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Positive Psychology: The Benefits of Living Positively

Positive psychology often is passed off as pop psychology or New Age-y by those who haven’t actually looked into it.

The actual theory behind positive psychology was defined in 1998 by Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi [1] and looks at all aspects of a person’s psychology. It does not discount traditional psychology, nor supersede it. Rather than viewing psychology purely as a treatment for the malign, however, it looks at the positive. Positive psychology is a recognized form of therapy and is offered by some counselors and psychologists.

Psychology has always been interested in where people’s lives have gone wrong, and what has resulted because of it [2]. Illnesses such as depression are well-documented and patterns of depressive behavior well-known. However, until recently, what makes people happy and how they achieve inner happiness and well-being has been a mystery.

Practitioners of positive psychology study people whose lives are positive and try to learn from them, in order to help others achieve this state of happiness [3]. It is a scientific study and not remotely hippie-ish, despite its connotations.

Positive thinking is one aspect of positive psychology. Surrounding yourself with a great lifestyle and material goods may seem to lead to happiness, but how you really feel is governed by what goes on inside your head. When you go out of your way to think positively, you actually purge yourself of negative self-talk. [1]

Negative self-talk is one of the biggest barriers to positive thinking. People become so accustomed to negative thinking that their conscious mind will pull them down, even when they have done nothing wrong. These people become insecure, overly apologetic and indecisive. Worse still, they open the door to numerous stress-related problems.


Negative thinkers have four common mindsets:

=> Filtering.
Many negative thinkers will pull the negatives out of a situation and focus on them. Sometimes these people will see only the negative in a situation, to the point where they deny any positive.
=> Personalizing.
Some people make every tragedy about themselves. They will personalize every negative thing and assume that bad things happen because they are unlucky, or as a result of something they did or didn’t do. They will often construct negative situations with perfect logic, providing plausible reasons why negative things are either their fault or set out to hurt them.
=> Catastrophizing.
This involves anticipating the worst. Some people even precipitate it. They can turn a slightly awkward interaction into an overreaction, making the situation worse. If something negative does happen, they will use it to validate their negative assumptions.
=> Polarizing.
This type of negative thinker sees things as black or white. Either a situation is perfect or it is a catastrophe. This type of negative thinking can affect every area of a person’s life. Its effects can be both psychological and physical. By practicing positive thinking, you can actually stave off medical conditions and reap the benefits of having a positive outlook on life.

Depression is complicated illness with physical and mental health elements. It would be flippant to suggest that someone with a positive outlook will not encounter depressive feelings.

However, positive psychology can be beneficial in treating depression. It can equip sufferers with the tools to stop downward spirals when they begin and help them to see the positive aspects to their lives. It can also help to stop the negative thinking habits that are common in depression. [4]

Scientific studies also show that there is a direct link between stress and the immune system. When a person is experiencing a period of stress and negativity, his or her body is less able to mount an inflammatory response to attacks from bacteria and viruses. This results in an increase in infections such as the common cold and cold sores. [5] Having a positive outlook on life also equips people better for dealing with serious illness. Tackling diseases such as cancer with optimism and self-belief has shown to have a beneficial effect on recovery and ability to tolerate treatment.

Among the other health benefits listed above, positive thinkers have a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease. They tend to have lower blood pressure than those who do not engage in positive thinking. The health benefits extend to the emotional side, too. optimists will have better physical and psychological well-being, and better skills for coping with stress and hardship.

It is important to remember that simply having a positive mindset won’t actually stop bad things from happening. But it does give you the tools to better deal with bad situations. Sometimes your coping skills come down to nothing more than refusing to give in to your negative side and your fears. For some people, positive thinking comes quite naturally. For others, seeking professional help is necessary to get them on the right track.


