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Sept. 25, 2018

We’ve all been there: a big project comes back with a disappointing grade. We experience hurt in a relationship. Someone cuts us off in traffic. Any of these situations could cause us to feel a number of negative emotions – disappointment, frustration, even anger. According to Wilfrid Laurier University instructor Meghan Kirwin, experiencing these feelings is key to thriving.

“Negative emotions are critical to the human experience and our overall ability to thrive,” says Kirwin, who teaches in Laurier’s positive psychology certificate program. “Without negative emotions, we can’t experience positive emotions. We need one in order to have the other.”

Positive psychology emerged as a scientific field of study in the late 1990s; in recent years, professionals like Kirwin have focused on how negative emotions contribute to overall well-being.

Turning a Negative into a Positive

Sadness, for example, is an emotion most people would regard as negative. Feeling sad may make us cry, feel hopeless or frightened. Kirwin says experiencing sadness with another person is a deep form of connection, one that is core to thriving human relationships.

Similarly, anger can propel us to take action to make positive changes in our lives. When negative emotions do find us, Kirwin says it is important to “honour those feelings” and allow ourselves to experience them.

“Negative emotions are not something to be ashamed of and shouldn’t be supressed,” she says. “When they come, we need to let ourselves sit in that moment, acknowledge it and then let it pass through.”

Being aware of how we are feeling is the basic idea behind mindfulness. When we are mindful of our emotions, Kirwin says we are better equipped to navigate life’s ups and downs.

Mindfulness 101

Mindfulness is more than a just a tool we can use to boost our mood; it is a daily practice that can help us regulate the wide range of human emotions and behaviours.

“We have to train our brains to experience positive emotion because it is easy for negativity to take over,” says Kirwin. “Savouring moments of gratitude, joy or creativity throughout our day is crucial to really thriving. Take time to recognize and relish those experiences when they occur.”

Kirwin is specifically interested in the relationship between mindfulness and nature, which was the focus of her graduate research conducted while studying at the University of East London in England. Kirwin conducted pre- and post-experience assessments about positive affect, savouring and mindfulness on a group of Outward Bound participants who spent eight days in the mountains of western Canada.

Her research, to be published in the winter of 2019, found that the participants continued to experience an increase in positive affect and the ability to savour positive emotions three months after their mountain experience. Her research has also found that nature exposure positively impacts the aspects of mindfulness.

Based on her findings highlighting the emotional benefits of spending time in natural environments, Kirwin hopes that mindfulness training will be integrated into the provincial curriculum and orientation programming at post-secondary institutions. It’s a practice that will benefit all ages.

“We have a choice for our own well-being,” says Kirwin. “It’s not about what’s going on around us. It’s about us – it’s about me.”

About Laurier’s Positive Psychology Certificate

Offered through the Centre for Public Safety and Well-Being at Wilfrid Laurier University, the Positive Psychology certificate is an online program that provides students with the knowledge and skills required to effectively understand and use the scientific foundations and applied interventions of positive psychology to enhance their own overall well-being. For more information about the certificate, start dates and fees, please email cpsw@wlu.ca.

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