by Ann Marie Ippoliti

I often ask myself what in particular drove me to immerse myself in learning everything I can about positive psychology. There is the obvious answer: Who doesn’t want to be happier? And there are a multitude of other reasons, like the mind-blowing science, the people who continually inspire me with their stories, and the sharing of the human experience, allowing us to realize we all go through the same emotions (at varying degrees) and are all working toward greater well-being.

Being at IPPA’s Fourth World Congress on Positive Psychology in June reminded me of all those things. Every speaker brought at least one of those elements to the table. And each person’s talk spoke to me in some way.

When I think back to the themes that most resonated with me, they are curiosity, discomfort and the courage to fail, and positive emotions as nutrients.

It was curiosity that brought each to us to the conference, and it was curiosity that ignited the research many speakers presented. Presenter David Cooperrider, co-creator of Appreciative Inquiry, a strength-based approach to innovation and change, expressed the importance of curiosity so eloquently with these words, “Human souls move in the direction of the questions we ask.” This has helped me to learn to ask better questions in order to create a path towards flourishing.

Discomfort and the Courage to Fail
Whenever I tell people about positive psychology, I try to make the point that it’s not just about being happy—it’s about realizing the need to accept suffering and discomfort in our lives. You wouldn’t think that suffering and sadness would be such a prominent theme at a conference on positive psychology, and yet, it might have been more present than topics that immediately come to mind, like strengths.

Sociologist and psychologist Corey Keyes expressed the discomfort he’s experienced in his own life (he suffers from depression) and also spoke about how uncomfortable we are as a society talking about the disease. His “coming out” about his experience with mental illness was met with so much love from those in the room. Everyone was able to relate to how uncomfortable it can be to share our stories of suffering, even though we know that no one can bypass it.

None of us wishes to add discomfort to our lives, and yet every meaningful moment was achieved with at least some level of discomfort. It’s discomfort that helps us appreciate why flourishing is such a desirable outcome. Along with discomfort comes the courage to fail. As with all learning, we can only gauge how far we’ve come by reflecting on our experiences, which include so many failures that were all stepping stones to our successes. In her talk, psychology professor and researcher Carol Ryff, creator of the Ryff Scales of Psychological Well-Being, expressed the need for suffering, maintaining that our eudemonic well-being can only be achieved via encounters with the negative. It’s refreshing to look at our challenges as opportunities to embrace discomfort in our lives.

Positive Emotions as Nutrients
Both Barbara Fredrickson, author of Love 2.0, and Rollin McCraty, vice president and director of research for the HeartMath Institute, discussed the direct link between our positive emotions and our health, using heart rate variability (HRV) as an indicator. (HRV has been found to decrease under stress and anxiety, and a reduced HRV is associated with a range of health conditions.)

With her “broaden and build” theory, Fredrickson expressed the need to treat positive emotions like “nutrients,” which we must ingest daily as the benefits show up long-term. Practicing every day is what gets us there. This practice (the nutrients) affects our HRV, which she told us can actually change gene expression. McCraty took this one step farther, showing how HRV is not only important to our own health but also to those around us. His research shows that our heart radiates an electromagnetic signal reaching three feet away; when we are within five feet of other people, we are directly impacting each other through the health of our hearts.

Since returning from the conference, I find myself coming back to each of these themes throughout my days. My goal now is to continue embracing them: by beginning each day with curiosity, waking up to the question, “What can I learn today?”; by taking a moment to embrace each challenge as it hits me, knowing that eventually it will help me grow; and more than anything, by reflecting at the end of my day on the positive emotions I experienced that day, and taking a moment to savor them.

Ann Marie Ippoliti is an eager student of positive psychology who is currently earning her Certificate in Positive Psychology with the Wholebeing Institute. She works in the fashion industry, specializing in merchandise planning, and has more than 15 years of experience working with multibillion dollar companies, including Michael Kors, the Gap, and Polo Ralph Lauren. Ann Marie has been called a “guru of efficiency” by her peers, and aims to integrate that efficiency with positivity.