References

[1] http://www.ippanetwork.org/divisions/
[2] http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2003/nov/19/1
[3] http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/Default.asp
[4] http://www.positivepsychologytraining.co.uk/depression/
[5] Miller, G. E. & Cohen, S. (2005). Infectious disease and psychoneuroimmununology. In K. Vedhara & M. Irwin (Eds.). Human psychoneuroimmunology. New York: Oxford University Press.
[6] http://uhs.berkeley.edu/students/healthpromotion/pdf/Positive%20Thinking.pdf

By Joanna Fishman              8 Jul 2018
happiness

 

20 Things to Avoid if You Want to Be Happier

Life requires that we prioritize what is important. The simple reason is that we don’t have enough time to do all – or even most – of the things that make us happier.

Part of prioritizing means saying “no” to certain people and things.

In this article, we’re going to focus our attention on 20 things that we would do well to say “no.” You’ll see many familiar things on here (T.V., anyone?) However, you may be a bit more surprised at some of the other things that can make you happier.

DO YOURSELF A FAVOR AND SAY ‘NO’ TO THESE 20 THINGS TO BECOME HAPPIER:

1 – ALCOHOL/DRUGS
For those made to suffer through the atrocious circa 90s “Just Say No” commercials, we apologize.

Drugs are atrociously bad for mental and physical health. Drugs ruin lives, families, and institutions. Per statistics published by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, drug abuse and addiction cost American society alone over $700 billion per year.

It’s common for substance abuse to abuse both alcohol and drugs. There also exist correlations between substance abuse and mental health problems.

The message here is simple: stay away from drugs and limit alcohol intake.

2 – MORE WORK
Some people love what they do, and that’s a beautiful place to be. For the rest of us, however, work should be viewed as a necessity to live. You’d think that we live forever considering just how much time some people spend at the office.

Per a report by the American Institute of Stress (AIS), “job stress is far and away the major source of stress for American adults,” adding, “[job stress] has escalated progressively over the past few decades.” (Emphasis added)

3 – FAST FOOD
Unless you’re super careful, and the place that you eat offers healthy options, fast food can show up on your waistline quick. Statistics show that a fast food meal contributes a disproportionately high percentage of daily caloric intake.

Over 50 million North Americans eat fast food every day or about 15 percent of the population.

4 – PROCRASTINATION
It may bring some comfort to know that the cause of procrastination is solely psychological – i.e., it has little to do with your willpower. Highly anxious individuals seem to have more difficulty with the procrastination bug than others.

So what to do? Just get started. Don’t think about how much work needs to be done. Emotional pain and discomfort associated with procrastination drop precipitously after an action is taken.

5 – DIGITAL DISTRACTIONS
The era we’re now living in is the most distracted in human history. One massive reason for this is the sheer ubiquity of mobile devices.

The problem is that these distractions are both alluring and addicting. Things like “distracted driving” have become a real thing. Some research shows that our attention span is shrinking as the digital age evolves.

6 – MAKING EXCUSES
Excuses do nothing but disempower you and those around you. While the adage “You’re stronger than you think” may seem overly cliché, it’s nonetheless true.

The cool thing is that once you stop making excuses, you realize how much happier you feel. It feels as if you’re retaking control of your life, which you are.

7  – WATCHING T.V.
The amount of television that people watch is insane.

Per a Nielsen report, the average American spends about 35.5 hours watching the tube. The problem with this isn’t so much the activity in itself – but the opportunity cost.

That is, those hours you could use say exercising, building a business plan, spending time with the family, and other more meaningful things.

8 – PERFECTIONISM
Speaking of procrastination, one of the more common reasons that people put things off is fear – and this includes fear born of perfectionism. For the uninitiated, perfectionism is the unhealthy striving for, well, perfection.

Not only is perfectionism unrealistic, but it’s also unhealthy. Perfectionistic tendencies are connected to multiple clinical issues, including anxiety and depression, eating disorders, chronic fatigue, social anxiety disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

9 – SUGAR
Okay, so it may be very difficult – perhaps even impossible – to completely abstain from sugar. However, one would be well-advised to curb any intake. Per an article published by Harvard University’s health publication, “The effects of added sugar intake – higher blood pressure, inflammation, weight gain, diabetes, and fatty liver disease – are all linked to an increased risk for heart attack and stroke.”

