Obesity and smoking may be the most conspicuous causes of illness in this country, but physical factors don't account for everything. Your psychology namely, your personality and outlook on life can be just as important to your well-being as exercising and eating right. And especially these days, with the world's economy tumbling toward a depression, it's a good time to prevent yourself from slipping into one too.
An entire science has grown up around the perils of negative thinking (as well as the power of positive psychology), and the latest findings confirm that a pessimistic outlook not only kindles anxiety, which can put people at risk for chronic mental illnesses like depression, but may also cause early death and set people up for a number of physical ailments, ranging from the common cold to heart disease and immune disorders.
Optimism, meanwhile, is associated with a happier and longer life. Over the course of a recent eight-year study, University of Pittsburgh researchers found that optimistic women outlived dour ones. Which may be good news for the motivational gurus out there, but what about the rest of us who aren't always so chipper? Are we destined for sickness and failure? Or is it possible to master the principles of positivity the same way we might learn a new hobby or follow a recipe?
The answer from the experts seems to be yes. But it does take effort. Seeing the sunny side doesn't come easily.
Be an "Optimalist"
Most people would define optimism as being eternally hopeful, endlessly happy, with a glass that's perpetually half full. But that's exactly the kind of deluded cheerfulness that positive psychologists wouldn't recommend. "Healthy optimism means being in touch with reality," says Tal Ben-Shahar, a Harvard professor who taught the university's most popular course, Positive Psychology, from 2002 to 2008. "It certainly doesn't mean being Pollyannaish and thinking everything is great and wonderful."
Ben-Shahar, who is the author of Happier (2007) and a new book, The Pursuit of Perfect (April 2009), describes realistic optimists as "optimalists" not those who believe everything happens for the best, but those who make the best of things that happen.
In his own life, Ben-Shahar uses three optimalist exercises, which he calls PRP. When he feels down say, after giving a bad lecture he grants himself permission (P) to be human. He reminds himself that not every lecture can be a Nobel winner; some will be less effective than others. Next is reconstruction (R). He parses the weak lecture, learning lessons for the future about what works and what doesn't. Finally, there's perspective (P), which involves acknowledging that in the grand scheme of life, one lecture really doesn't matter.
Studies suggest that people who are able to focus on the positive fallout from a negative event basically, cope with failure can protect themselves from the physical toll of stress and anxiety. In a recent study at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), scientists asked a group of women to give a speech in front of a stone-faced audience of strangers. On the first day, all the participants said they felt threatened, and they showed spikes in cortisol and fear hormones. On subsequent days, however, those women who had reported rebounding from a major life crisis in the past no longer felt the same subjective threat over speaking in public and did not show a jump in cortisol. They had learned that this negative event, too, would pass and they would survive. "It's a back door to the same positive state because people are able to tolerate and accept the negative," says Elissa Epel, one of the psychologists involved in the study.
Accept Pain and Sadness
Being optimistic doesn't mean shutting out sad or painful emotions. As a clinical psychologist, Martin Seligman, who runs the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, says he used to feel proud whenever he helped depressed patients rid themselves of sadness, anxiety or anger. "I thought I would get a happy person," he says. "But I never did. What I got was an empty person." That's what prompted him to launch the field of positive psychology, with a groundbreaking address to the American Psychological Association in 1998. Instead of focusing only on righting wrongs and lifting misery, he argued, psychologists need to help patients foster good mental health through constructive skills, like Ben-Shahar's PRP. The idea is to teach patients to strengthen their strengths rather than simply improve their weaknesses. "It's not enough to clear away the weeds and underbrush," Seligman says. "If you want roses, you have to plant a rose."
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