The Happiness Blueprint

Make the Good Times Slow

In most of my posts I rant about something that has filled my head and hindered my emotional life and then I wax pseudo-philosophical as to how I am trying to resolve it in my mind. Today, as the blind squirrel goes, I have stumbled upon something real to give. If you read this, internalize it, understand it and live it, you will experience your milieu in a novel, fresh way that may change you for the better.

A few days ago my boss brought up the common idea that time appears to pass quickly while she is having fun but asked the interesting question: is that a good thing or bad ? She said she doesn’t want to blink her eyes and wake up a 90yr old woman who may have had a good time during her life but because it passed so fast, she missed everything in the middle; a Catch-22 to be sure. If we enjoy an experience, time seems to pass quickly but if we get mired down and allow boredom to reign then we live slowly without pleasure and joy. Can we harness the good, fast moments and edge out the slow? The answer, as always, is in Tomkins but first some background ideas…

I often think of beginner’s mind, an idea talked about many times in Eastern writings but never elucidated more clearly than in Suzuki’s book of the same name: Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind. In it he suggests that when undertaking a task we should act like beginners instead of taking the experience for granted and rushing through things we think we are good at doing. We should act as if we were executing the task or job or having the experience for the first time, as if we were novices, even if we think we are experts!

What if we apply this idea to good times as well?  For a generally happy person, according to productivity expert Dr. Mark Welch, an 80% good day is about as perfect as it can get. To squeeze more out of life, we need to act as if we are beginners at experiencing the good. Before you eat your favorite breakfast food, enjoy your morning walk, or spend an intimate encounter with your valentine, act as if you have never eaten that food, taken that walk or touched the skin of your loved one before in your life. Spice your normal day with depth, color and complexity; this morning, touch the ground as if for the first time, head to work with your mind open and greet your co-workers with a child-like smile. Try this for small scenes (stored experiences) or big events and you will find new joy in simple and complex ways.

Radio Lab, a brilliant podcast if you ever get stuck in a car and want to be engaged by great ideas, recently covered “time.” One experiment they focused on was conducted by a man who rigged people with a special timing device so that while they were falling out of an airplane (on purpose) they would watch the device to observe whether time passed more slowly during an emotionally dense experience. The results were disappointing. People falling do not become endowed with special time-slowing abilities, they simply remember the details of the experience. When we are in a car wreck or see something that elicits a dense emotional response, our brains “memorize” the minutia of the experience because of the density of affect (basic feeling) associated with the memories. My question is: how can we use this insight to our advantage? How can we live our daily life with dense joy, intense interest and depth of experience?

First we must know that any of the 9 innate affects can be the “thumb tacks” that pin emotional experiences to our hippocampal (memory gatekeeper) wall.  The affects we want to minimize are fear, distress, anger, shame, dissmell (dislike without knowledge) and disgust. We cannot live without these negative affects but we can, every day, try to change the balance between these 6 negative and the 2 positive affects (interest and joy).

Tomkins’ Central Blueprint (paraphrased) is the key:

1. Maximize the positive affects (interest & joy).

2. Minimize the six negative affects(fear,distress, anger, shame, dissmell (dislike without knowledge) and disgust).

3. Maximize affective expression (don’t hold in or fake your emotions).

4. Nurture your capacity to do 1-3.

What does this mean in the context of making the good times slow?  Because our brains are wired to repeat patterns, if we want to have a truly new experience we must let go of the old expectation and before we enter a new scene, clear our minds of the past and prime (thought before a scene) ourselves with interest or joy. We must live genuinely and be honest about the negatives. In order to minimize the negatives we must understand and lessen the occurrence and exposure to these negative scenes.  Priming tough days, meetings, interactions and dreadful experiences with a clean slate and a positive thought can help skew the scale of affect towards the good.

Our brains are designed to store the similar scenes of our life together in books we call families of scenes. When we find ourselves experiencing a positive scene that is similar to a past experience, we run the script (basic program) from our mind that governs that similar family of scenes. This is not a bad thing but if we want to prolong the good, joyful, exciting times (maximizing the positive) we must be aware of what we are feeling and extract the current experience from our past script and treat it as new and different. There are always differences in the present scene that differentiate it from the past. Our minds try to find a “best fit” for the sake of efficiency. Try to feel the uniqueness of the moment, palpate it, feel it in your gut; this scene is different than any before it and you can revel in the positive and make it slow. Sing your favorite song and bathe in joy and life, take a deep breath and make it last when you are feeling good.

Try this: think about the next item on your todo list (something you have been putting off). Now clear your mind of the ways you have handled/experienced it in the past. Act like a beginner at the task and allow the positive affect to flow. Think about paying attention to the details of the task in a new way, allow it to feel different, like you have never done it before. (Leave me a comment and let me know if that one thing was easier to do.)

When we come across moments of beauty and satisfaction, we must take the time to breathe them in and paint indelible pictures in our minds. We can slow down the good and take control of our lives by allowing the self-amplifying nature of affect to work its magic. When you know you are feeling/experiencing something good, stay inside it, revel in it, make it slow and allow the feeling to wash over your entire body; breathe it in, taste it, feel it in your toes. If you can learn to live Tomkins’ Blueprint you will make the good times slow, live an 80%+ life full of love, novelty, honest interactions, find joy in any moment you wish and it will last every peaceful day for the rest of your exciting and beautiful life.

