Your grandmother was right: Count your blessings. Research from the National Institutes of Health shows that being thankful, grateful, appreciative or positive can bring you important health benefits. Even better, you can learn skills that will improve your emotional health.
Maintaining a positive outlook on life doesn’t mean you won’t have negative emotions such as anger, disappointment or fear. “All emotions – whether negative or positive – are adaptive in the right circumstances,” says psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, an emotional wellness expert from the University of North Carolina. She says the key is finding a healthy balance between positive and negative.
What is emotional wellness?
Emotional wellness means:
- Having a sense of thankfulness; appreciating the good times; being able to hold onto positive emotions longer
- Having fewer negative emotions
- Being able to bounce back more quickly from difficulties
- Having a sense of meaning and purpose in your life
- Focusing on what’s important to you; self-affirmation
- Being open to positive changes
Being positive improves health
Having and maintaining a positive emotional or mental state can improve your health in these ways:
- Lowers blood pressure
- Reduces risk for heart disease
- Helps achieve and maintain a healthy weight
- Improves blood sugar levels
- Reduces stress; lowers levels of stress hormones
- Means a longer life
How to be more positive
Emotions are a balancing act. Fredrickson says negative emotions help us move appropriately through difficult situations. However, negativity can cause trouble when we worry too much or spend too much time ruminating about the past. A lack of balance reduces our ability to relate to what’s happening now or to find positive aspects in present events.
Here’s what you can do to be more resilient and better able to hold on to positive emotions longer:
- Practice any of the various forms of meditation
- Engage in self-reflection (thinking about what’s most important in your life)
- Remember your good deeds
- Recognize your emotional strengths; especially important are hope, gratitude, vitality, curiosity and love
- Express gratitude for what you have; acknowledge the goodness in your life and recognize that the source of goodness at least partially lies outside yourself
- Forgive yourself for making mistakes; learn from what went wrong but don’t dwell on it; “forgive and forget”
- Develop positive physical habits in terms of eating, physical activity and sleep
- Be more generous or giving to others
- Make a difference in someone’s life, such as volunteering, listening to them, or giving to charity
- Spend more time with positive people; avoid negative people
- Develop and maintain a social network or support network
- Explore your beliefs about the meaning and purpose of life; seek everyday guidance from the principles or values that are important to you
- Be more mindful and aware as you perform daily tasks: proceed slowly with full deliberation and engage your senses fully
- Engage in cognitive psychotherapy
Like any life skill, regularly practicing well-being techniques will make you better at them. Take time to learn skills that help you self-generate positive emotions and help you be more social, more resilient toward life’s problems.
For example, those who attended only six weeks of training in meditation that focused on compassion and kindness reported an increase in social connectedness, positive social behaviors, positive emotions and generosity.
Emotional moods are contagious. We’ve all had our positive outlook suddenly dashed by a negative colleague or a grumpy person. The reverse is also true, positive people make us feel good and more positive ourselves. For example, a study of Twitter found that positive tweets are three times more likely to be forwarded than negative ones.
In a cross-cultural, international study of generosity, researchers found that people who give money to charity tend to be happier and healthier. Study participants were given money to spend on either themselves or others. Those who spent it on others, or donated to a cause they strongly believed in, reported feeling happier afterwards, compared to those who spent it on themselves. Additionally, the generous participants had lower blood pressure, even when controlling for income, wealth, age and exercise.
Be mindful of the present. Harvard researchers tout “savoring the everyday pleasures of life.” Place your attention on pleasure and joy as it occurs. Consciously enjoy an experience – big and small – a wedding celebration as well as a sunset – as it unfolds. This is also called “mindfulness.” They add that multitasking is the enemy of this deliberate process of savoring. Humans cannot pay attention to multiple things. If you’re texting while your child plays, you’re missing their joy. If you’re reading a book while eating, you cannot savor the meal.
The more the merrier. Having a small social circle or being less engaged with others puts you at greater risk of developing memory loss. In a 2004, multi-year study by the Harvard School of Public Health, researchers found that those with the highest level of interaction with family, friends and other people were more likely to retain their cognitive (brain) functioning. They also had less stress. This positive effect was strongest in those at highest risk for dementia.
At this Thanksgiving time of the year, try practicing one or two of the positive behaviors listed above. Make them a habit for life and good health.
Happy Thanksgiving from your friends at AFMC, where we’re positive about improving health care and improving lives.