Remember when I said, your baby wants you to be happy? Have you spent much time thinking about what you do to make yourself happy? Too often psychology and psychologists are seen as the people who help you with problems. If you have spent any time with me, you have heard me talk about a problem-solving approach to feelings. I think that often I am misunderstood to be implying that feelings themselves are problems. I do not see feelings as problems to eliminate. I actually believe that almost all feelings have a job or a purpose. Feelings are important.

Feelings can motivate us to take actions that keep us alive. For example, it is scary to stand in a crosswalk. It doesn’t really matter that drivers are supposed to stop for pedestrians. Lots of people don’t do what they are supposed to do. When we are scared, our brains automatically expect bad/dangerous things to happen. That is sort of helpful, if you are standing in the middle of the street. Fear not only tells you to expect danger but it also can make your heart rate go up to help you can run if you need to.  But fear, like all feelings, can go awry. We can find ourselves terrified of other people’s docile pets or of driving our cars or of making a mistake. These situations are usually not dangerous and expecting danger can distract us from the blessings of Fluffy or the freedom that a car gives us.

Feelings also are essential to communicating. We need to see people’s faces to know if they are using sarcasm or hyperbole. Their words sometimes fail to send the whole message. Feelings also motivate us to act in ways that helps us stay together in a group. For example, when we show joy or pleasure other people are more likely to want to be with us to share that feeling. Good things feel good but they feel even better when we share them with someone. Congratulating someone with a flat expression on your face tends to trigger a very different emotion in the listener than a hearty congratulations with a broad grin and a little happy dance.

Similarly, if somebody is expressing anger, it is pretty common for others to want to move away. People tend to be drawn toward angry displays are when they are ready to take on a fight. The rest of us will probably choose another time to stake our claim on the issue later — after heads have cooled and we can discuss the issue because fights can go wrong. Feelings of anger might motivate us to push on if our goal is frustrated but unregulated expressions of anger can go awry. The problem with anger is that if we don’t have a tools for decreasing the intensity of our anger before we tackle obstacles, we might make others anger or frightened.

What about all those feelings that we want to go on and on and on. Do they fit into a problem-solving approach? I think they do. Happiness and pride and warmth and peace and hope are wonderful. The problem that we often give far too little attention to is how to increase the amount of time that we feel the feelings we want to feel. A problem-solving approach means that you can take action through your behavior or your ways of thinking that intensifies and extend those positive feelings.

Positive psychology takes the perspective that a scientific understanding of human behavior can give us the tools not just to escape pain and suffering. Psychology has information that can be used to heighten joy, satisfaction, curiosity, affection, pride, peace, etc. . . .  Do you ever think about what you are doing when you feel some of these feelings? Have you even thought about what you want to do to feel good every day for some of the day?

What you are happy doing is not always that same thing that makes others feel happy. Human beings are rich individuals. We have different core strengths and feel satisfied by different things. With maturity we may all be able to appreciate fairness or compassion. We may all be able to practice it. Some of us, however, will get up everyday to make sure we do something that helps make the world a little more fair for people who are not treated fairly. Others of us will make sure that everyday we find something beautiful and wonderful in the human experience. We have different core strengths. When we know our strengths, we can be more attentive to living in a world that builds our strengths and satisfies our needs better.

Do you want to learn about your core strengths? Take a look at this web site by the VIA Institute. This group is filled with some of the original founders of the Positive Psychology field. They offer a free survey with which you may identify your core strengths. The brief report is free. A more in-depth analysis is available for fee. There are activities and exercises to build up your understanding of you core strengths and resources for enhancing your quality of life with an eye on your strengths.

What if you understood your strengths well enough to help foster your child’s strengths? How would your life change? How would your child’s?  Taking action to increase your positive feelings doesn’t mean you are escaping a problem but it does mean that you taking a problem-solving approach.

Kelly Champion, PhD.