The Everything Life Coaching Podcast, featuring JRNI Coaching founders John Kim and Noelle Cordeaux, is a deep dive into the experience and business of being a life coach. In this episode, we explore applied positive psychology interventions to help reduce stress and improve mood.
Who isn’t feeling drained these days? More people than ever before are experiencing feelings of overwhelm and exhaustion. A recent study by LinkedIn found that in the past year alone, survey respondents reported a 33% increase in their risk for professional burnout.
Depletion arises from a variety of emotional sources: sadness, fear, anxiety, overwork, “stuckness” and others. All of these feelings live in our limbic system, and the attending cortisol response can seriously disrupt the body’s natural processes.
With a feeling like sadness, our cortisol level goes up the next day. With fear and anxiety, cortisol spikes immediately.
Why is this important?
Cortisol is our primary stress hormone, the seat of our “fight or flight” response mechanism. It regulates glucose in the bloodstream, and curbs functions that are nonessential in life or death situations. Cortisol also has the capability to alter our immune system responses, suppress the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes. Cortisol also communicates with our brain regions that control mood, motivation and fear. (Mayoclinic)
When cortisol spikes, it disrupts our bodily functions. Over time, our emotions have the power to exert a major influence over our physical wellbeing.
So what can we do about these challenging feeling states?
It’s possible to use applied positive psychology interventions to intentionally increase our “feel-good” hormones to help combat the body’s stress response.
What’s an “applied positive intervention”?
Applied positive psychology interventions, or PPIs, are strategies and practices that have been empirically proven to help us induce positive emotions. Similar to physical exercise, we can intentionally deploy these techniques to generate the emotional nutrients we need to feel good.
According to research by Sin and Lyubomirsky (2009), all positive psychology interventions have two essential components:
- Focusing on enhancing happiness through positive thoughts and emotions
- Sustaining the effects for long-term
So how do we get our hands on these magic beans?
There are seven categories of applied positive interventions. We can choose from them at any time in order to best serve our needs.
This involves bringing attention to our sensory experiences through everyday activities like eating, touching, smelling, or observing. With savoring, we go beyond merely noticing. We bring our full attention and awareness to a sensation that is satisfying.
Here's how it works. Don’t just eat a piece of dark chocolate. Close your eyes and smell it first. Then let the square slowly melt on your tongue. What does it feel like? What’s the texture? Notice the pleasant interplay of sweet, creamy, and bitter. Savor.
“One caveat here: we’re not saying “eat your feelings!" Instead, we’re suggesting that you use regular activities like eating something you enjoy as an opportunity to be present with the pleasant sensations in your body.” - John Kim
The magic of gratitude is that by simply naming things or people we feel grateful for, it immediately produces more positive and motivated feelings inside of us. Expressions of gratitude also offer the dual benefit of producing good feelings for both the giver as well as the receiver.
There are two ways to practice gratitude interventions:
Self-reflective practices: solo activities like journaling, making art, singing, or other aspects of self-expression.
Interactive methods: when we actively express our gratitude to others by saying “thank you”. Letter writing is a great tool here, as are phone calls!
3. Kindness and altruism
Like gratitude, acts of selfless giving have a positive effect on both the giver as well as the receiver. And these two activities go great together - you can always “stack” positive interventions!
- Give your nephew a gift for no reason
- Plan a romantic night for your partner
- Donate meals to help beat hunger
- Pay a friend’s bill
- Pick up trash in your neighborhood
- Make a charitable donation in someone’s name
- Give compliments - all day long!
The magnitude doesn’t matter - any act of selfless giving produces a positive inner shift.
When we put ourselves in another person’s shoes, we build our capability to more deeply understand and connect with others. Empathy mapping is a fabulous relationship building tool!
How does it work?
Whatever is going on, stop, drop, and really consider the person you are interacting with. Ask yourself:
- What are they seeing, hearing, thinking, feeling, saying and doing?
- Take the time to write it out, or talk it out with a trusted other.
Building this map allows you to take a 360 walk in someone else’s shoes. The "environmental" piece can be especially important because it helps bring in context for the other person that we may not have otherwise considered. For example, a crying child in the background on a work Zoom call might cause you to reflect on the challenges for your coworker of homeschooling while also trying to work full time.
This one can feel particularly difficult when we’re down, and it’s no surprise why. Our minds are naturally drawn to focus on the negative: to identify threats and control for outcomes. Unfortunately, the brain’s negativity bias really does us a huge disservice.
But guess what? You don't have to be a inborn "glass half full" kind of person for this one to work! It’s possible to generate optimism. Simply cultivating optimistic thoughts produces the same chemical benefits as if you’d naturally felt it to begin with.
Optimism training does work - it’s a skill that can be learned. And it's worth exploring. Positive psychologist Barabara Fredrickson heralds taking the time to call in positive emotions as one of the core things we can do to build up our resilience.
6) Leaning into Character
Character strengths come to us from the work of Chris Peterson and Martin Selegman. These strengths represent psychological pathways that all humans possess for helping ourselves and others. Strengths are different from our “talents” - they’re a deeper cut of existence: kindness, generosity, hope, open-mindedness and so on.
Our strengths give us clues as to how we can begin to live from the inside out vs. the outside in - which helps us to reduce stress and engage in flow states. All of the research shows that consistently using your top 5 character strengths in a realistic manner leads to the development of deep authenticity connection and contentment in life.
If you’d like to find out what your Character Strengths are, consider taking the VIA Strengths Assessment. It’s free!
Researcher Paul Wong believes that learning about meaning and its associated outcomes is truly the next frontier of positive psychology. In fact, some are now calling new research on meaning “Positive Psychology 2.0”.
If we consider Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the highest level of human need includes self-enhancement and self-esteem, both of which are met when we find purpose and meaning in life. Everyone has to define what’s meaningful for themselves, which has the potential to become the adventure of a lifetime!
Unlike medically based psychology interventions that foster change at a cognitive or affective level, these seven PPIs are directed towards improving upon what is already inside us - which is also how coaching works. It is comforting to know that we all have what we need already. Go inward for the treasures!
Interested in harnessing positive psychology to help others?
If you’ve not yet earned your life coaching certification, come check out JRNI Life Coach Training. Grounded in science, our ICF accredited program features authentic instructors, a robust curriculum, and fellow students dedicated to becoming a force for good in the world.