 2008) suggests that positive emotional states split into three general types - "activated positive affect, relaxed positive affect, and safe/content positive affect." Within these three types the researchers found that "It was the safe/content positive affect that had the highest negative correlations with depression, anxiety and stress, self-criticism, and insecure attachment." Fredrickson has commented on how forms of relaxation, meditation and inner focus appear to be particularly promising ways of developing and supporting such states of "contentment".
Thirdly, positive emotional states help us function more effectively in a whole series of areas (Fredrickson 2000; Fredrickson and Losada 2005; Burns, Brown et al. 2008). Research highlights that positive states like contentment, curiosity, appreciation and friendliness can act as springboards for improved stress resilience, problem-solving, memory, exploration, confidence and relationship building. The four slide handout that I put together on "Positive Emotions" (see below) illustrates these benefits. On a personal note, my own Autogenics/meditation practice is feeling pretty good at the moment. I experience this "pretty good'ness" more as a "positive state" than as the absence of a "negative state" - although I guess my sense is of "uncovering" the positive state by progressively releasing and letting go layer after layer. Even after nearly forty years of regular meditation practice, I'm fully capable sometimes of sitting and spending more time thinking about past and present issues than about being peaceful in the present. However my practice does also sometimes go deep. At times I think to myself, why spend money and effort and go out for "treats" or "good times" when just simply sitting quietly can be so profoundly blissful.
I intend to blog again on this "Nourishing positive states" aspect of helpful inner focus soon. I'll extend the discussion from developing Peacefulness, to the other three subdivisions that I mentioned - Coping, Enhancement, and Compassion.
Burns, A. B., J. S. Brown, et al. (2008). "Upward spirals of positive emotion and coping: Replication, extension, and initial exploration of neurochemical substrates." Personality and Individual Differences 44(2): 360-370. [Abstract/Full Text]
Fredrickson, B.L. "Positive Emotion and Psychophysiology (PEP) Lab" provides full text PDF's of a number of Fredrickson's research studies. http://www.unc.edu/peplab/home.html Accessed October 26, 2008.
Fredrickson, B. L. (2000) Cultivating positive emotions to optimize health and well-being. Prevention and Treatment 3, 1-25. [Abstract/Full Text]
Fredrickson, B. L. and M. F. Losada (2005). "Positive affect and the complex dynamics of human flourishing." Am Psychol 60(7): 678-86. [PubMed]
Fredrickson, B.L., M.A. Cohn, et al. (in press). "Open hearts build lives: Positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources." J Pers Soc Psychol. [Free Full Text]
Gilbert, P., K. McEwan, et al. (2008). "Feeling safe and content: A specific affect regulation system? Relationship to depression, anxiety, stress, and self-criticism." The Journal of Positive Psychology 3(3): 182 - 191. [Abstract/Full Text]
Hawkins, J. "Four aspects of helpful inner focus." Powerpoint slide handout. [Free Full Text] and Word document [Free Full Text]
Hawkins, J. "Positive emotions." PowerPoint slide handout 1 [Free Full Text] & 2 [Free Full Text] - these can be printed out as two-slide-to-a-page handouts.
Tugade, M. M. and B. L. Fredrickson (2004). "Resilient individuals use positive emotions to bounce back from negative emotional experiences." J Pers Soc Psychol 86(2): 320-33. [PubMed]
Tugade, M. M., B. L. Fredrickson, et al. (2004). "Psychological resilience and positive emotional granularity: examining the benefits of positive emotions on coping and health." J Pers 72(6): 1161-90. [PubMed]