10 – OVERSPENDING
Psychologists and other behavioral experts have thoroughly debunked the idea that money can buy happiness. So why do we keep spending too much? It’s all psychological. To overcome the habit requires diligence, patience, and discipline.

The cool thing is that once the seed habit of saving is planted, people find that they enjoy it.

11 – MIND-WANDERING OR RUMINATION
Rehashing what “could’ve/would’ve/should’ve been” is a complete waste of time. Unfortunately, the human brain is uniquely wired for pointless thinking. According to a widely-cited study by Harvard researchers Gilbert and Killingsworth, our minds drift about in aimless thinking about half of our waking hours.

Unsurprisingly, this constant turning over of the mind is not conducive to becoming happier. The conclusions reached by Gilbert and Killingsworth: “(I) people are thinking about what is not happening almost as often as they are thinking about what is…(ii) doing so typically makes them unhappy.”

12 – COMPARING YOURSELF
We have an unhealthy obsession with comparing ourselves with others. Such is particularly true in consumer-driven societies like the United States, where possessions and status are so coveted.

But comparing yourself to people does nothing but make us feel worse. It’s not easy to stop such an ingrained response, but we can take a step in the right direction by intentionally redirecting our focus when such thoughts arise.

13 – NOT FINISHING THINGS
We do enough things. So, this one’s not that bad, except that leaving things undone creates unnecessary mental tension and, studies show, drains our cognitive reserves.

The answer lies in a two-step process: (1) determining which endeavors are indeed worth committing to, and (2) avoiding everything else.

14 – NO OR TOO MUCH ALONE TIME
Neither too much nor too little seclusion is healthy. While we introverts may treasure our solo status, it doesn’t change the biological evolution of our brains.

On the flip side, while extroverts may despise being by themselves, such time is crucial for reflection and rejuvenation.

15 – THE MAINSTREAM NEWS
Okay, so perhaps doing away all news is unpractical – perhaps even unadvisable. But you should know that the unfortunate adage that “Bad news sells” is (a) true, and (b) media companies leverage this fact. This helps to explain why most of the news we read elicits feelings of fear and sadness.

So, don’t entirely ignore the news (though you could do worse), but watch how much attention you’re paying to it.

16 – NEGATIVITY
First off, we’re not telling you to ignore every instance of negativity, though limiting it is most certainly beneficial to your mental wellbeing. Everyone feels a bit negative from time to time.

We’re talking about limiting your exposure to consistently negative people. Sure, there are those rays of sunshine who can handle the negativity, though they’re few and far between. The rest of us need to watch how much time we’re spending amidst these folks to become happier.

17 – SHALLOW WORK
The term “shallow work” was coined by MIT-trained computer scientist and professor, Cal Newport. Instead of defining shallow work, let us note its opposite – what Newport calls (naturally) “Deep Work.”

Per Newport, Deep Work describes “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.”

Why engage in deep work? Because it “[creates] new value, [improves] your skill,” and, perhaps most importantly, “are hard to replicate.” Read: you’ll make more money and live happier.

18 – INCONSISTENCY
Being inconsistent in your efforts is detrimental to the achievement of the life you desire. It does little good to be filled with motivation and drive one day and then drift back into the same ole’ bad habits the next.

Inconsistency is often the byproduct of poor planning. As such, it is crucial to have a plan going into the day.

19 – SOCIAL MEDIA
Let’s bring Cal Newport back into the story. Besides being a big fan of sustained attention, Newport is a digital minimalist. In other words, he’s Facebook’s and Twitter’s worst nightmare. In one talk, he rails against the former, calling the social media platform an “entertainment product” – and, essentially, a colossal waste of time.

The fact that the average person spends 2.5 hours per day on social media does little to counter Newport’s argument.

20 – TAKING THINGS TOO SERIOUSLY

Here’s an exciting experiment: go anywhere you want, sit down with a beverage of your choice, and observe people for one hour. Watch closely. (Not too closely, lest an officer of the law intervenes.)

