Christy Matta M.A. is a trainer, consultant and writer. She is the author of “The Stress Response: How Dialectical Behavior Therapy Can Free ...Read More
Emotions, such as anxiety, have evolved to help us focus our attention on the most important information in the environment around us. If we’re anxious, we must in some way be threatened, so we pay attention to potential threats around us. If you were anxious about walking alone along a dark city street, paying attention to potential threats can keep you safe.
However, when this attention to threat is exaggerated, your anxiety levels and symptoms of anxiety increase and are present even when you are not in danger. In one study, people trained to attend to threats, experienced anxiety in response to stressors, while people trained to avoid paying attention to threats had reduced symptoms over time (MacLeod & Bridle, 2009).
So what has all this got to do with life satisfaction? In a recent study in Emotion, Sarah Cavanagh and colleagues asked the question: if increased attention to threats leads to anxiety, then does increased attention to positive information lead to greater life satisfaction (2011)? Previous studies had found that when you feel happy, you tend to notice more positive things around you, such as rewarding words and positive images. Cavanagh and her colleagues explored whether this increased attention to positive things in your environment lead to positive changes in life satisfaction over time.
The study found that the focus on positive information does tend to accompany happy moods and is likely to lead to increases in life satisfaction over time.
In order to improve your own life satisfaction, consider some of the following strategies, based on skills in Marsha Linehan’s DBT skills workbook:
1. Do things that prompt feelings of happiness. If happy mood, makes you more likely to attend to positive information, which leads to longer term life satisfaction, then it makes sense to do things that make you feel happy. So soak in a bathtub, go on a date, laugh, eat good food, go swimming, exercise or do other things that make you happy.
2. Focus attention on positive events. Make a conscious effort to focus on positive events. When you notice yourself stuck in the negative, refocus on the positive.
3. Distract yourself from worries about negative things in life.
A few changes in what you attend to can make positive emotions linger, rather than quickly disappear.