How to arm yourself with positive thoughts for a happier, healthier life.

How to arm yourself with positive thoughts for a happier, healthier life.

Positive emotions feel good. Picture yourself in a moment of pure happiness; a smile can’t be wiped off your face, you feel a kind of warmth radiating throughout you, and all feels right in the world. It feels good right?


Well, positive emotions do so much more than make us feel good; they change our physiology to make us physically healthier too. People who view themselves as happier--who feel positive emotions more frequently--experience all sorts of health benefits, including lower cortisol levels, less inflammation, better cholesterol levels, lower risk for diabetes, and better quality sleep.


These changes make you feel physically healthier in the moment and have a long term impact on health. “The nun study” is one of my favorite examples of the immense power of positive thinking. Back in the 1930’s, 180 young Catholic nuns were asked to write short personal essays about their lives; they described important life events, religious experiences, and what led them to the convent. 60 years later, 3 researchers at the University of Kentucky used them to study Alzheimer’s disease and aging. They read each essay, scoring them for positive emotional content and recording instances of happiness, interest, love, and hope. Nuns with the highest amount of positive emotional content in their essay lived up to 10.7 years longer than those with the lowest amount.


Clearly, positive emotions matter when it comes to your health.


How you can cultivate positive emotions in your life.

Most of us wait around for life and our circumstances to give us moments of amusement, happiness, joy, or gratitude, but what if I told you that you can take charge of how you feel and give yourself these moments every single day? 


Just like focus and self discipline are skills you can work at and develop, so is positive thinking. Here are 5 great strategies--inspired by Sonja Lyubomirsky’s book, Living in the Present--that will help you cultivate positive emotions and make you more optimistic in your everyday life.


1. Relish in the ordinary.

The majority of our lives are not made up of awe-inspiring, extraordinary experiences, so learning to savor the things that do make up the most of our lives--mundane, everyday moments like going to the grocery store, walking to the subway every morning, making dinner, and so on--will keep you feeling positive and happy. 


In a study on the impact of savoring on well-being, depressed patients were asked to relish an ordinary event they usually rushed through every day. They then journaled about how they experienced that event differently, and how their feelings during the event differed from times they had rushed through it. Not much to ask right?


Those who had practiced savoring were significantly happier and less depressed than those hadn’t. Savoring the little moments is such a simple thing to do, yet so many people forget to do it in the hustle and bustle of life. 


It’s amazing how taking the time to do things like focus on and enjoy a meal every day or to savor a hot shower can start to change your entire mindset towards the world around you--so much so that you naturally begin to notice wonderful things all around you without even thinking about it or trying.


2. Reminisce

When you reminisce, the positive emotions you felt in that happy memory are brought into the present, and when you reminisce with other people, these positive feelings are compounded. Think about how much more vivid your emotions often feel when you’re reminiscing about a happy experience with another person, and then compare it to how you feel when you reminisce by yourself. 


The memory comes to life when you’re with others--the positive feelings literally bubble over and out of the memory through laughter and smiles in a way they don’t when you’re alone. Taking the time to call your friend and joke about that time you went on a trip together, or to call your grandmother to remember funny stories from your childhood will bring you real feelings of joy, contentment, amusement, and so on.


If you’re reminiscing and replaying happy days by yourself, pull out old pictures and see how well you can transport yourself to that happy memory. The more you can make a happy memory from the past come alive in your head, the more intensely you will feel those emotions in the present.

3. Celebrate good news!

As humans, we have a tendency to downplay our accomplishments. Something like a graduation should be a celebration of years of hard work and perseverance, yet it’s difficult for many people to curb the urge to let their feelings about what’s next overshadow what they’ve already done; instead of reveling in the moment, we’re considering how much more work is yet to come with things like graduate school or climbing the ladder in your field.


The next time you have good news, make an effort to set aside these thoughts and be excited about what you’ve already done; think about how hard you have worked; imagine the good things other people are saying about what you’ve done; consider how what you’ve done has or will impact the lives of others.


Celebrating these moments and sharing good news with other people has a compounding effect on positive feelings, and celebrating other people’s good news has a similar effect. When you or a loved one has good news or has accomplished something great, be sure to really revel in the moment!


3. Seek out the beauty in the world around you

In the bustle and stress of life, it’s easy to overlook the beautiful and things going on all around you. When we slow down and appreciate beauty and excellence, we are more likely to experience joy, meaning, and profound connection in our lives.


