Much has been written about the value of positive thinking. But scientists now tell us that taking some simple steps, and practicing them, can ingrain in us a far better outlook. They tell us of a path to seeing instinctively the brighter side. They seem to have come upon a welcome antidote for those of us who find ourselves too often absorbed with the negative.
In a world that seems to grow more harsh by the day, with depression on the rise, some recent, fascinating research deserves our attention. It goes back to some basics about emotional wellness, but with a surprising perspective. And if we take the time to learn some of the skills that can self-generate positive emotions, it can help us become healthier.
This doesn’t mean we can, or should, totally avoid negative emotions. An expert on emotional wellness at the University of North Carolina, Dr. Barbara L. Fredrickson, puts it this way: “People need negative emotions to get them through difficult situations and respond to them appropriately, in the short term. Negative emotions can get us into trouble, though, if they’re based on too much rumination about the past or excessive worry about the future, where they’re not really related to what’s happening in the here and now.” She and other experts champion a most worthwhile trait for all of us to acquire – resilience.
Resilience is simply where a person is emotionally well enough to have fewer negative emotions, and is able to bounce back from difficulties faster. At the same time, resilience means holding on to positive emotions longer and appreciating the good times.
A most interesting theory from Fredrickson is the need to take frequent, “micro-moments of positivity.” Simply stated, this involves dwelling on seemingly little things, such as a sunrise or sunset, or birds singing, or the sounds of the night, or the design of a building – and making this a habit. The North Fork is such an ideal place for this (a positive observation, is it not?). Making this a habit, over time, results in overall well-being.
Fredrickson, and separate research from Dr. Richard L. Davidson of the University of Wisconsin, found that another habit to acquire through practice, so as to heighten resilience, and the ability to hold onto positive emotions, is meditation. This would be meditation, however, of a certain kind, where the meditation’s focus is on compassion and kindness. His meditation experiments, for a study group covering a mere two weeks, showed changes in reward-related brain circuits, that in turn showed increased positive social behaviors, such as generosity. It also confirms Fredrickson’s interesting conclusion: “Well-being can be considered as a life skill. If you practice, you can get better at it.”
What’s more, this certain kind of meditation practice not only increased positive emotions and social connectedness, but also improved functioning in a nerve that helps control heart rate.
There’s some interesting “psychobiology” behind this as well. In his research, Davidson found that the part of the brain known as the “amygdala” plays a role in anxiety and fear. Negative emotions activate this region of the brain. His research project, widely published, found a big difference among people in how quickly or slowly the amygdala recovers from a threat. A significant finding lies in the fact that those who recover more slowly may be at greater risk for a variety of health conditions compared to those who recover more quickly.
So here are some other things we can practice to develop a positive mindset, and thus enhance our emotional wellness: First, start to appreciate the world around you; choose to accept yourself, flaws and all, focusing on your positive side, and to forgive yourself; practice resilience by making lemonade out of life’s unfair lemons; remember your good deeds and keep doing good things for other people; learn things new; develop healthy, physical habits and learn about “insight meditation” and mindfulness.
And one of the most unexpected practices for the mind that this research has come upon as an avenue for positive thinking is this: explore regularly your beliefs about the purpose and meaning of life. Think about how to guide your life by the principles that are important to you, keeping those in focus.
Above all of these are our personal relationships. We should strive to build the positive ones. As for relationships with those who are constantly caught in the grip of negativity (you know who they are – they are miserably imprisoned in their negative thinking as if they prefer it), if you can’t help them and they don’t try hard to help themselves, as unkind as it may seem, it is best to avoid such toxicity, or create as much of a distance as possible.
Dr. Fredrickson sums it up in this hopeful way: “Sometimes people think that emotions just happen, like the weather. Research shows that we can have some control over which emotions we experience.” There are wonderful strides to be made for all of us through simple activities that, with practice, will foster positive emotions. “The mind is its own place, and in itself, can make a heaven of hell, or a hell of heaven.” -Milton