"Groundhog Day" Post #2: Positive Psychology and the Time of Your Life
Updated: Apr 28, 2021
She said, “A good day Ain’t got no rain” She said, “A bad day’s when I lie in bed And think of things that might have been” – Paul Simon, "Slip Slidin’ Away"
During lockdown, and sometimes even in more normal times, one day can feel a lot like the next. Our days can seem to be “slip slidin’ away”. There are strategies we can use to combat that sense of time as an undifferentiated blob (see below) but perhaps more importantly, there are also ways we can raise the bar – beyond the lack of rain – for what counts as a good day.
I wrote in a previous post that there have been days during lockdown when I have never felt happier. Sunshine certainly helps, but it is not always essential. A good night’s sleep followed by an energising morning workout and a carefully judged dose of caffeine sets up the physiological conditions for having a good day. The psychological components are equally important. I like to think about them using Martin Seligman’s PERMA framework. Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, has identified five components of human flourishing:
Most of those five terms are self-explanatory. “Meaning” here refers to having a sense of purpose that transcends the self. This could be the sense of belonging to and serving a wider social group (such as one’s family, religious community, or society); it could also be related to a transcendent spiritual framework for one’s life. “Engagement” refers to a specific psychological state that is often known as “flow” or what athletes sometimes call “being in the zone”. Flow occurs when we experience a Goldilocks level of challenge: if the task is too easy we soon get bored; if it’s too difficult we feel frustration and may give up; if it stretches us just beyond our current capacity, we can become fully absorbed, losing track of time and even awareness of bodily sensations such as hunger and thirst. Flow is satisfying in and of itself. It is also often a key component of “accomplishment”, as significant achievements often require prolonged and/or repeated periods of concentrated work. My friends and coaching clients who have children at home during lockdown are facing a triple whammy: the constant interruptions due to home-schooling both prevent them from entering or remaining in flow states, and scupper their ability to rack up achievements over the course of a normal work working day. This diminishes their positive flourishing, and the mounting list of unfinished tasks is additionally a negative stressor in and of itself.
Fortunately, according to Seligman, one can flourish without scoring highly on all five dimensions of PERMA. He has emphasised this partly because there are genetic limits on the amount of positive emotion a particular individual might experience. A person who is generally low on positive affect might nevertheless lead a life that is rich in engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment.
It is also helpful to think about this framework not in terms of individuals per se, but in terms of timeframes. There can be days or whole seasons when we are doing very well with one or two aspects of PERMA, but less well with the others. A simple example would be going on a relaxing holiday with friends. We might experience a lot of positive emotions and strengthen our relationships, but not engage in any challenging activities that would produce flow states, nor would we, at the end of the holiday, feel that we had accomplished a lot. And that’s okay!
You can use the PERMA framework to assess and positively reframe your current situation. Maybe today gives you a lot of opportunities to strengthen your relationships, but not much space for flow. Focus on the former, acknowledge that you miss the latter (but also that the situation is temporary), and move on. Acceptance, as we saw in a previous post, is one of the keys to growth and positive change.
You might also find that there is more scope for experiencing positive emotions than you expect. Gratitude is one of the most studied emotions in positive psychology research, and its benefits for both psychological and physical health are well-documented. Simple practices like keeping a gratitude journal can significantly enhance well-being.
In a previous post, I mentioned another powerful positive emotion, which BJ Fogg calls “Shine” – a feeling of authentic pride in an achievement. This emotion can be quickly and effectively evoked through the practice of “celebration”. Everyone has their own natural, preferred modes of celebration, which can range from the subtle – such as hearing an internal voice saying “well done” – to smiling, singing, dancing, turning cartwheels or jumping up and down. Fogg’s amazingly simple yet potentially transformative insight is that we can consciously use these forms of celebration, which many people might generally reserve only for significant achievements, to evoke feelings of Shine throughout the day.
Fogg emphasises the instrumental role of celebration: by triggering the release of dopamine, celebrating desired behaviours help us to create new habits. Even more importantly for our discussion of PERMA, celebration is a quick and easy technique for generating positive emotions, even in difficult times. Fogg predicts that “celebration will one day be ranked alongside mindfulness and gratitude as daily practices that contribute most to our overall happiness and well-being.” I don’t know what the scoring system for this ranking would look like, but from my own experience and that of my coaching clients, celebration is quicker, easier, more energising, and much more fun than the other two. If every day still feels like Groundhog Day to you, I’d suggest experimenting with multiple doses of celebration throughout the day. It may not make each day more memorable but will make it more enjoyable.
I haven’t yet addressed the problem of time appearing to slide away. Time management expert Laura Vanderkam explains that this problem is due to the brain’s efficiency at storing memories. Novel events are stored individually, but routine events are generally stored as a single memory:
“The brain decides that if you drive the same one-hour route to work 235 mornings a year, and you do so for the roughly 4.25 years that compose the average job tenure, these one thousand trips can be telescoped in memory into one trip. Just like that one thousand hours becomes one hour.”
And here’s the kicker:
“When enough sameness like this stacks up, whole years disappear into memory sinkholes. At a rate of one thousand hours becoming one hour, an 800,000 hour life would become like eight hundred hours: the equivalent of less than five weeks. As philosopher and psychologist William James writes on time, ‘Emptiness, monotony, familiarity, make it shrivel up.’”
Most of Vanderkam’s specific suggestions for making our days more memorable involve precisely the sorts of things that we can’t do during lockdowns: travel; go to art galleries, museums, and performances; eat in an unfamiliar restaurant; explore a new neighbourhood. But the general principles apply – experiences that are novel and/or emotionally intense are more memorable. So we need to get creative and ask ourselves: how can I do something different today?
Postscript: whatever you decide to do differently today, don’t forget to celebrate. Whoohoo!
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 For a recent, more scholarly, discussion of the usefulness of the PERMA model see this 2018 article by Seligman, where he discusses the relationship between PERMA and subjective well-being and emphasises that PERMA is most useful not from a psychometric perspective but for helping people actively build well-being by focusing on its component parts.
 Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done. pp. 59 – 60.