Try this: go for a walk in your neighborhood, and strive to pay attention to the things around you that you usually just pass by. You’ll be amazed at how much beauty you can find around you when you consciously look for it; has that tree always been there?; how have I never noticed the stunning details of that house or building?; does spring always smell this fresh?; you’ll find that beauty is all around you if you only remember to look for it.


4. Be mindful

“Mindfulness is about being fully awake in our lives. It is about perceiving the exquisite vividness of each moment. We also gain immediate access into our inner resources for insight, transformation, and healing.” -Jon Kabat-Zinn

Practicing mindfulness involves clearing your mind and working to be present in the moment. Mindfulness has been studied extensively by positive psychologists, and there is abundant evidence that those who practice mindfulness have better mental health and subjective well-being; they are more likely than the average person to be happy, optimistic, self-confident, and satisfied with their lives and less likely to be depressed, angry, hostile, self-conscious, impulsive, or neurotic.


Mindfulness has also been found to be a powerful buffer from stress and disease. Mindfulness interventions have been found to slow down HIV pathogenesis and inflammation as well as reduce depression relapse and drug abuse. 


Focusing on breathing, learning relaxation techniques, and becoming aware of bodily sensations, thoughts, and emotions promotes mindfulness. When you notice yourself feeling rushed or stressed out, use it as a sign to bring your awareness to your breath and bring yourself back into the present moment. 


5. Take pleasure in the senses

It’s rare that we take the time to luxuriate in the wonderful experiences we can have just by using our senses. Mindful eating is a perfect example of this; if you focus your attention on eating a square of chocolate, you will derive more pleasure from the experience than if you eat that chocolate while you’re distracted by other things.


The same goes for just about any sensory experience. If we stop to enjoy the feeling of a warm breeze and focus on how good it feels, we’ll get more pleasure out of it than if that same breeze blows on us while we’re distracted.


Connect with your senses. Take the time to focus on a meal you’re eating without distractions; sit on your back porch and enjoy the sounds around you, the wind blowing on you, the smell of spring carried on the breeze. It’s easy to get more out of our built in mechanisms for feeling good when we settle our focus on them.


A closer look at the science of positive emotions

As researchers work to understand why positive emotions are so good for our health, they have found strong support for two predominant theories: the undoing effect and the broaden-and-build theory.


The undoing effect

Barbra Frederickson, one of the leading researchers on positive emotions, is on a quest to bring the same level of understanding to positive emotions as we have for negative emotions. 


She hypothesizes that positive emotions actually undo the cardiovascular after-effects of negative emotions, and she has conducted several studies that provide strong support for this theory.


In one of her studies on the undoing effect, she exposed participants to an anxiety provoking situation followed by a short video clip that induced either amusement, contentment, no emotion, or sadness. The results were striking; those exposed to a video clip that induced a positive emotion fully recovered from the cardiovascular reactivity to anxiety much more quickly than those exposed to a video inducing sadness or no emotion, as depicted in Frederickson’s picture below.

The body’s physical response to negative emotions is linked to the development of disease, especially heart-disease. That’s why the discovery of the undoing effect of positive emotions on these disease promoting processes is so exciting; it gives new meaning to the saying, “laughter is the best medicine.”


The broaden and build theory

Positive emotions are a huge part of personal development and growth as they facilitate inspiration, creativity, problem solving, and seeing “the big picture.” As such, the frequency with which a person experiences positive emotions is a huge factor in how they perceive overall quality of life and well-being.


The broaden and build theory posits that positive emotions change the way we think; they broaden our mindset in the moment, and by doing so, launch us into a state of mind that builds enduring resources that contribute to personal growth and prepare us for future tough times.


“...joy and playfulness build a variety of resources. Consider children at play in the schoolyard or adults enjoying a game of basketball in the gym. Although their immediate motivations may be simply hedonistic—to enjoy the moment—they are at the same time building physical, intellectual, psychological and social resources. The physical activity leads to long-term improvements in health, the game-playing strategies develop problem-solving skills, and the camaraderie strengthens social bonds that may provide crucial support at some time in the future” (Frederickson, 2003)


So not only do positive emotions make us feel good and improve our health, they also build enduring intellectual, social, physical, and psychological resources.


Try some of the mindfulness and savoring activities listed above, and you’ll be amazed by how many beautiful things you notice around you, things that have always been there, but you just needed a reminder of. Learning to live in the present moment will put you on a path towards a truly happier and healthier life.


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