When I’m feeling down and some grinning idiot smirks “Cheer up, it’ll never happen,” I feel tempted to smack the smirk off his face.
If I ever succumb I will explain to the judge that I am trying to teach this person a valuable lesson, namely that feeling positive about the past might be more valuable than cheering up about the future.
We almost always imagine positive thinking to be about the future, but work by a neuroscientist called Dr Richard Davidson suggests we might be getting it the wrong way around.
Davidson is a sort of superstar in the field of research into meditation but he has also studied emotions and the brain for many years.
In one study he showed pictures evoking positive feelings to people who were depressed and to people who were not depressed. Both experienced a surge in positive emotion (as measured by fMRI scans) when they saw the pictures.
But in the people who were depressed, the positive feelings vanished quickly. Those who were not depressed sustained the good feelings for longer.
Now, there is a great deal more to dealing with depression than telling people to cheer up about the past. But for all of us I think the research contains a clue about how to improve our sense of emotional wellbeing.
This is to revisit good experiences that might have happened to us today or yesterday.
I certainly find that to do so lifts my mood in a way that telling myself to “think positive” about the future doesn’t.
I am talking here about small experiences – the first coffee of the day, a movie, a walk around the block I enjoyed. By definition I don’t have very many highly significant experiences (if I did they wouldn’t be highly significant) so I have to look for my enjoyment in ordinary things.
The ordinary good things
If you try this out you will be surprised at how very easy it is to forget the ordinary good things that happened to you yesterday, say. You can remember the rain that left you like a drowned rat but not the hours of sunshine that lifted your spirits.
This is natural because we seem to have evolved to be on the lookout for what’s going wrong, what’s missing, where our next meal is coming from, and so on.
We are rather like addicts to whom yesterday’s fix is of no importance at all – only today’s matters and when we’ve had today’s, only tomorrow’s will matter.
To continue to get emotional value from the good experiences of the past takes a deliberate effort. People who make a practice at night of listing what they are grateful for from the events of the day are making that effort and are prolonging the “feel-good” effect.
The other thing I like about revisiting the day or the week’s good experiences is that they are already in the bank: you are not making your emotional positivity dependent on something that has yet to happen and, to paraphrase the idiot at the start of this article, might never happen.
It’s important to stress that the revisiting I’m talking about is very difficult for depressed people to do because they find it hard to recall good experiences. If you don’t get seriously depressed but fall into a black mood now and then you know what it’s like to see your past, present and future as bleak and hopeless. Turn the volume of that feeling up a hundredfold and you have an idea of how hard it is for the person who is depressed to revisit good experiences.
But I would urge people with recurring depression to try, during those periods when they are not depressed, to revisit the enjoyment of good, ordinary experiences. Whether this will prolong the depression-free period I don’t know, but it will increase your experience of wellbeing during that interval and that’s worth having. firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr Richard Davidson is the author, along with journalist Sharon Begley, of The Emotional Life of Your Brain.
Padraig O'Morain is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Mindfulness for Worriers. His mindfulness newsletter is free by email.