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Positive solitude, Feeling active and Future-mindednes: Three Keys to Well-being

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Last month, researchers from over 60 coun­tries gath­ered at the Inter­na­tion­al Pos­i­tive Psy­chol­o­gy Association’s 6th World Con­gress in Mel­bourne, Aus­tralia, to share cut­ting-edge insights on the sci­ence of well-being.

Sev­er­al insights pre­sent­ed stood out to me as new or sur­pris­ing.

1. Positive solitude

Researchers have repeat­ed­ly found that social con­nec­tion is one of the keys to hap­pi­ness. And for many of us, feel­ing sep­a­rat­ed from oth­er peo­ple trans­lates into a sense of lone­li­ness and dis­con­nec­tion. But does soli­tude have to be a neg­a­tive expe­ri­ence? Can time alone feed our well-being?

Researchers Mar­tin Lynch, Sergey Ishanov, and Dmit­ry Leon­tiev at Russia’s Nation­al Research Uni­ver­si­ty High­er School of Eco­nom­ics have inves­ti­gat­ed the phe­nom­e­non of pos­i­tive or “pro­duc­tive soli­tude,” in con­trast with the more unpleas­ant expe­ri­ence of being alone. Pro­duc­tive soli­tude doesn’t occur because we feel dis­con­nect­ed from oth­ers; it’s some­thing that we delib­er­ate­ly seek out. Rather than being lone­ly or rumi­nat­ing on neg­a­tive expe­ri­ences, we use the soli­tary time for con­tem­pla­tion, reflec­tion, or cre­ativ­i­ty.

Peo­ple who expe­ri­ence pos­i­tive soli­tude tend to feel more pos­i­tive emotions—in par­tic­u­lar, the low-ener­gy ones like relax­ation and calm. Accord­ing to research by Leon­tiev, when these peo­ple do find them­selves alone, they have a greater sense of plea­sure and meaning—and less of a sense of void.

What kind of peo­ple enjoy their alone time? Pos­i­tive soli­tude seems to come more nat­u­ral­ly to those who are more intro­vert­ed or high­er in emo­tion­al and psy­cho­log­i­cal matu­ri­ty.

What if you don’t have those traits? We might see more ben­e­fit in soli­tude if we delib­er­ate­ly sched­ule alone time for doing some­thing we enjoy, for exam­ple, or spend our soli­tary time in the peace­ful and wel­com­ing set­ting of nature. Future research may uncov­er oth­er ways for all of us to cul­ti­vate new atti­tudes toward soli­tude so we can appre­ci­ate it more—and be hap­pi­er for it.

2. Feeling active

One of the tra­di­tion­al sur­veys that researchers use to mea­sure pos­i­tive emo­tions includes a pecu­liar state­ment: “I feel active.” For researcher Sarah Press­man, that didn’t quite seem like a pos­i­tive emotion—not the way oth­er feel­ings like “grate­ful” or “hap­py” are—so she decid­ed to inves­ti­gate it fur­ther.

Past research would sug­gest that peo­ple who expe­ri­ence more pos­i­tive emo­tions are health­i­er in var­i­ous ways—for exam­ple, they have stronger immune sys­tems, exer­cise more, have a low­er risk of heart dis­ease, and even live longer. But what role does feel­ing “active” play in our health and well-being?

A sig­nif­i­cant one, it turns out. Accord­ing to analy­ses by Press­man and her col­leagues, feel­ing active account­ed for a siz­able por­tion of the link between pos­i­tive emo­tions and dif­fer­ent mea­sures of health. (For men, feel­ing active was the pos­i­tive emo­tion that pre­dict­ed how long they would live.) But feel­ing active didn’t exact­ly cor­re­spond to how much phys­i­cal activ­i­ty peo­ple engaged in.

In oth­er words, it doesn’t just mat­ter how phys­i­cal­ly active we are, but how active—how ener­getic, vig­or­ous, and vital—we feel. That’s a psy­cho­log­i­cal state that researchers should pay more atten­tion to, Press­man believes. The lit­tle we know comes from the work­place, where stud­ies have described the phe­nom­e­non of “rela­tion­al ener­gy”: how some peo­ple excite and ener­gize us while oth­ers leave us drained and exhaust­ed.

But what makes us feel active and how else is that ben­e­fi­cial? It remains to be deter­mined who these ener­getic peo­ple are, and whether we can all get hap­pi­er by boost­ing the pep in our step.

3. Future-mindedness

As we pur­sue hap­pi­ness, we often pon­der the future—and the kinds of things that will make us feel good tomor­row or next year. Even though our pre­dic­tions aren’t always accu­rate, the sim­ple act of con­tem­plat­ing the future might be a key to well-being.

Accord­ing to social psy­chol­o­gist Roy Baumeis­ter, hap­py and opti­mistic peo­ple tend to think about the future more often than their less-upbeat coun­ter­parts. Think­ing about the future seems to come in two fla­vors: First, we dream big and imag­ine fan­ta­sy out­comes; then, we “get real” and come up with prag­mat­ic plans.

Think­ing about the future is use­ful per­son­al­ly and in our rela­tion­ships. For exam­ple, research sug­gests that peo­ple whose minds tend to wan­der toward the future devel­op more con­crete goals. And if you’re hav­ing a con­flict with a roman­tic part­ner, look­ing at it from a future perspective—imagining how you would think about it one year from now—could lead to less blame, more for­give­ness, and greater well-being in your rela­tion­ship.

When the process of imag­in­ing pos­i­tive futures (and how to bring them about) goes awry, we may be at risk of men­tal health issues. Researchers have sug­gest­ed that faulty future-mindedness—envisioning a dark­er future for yourself—contributes to depres­sion, anx­i­ety, and oth­er dis­or­ders.

For this rea­son, per­haps, many pop­u­lar therapies—such as future-ori­ent­ed ther­a­py, hope ther­a­py, solu­tion-focused ther­a­py, and cog­ni­tive-behav­ioral therapy—help clients improve the way they think about the future. If you want to improve your future-mind­ed­ness with­out ther­a­py, anoth­er option is to jour­nal about new doors that have opened or might open in your life.

Accord­ing to Mar­tin Selig­man, a pio­neer of the field of pos­i­tive psy­chol­o­gy, peo­ple and soci­eties them­selves may be becom­ing more future-mind­ed today. We are think­ing not just about what we can achieve in the future our­selves, but what we can all achieve togeth­er. For the atten­dees of the World Con­gress, at least, that means spread­ing the knowl­edge and prac­tice of well-being to more and more peo­ple, in the hopes of cre­at­ing a bet­ter world for every­one.

– Kira M. New­man is the man­ag­ing edi­tor of Greater Good. Based at UC-Berke­ley, Greater Good high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism. Copy­right Greater Good.

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