To learn more about affect and how to maximize emotional expression visit or if you’re in the DFW area visit I’m on the board for the later and we feel in our hearts that we can help, one community member at a time, make our world a better place to share.

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6 Responses to “The Happiness Blueprint”

  1. Post It Girl

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    I read this a few times to really soak it in. I will try this approach to the next time I write, to feel the joy in it. What your are saying makes sense, to be filled with wonder and joy. The question that comes to mind is on from relationships. I am an open person and enjoy giving, feeling and sharing. From my last experience I learned that I need to make new ‘rules’ so I don’t get my heart really hurt. So how do we balance the lessons we have learned in our past to help us grow and viewing the world beautiful and new like a child? Thank you I appreciate your thoughts on that.
    -Post It Girl

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  2. Brian Westendorf

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    Thank you Post It Girl for your comment.

    If look back to the Blueprint, Dr. Vick Kelly applies it to relationships like this:

    In this system, a couple’s capacity to be intimate is viewed as mediated through their ability to
    1) maximize positive affect,
    2) minimize negative affect,
    3) minimize the inhibition of affect, and
    4) develop interpersonal mechanisms (scripts) that maximize 1-3 above.
    Thus, a couple who never experience mutual interest-excitement and enjoyment-joy cannot be intimate, just as a couple who never stop
    fighting cannot be intimate.” – Intimate Notes Bulletin of the Tomkins Institute, Vol I, 1994 p. 24-26. Click for the article

    If, for example, your experience was with someone who reacted often in anger or didn’t share interest in the things that you wanted them to, I think that is a good example of where minimizing negative affect and developing scripts that minimize shared negative affect and/or maximize sharing positive affect is important. Early in relationships, we all know, idiosyncratically, what we do or do not like about how we feel with the other person. I’d say dive into relationships with the expectation that it is an adventure, like a child at disneyland, but when we find a lack of positive sharing or mismatch of negative with the other person, it is probably time to look elsewhere for your needs. I think we can still go into new relationships tabula rasa but with the knowledge that when we see a pattern in the other person’s actions that we have seen before and do not like, hit eject.

    So hard to do. I know. So many people in their 30’s, 40’s and 50’s who are looking for love are so jaded with quirky idiosyncrasies that they don’t get any joy from dating. Many are even disgusted by the thought. If we can give ourselves permission to be open and see each new interest as a different person who has nothing to do with those that hurt us, I think we will, even if it doesn’t last, have a better experience and actually give someone new a shot.

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  3. Ms. Lawyer

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    This is a wonderful post, and not only because it shows that 2 can be greater than 6 (speaking of course of the negative and positive affects). A change in perspective can do wonders in producing an enduring sense of happiness in life. As you indicate, we must simply let go of inhibiting expectations and live honestly. A major component of this is embracing our present, acknowledging that our past has led us to the present, and continuing forward with hopes that open, rather than close, ourselves to new opportunities and with the sense to abstain from engaging in vicious cycles that bring us down.

    Over the last few years I’ve committed myself to this sort of positive thinking. Previously, I was not satisfied with life. I regretted decisions I had made, opportunities I had missed, and felt as if my life had become stagnant. However, I stopped my brooding when I became tired of myself. No one wants to be around a “debbie-downer”, let alone become one. From that point, I forced myself to change my perspective. And when I changed, the world changed for me.

    I can honestly say that since that point that I have not been unhappy. That sounds corny and unrealistic, so let me be clear. I have been disappointed, I have been sad, and I have been frustrated. But I have not been fundamentally unhappy with life. I have accepted all that has come before in my life, and now take each day as another opportunity to continue to do the things that make me happy with the people who make me happy. It’s easy for me to say now that most of my prior regret was the result of my discontent with my then-present; I was so dissatisfied that it was easier to cast blame on the past than to make the effort to create a better future. At times, uncontrollable forces can direct our lives, but more often we are the ones who are in control. We have the power to make the moments in our lives worth savoring, and savor those moments by bending the metaphysical aspects of time.

    I realize that this whole comment is probably too optimistic for most people to take seriously, but I do want to give some credence to what you have said. I’m not a wise person, just an old soul trapped in a young person’s body, and I must say that if anyone feels the need to improve their lives they should try out your advice and see what happens.

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  4. Brian Westendorf

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    Thank you Ms Lawyer for a just-the-right-amount-of-optimism comment. I love hearing about people’s paradigm shift moments – the Groundhog Day epiphany when you wake up and instead of trying desperately to get out of now, you embrace the time you have and make it the best that you possibly can.

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  5. Meagan

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    Amen. This is a truely amazing message that everyone should read.

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  6. Brian Westendorf

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    Thanks Megs. I know we always seem to have the same basic conversation: how do we live a good life and how can we help others do the same? I think asking the question and giving a damn about the answer is probably the answer. See you bright and early!

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