All joking aside: what do you see? Are people rushing around? Scrunched-up faces and tight shoulders? A seeming lack of purpose or direction?

This is how most people live their lives. Some people never stop living this way from the time they’re told to “grow up.”

Cliché time! Life is too short to take things so darn seriously. Let’s loosen up and be happier!

 


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How Expressing Gratitude Might Change Your Brain

A lot of so-called “positive psychology” can seem a bit flaky, especially if you’re the sort of person disinclined to respond well to an admonition to “look on the bright side.” But positive psychologists have published some interesting findings, and one of the more robust ones is that feeling grateful is very good for you. Time and again, studies have shown that performing simple gratitude exercises, like keeping a gratitude diary or writing letters of thanks, can bring a range of benefits, such as feelings of increased well-being and reduced depression, that often linger well after the exercises are finished.

Now a brain-scanning study in NeuroImage brings us a little closer to understanding why these exercises have these effects. The results suggest that even months after a simple, short gratitude writing task, people’s brains are still wired to feel extra thankful. The implication is that gratitude tasks work, at least in part, because they have a self-perpetuating nature: The more you practice gratitude, the more attuned you are to it and the more you can enjoy its psychological benefits.

The Indiana University researchers, led by Prathik Kini, recruited 43 people who were undertaking counseling sessions as a treatment for their anxiety or depression. Twenty-two of them were assigned to a gratitude intervention; for the first three sessions of their weekly counseling, this group spent 20 minutes writing a letter in which they expressed their gratitude to the recipient, an hour in total (whether they chose to send these letters was up to them). The other participants acted as a control group, so they simply attended their counseling as usual without performing the gratitude task.

Three months after their counseling was over, all of the participants completed a “Pay It Forward” gratitude task in a brain scanner. Each was “given” various amounts of money by imaginary benefactors whose names and photos appeared onscreen to add to the realism of the task. The researchers told the participants that each benefactor said that if the participant wanted to express their gratitude for the monetary gift, they’d appreciate it if the participant gave some or all of the donation to a named third party (again, identified by photo and name), or a named charity. The participants knew this was all an exercise, but were all told that one of the transactions, chosen later at random, would actually occur — that is, they’d actually receive the cash amount offered to them by one of the benefactors minus the amount they chose to pass on (and the money they opted to pass on really would go to charity).

The researchers found that, on average, the more money a participant gave away, and the stronger the feelings of gratitude they reported feeling, the more activity they exhibited in a range of brain areas in the frontal, parietal, and occipital regions. Interestingly, these neural-activity patterns appeared somewhat distinct from those that usually appear when brain-scan subjects complete tasks associated with emotions like empathy or thinking about other people’s points of view, which is consistent with the idea that gratitude is a unique emotion.

gratitude

Most exciting, though, is the finding that the participants who’d completed the gratitude task months earlier not only reported feeling more gratefulness two weeks after the task than members of the control group, but also, months later, showed more gratitude-related brain activity in the scanner. The researchers described these “profound” and “long-lasting” neural effects as “particularly noteworthy,” and they highlighted that one of the main regions that showed this increased sensitivity — the “pregenual anterior cingulate,” which is known to be involved in predicting the effects of one’s own actions on other people — overlaps with a key brain region identified in the only previous study on the neurological footprint of gratitude.

This result suggests that the more practice you give your brain at feeling and expressing gratitude, the more it adapts to this mind-set — you could even think of your brain as having a sort of gratitude “muscle” that can be exercised and strengthened (not so different from various other qualities that can be cultivated through practice, of course). If this is right, the more of an effort you make to feel gratitude one day, the more the feeling will come to you spontaneously in the future. It also potentially helps explain another established finding, that gratitude can spiral: The more thankful we feel, the more likely we are to act pro-socially toward others, causing them to feel grateful and setting up a beautiful virtuous cascade.

However, let’s not allow the warm glow of all this gratitude to melt our critical faculties. It’s important to realize this result is incredibly preliminary. For one thing, as the researchers openly acknowledge, they didn’t conduct a baseline brain scan of the participants before they started the Pay It Forward game, so it’s possible, though unlikely given that participants were randomly assigned to the gratitude and control groups, that the participants who performed the gratitude task simply had more neural sensitivity to gratitude already, not because they performed the gratitude task. Another thing: Members of the control group didn’t perform a comparison writing task, so we can’t know for sure that it was the act of writing a letter of thanks, as opposed to any kind of writing exercise, that led to increased neural sensitivity to gratitude.

Still, neurological investigations into gratitude are in their early days, and this research certainly gives us some intriguing clues as to how and why gratitude exercises are beneficial. For that we can be, well, grateful.

Dr. Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer), a Science of Us contributing writer, is editor of the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest blog. His latest book is Great Myths of the Brain.

By Christian Jarrett   JAN. 7, 2016
 


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What Are the Building Blocks of a Good Life?

These 5 elements can change your life for the better.

I spent years studying damage, deficit and dysfunction in the human mind. I don’t remember once in my training hearing the words “joy,” “awe” or “wellbeing.” We talked about “happiness” but only in a negative sense. During a manic phase of bipolar illness, patients may experience excessive happiness. The diagnostic criterion of mania includes a persistently elevated or expansive mood and inflated self-esteem. This is a bad thing. It has negative consequences like irresponsible spending or reckless sexual behavior.

Genuine happiness is not given much thought in the training of psychologists and psychiatrists. The goal of treatment is to get a patient “back to baseline” (not clinically sick) and the goal of most research is to gain a better understanding of mental disorders.

Studying what people are like at their best has not received much attention until recently. In 1998, Martin Seligman was the President of the American Psychological Association. He had a successful career studying depression and was known for his work on the theory of “learned helplessness” as a model for depression. Yet the singular focus on illness troubled him:

Psychologists (and psychiatrists) have scant knowledge of what makes life worth living. They have come to understand quite a bit about how people survive and endure under conditions of adversity. However, psychologists (and psychiatrists) know very little about how normal people flourish…

Seligman set out to change that. He broke new ground by founding the modern field of Positive Psychology.

Positive psychology proposes to correct this imbalance by focusing on strengths as well as weaknesses, on building the best things in life as well as repairing the worst. It asserts that human goodness and excellence is just as authentic as distress and disorder, that life entails more than the undoing of problems.

Positive psychology has flourished over the past two decades, leading to a greater understanding of optimal human functioning and resilience.

Seligman’s life changing book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being, outlines his groundbreaking theory of wellbeing known as the PERMA model. The theory holds that the following five elements are the building blocks of a good life:

1. Positive Emotion (P)

Positive emotion such as peace, gratitude, satisfaction, pleasure, inspiration, hope, curiosity, awe and love are life enhancing. A “dose” of positive emotion creates an upward spiral of positivity.

upwardspiral

 

2. Engagement (E)

When we’re truly engaged in a situation, task, or project, we experience a state of flow: time seems to stop, we lose our sense of self, and we concentrate intensely on the present.

3. Positive Relationships (R)

We are “social beings,” and good relationships are essential for wellbeing. Strong social connections are linked with good physical and mental health and are also protective against stressors.

downwardspiral

 

4. Meaning (M)

Meaning comes from serving something larger than ourselves. It puts life in perspective. It may be a religion, a cause, or an overriding sense of purpose that we belong to something bigger.

5. Accomplishment/Achievement (A)

Mastering a skill, achieving one’s goal and living life in concert with one’s values is important for wellbeing. Working towards a goal is rewarding in itself.

The good news is that all five elements of PERMA can be cultivated.


Your assignment: get more PERMA in your life today.

 
Samantha Boardman, M.D       Aug 01, 2016
Samantha Boardman, M.D., is a clinical instructor in psychiatry 
and assistant attending psychiatrist at Weill-Cornell Medical College.
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