How positive psychology helps us lead a healthier and longer life?
We all have played jigsaw puzzles as a child. We used to be so immersed in our activity of solving the puzzle that we forgot the world around us. We were super-focused on the activity we were involved in and this can be explained as a mental state of immersion called ‘flow‘. We are fully attentive towards the task and we successfully avoid all distractions. We lived in the moment without any tension about the past or the future. We are so absorbed by the activity that we forget everything and time flies away. The concept of ‘flow’ is an important concept introduced under positive psychology.
When I hear the word positive, the words that pop-up in my mind are goodness and optimism. We perceive a situation as positive when we focus on what are the good qualities in people around us and when we feel hopeful that everything will be good. We are optimistic when we expect the best future outcomes. When we experience positive emotions, we gain the ability to be optimistic about our past, present and future. Optimistic people get more social support as they are more actively engaged with the world.
In 2019, 2 studies were conducted for several years to study effect of optimism on longevity. Higher optimism levels were associated with longer life span (lived above the age of 85). (Lee et al., 2020)
Positive psychology helps us re-focus our attention on the positive and good aspects of ourselves, significant people around us and all the events that take place in our lives. It’s very easy to focus on the negativity of people around us, negative aspects of various situations and negative past experiences. We must avoid this by focusing our attention towards positive traits in our loved ones, positive aspects of every situation and positive memories in our lives.
When I close my eyes and visualise my best memories, I tend to experience the same positive emotions which I had felt before. These positive emotions have motivated me to do better everyday. You’ll easily try this to feel better.
When we are in a good mood, how do people react? I have tried this out and I got more positive reactions from my family (no one got angry or irritated with me).
You’ll try this out too to find the different people reacting in different ways!
Positive psychology uses a scientific approach which simply means that it is based on facts confirmed by various research studies. The researches are conducted in a certain systematic manner to avoid any errors in the results. This branch of psychology studies the strengths and positive traits of people which helps them be the best version of themselves. Positive psychology says that it is very important to have gratitude for everything we have. We must appreciate everything that we have as this enhances positive emotions within us.
How are positive emotions related to longevity?
In the early 20s, a group of American nuns had written 180 autobiographical essays. These essays were retrieved and interpreted in terms of positivity. This retrospective research conducted in the year 2000 studied the relationship between positive emotions and the mortality of nuns. Indeed, positive content led the nuns to live 10 years longer. In other words, happier nuns could live longer than the unhappy nuns. (Danner, 2000)
How are positive emotions related to physical health?
In 2013, a study was conducted with 65 participants. For 9 weeks, daily reports were collected from respondents about their positive emotions and social connectedness. Their physical health was constantly monitored. The result of the study was that positive emotions influences positive social connections and this in turn influences physical health. (Bethany, 2013)
Importance of our mindset — Carol Dweck’s theory:
Carol Dweck had done research for 20 years and she concluded that our mind-set is of two types : Fixed Mind-set and Growth Mind-set. Fixed mind-set makes us assume that we have stopped growing and changing. We focus on constancy and ignore that change is inevitable. Fixed mind set reduces our ability to handle problems. In the serial Suits, we can see that Louis has a fixed mind-set at his workplace when he believes that he cannot improve, he cannot be as good as Harvey and makes desperate attempts to prove himself over and over again. Louis doesn’t accept new job offers which are better because he avoids changes. He wants to be in his comfort zone and work in the same law firm throughout his life.
The solution is to have a growth mindset, that is to believe that we can improve and grow if we put in the right efforts and be open to learn and adapt to changes. Dweck emphasized the fact that we must put in all our efforts to cultivate qualities within us which allows growth and accepts change.
People with growth mindset achieve more as they believe that they can learn and succeed.
The main difference between growth mind-set and fixed mind-set is that people with fixed mind-set find life more difficult than people who have growth mind-set. (Dweck, 2006)
We know that changing our mind-set is not an easy task as changes don’t occur overnight. We must put in our efforts to bring about changes in our mind-set. If we really want to bring about a positive change in ourselves, we can accept the idea of having a growth mind-set and start believing in growth and improvement. There is a saying that change is the only constant and that’s what we must all understand in order to accept changes in life.
My common sense always told me that we don’t have any control over our happiness and everyone around me ensures that I feel happy. This changed when psychological research proved that we can train our minds to experience happiness more often in our daily lives. Martin Seligman’s model of happiness (PERMA) helps us understand how to enhance happiness in our lives. There are five foundational pillars of a positive psychology model. The abbreviation PERMA can be expanded as Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Achievement (Seligman, 2011).
Positive emotions makes us feel good about ourselves and about everyone around us. Hence, they increase life satisfaction. Positive emotions include happiness, joy, serenity, gratitude, hope, etc.
Engagement involves the exploration for activities which we tend to enjoy naturally. It can involve our hobbies such as playing music, dancing, painting, playing sports, etc. When we do these tasks, we are so engaged with it that we enter the mental state of ‘flow’.
Relationships should be positive and healthy. Our social connections provide us with the social support we all need the most. Our bonding with our loved ones should be strong enough to build mutual trust and Empathy. Our social connections should act as a motivational factor rather than a de-motivating factor.
Meaning brings about a sense of purpose for our existence which motivates us to progress and develops in our lives. This is the main topic of research in Existential branch of psychology.
Achievement brings in a sense of satisfaction with ourselves. When we have set goals to accomplish, if they are realistic enough, we would flourish in our lives.
Uses of positive psychology principles in our daily lives:
-Building perseverance as a character strength: Perseverance and bravery can be clearly observed in the movie ‘Life of pi’, where an adolescent boy, named Pi Patel, bravely survived a calamity, loss of his parents, life on a boat with a tiger and several days in the ocean in search of the shore.
-Make a gratitude dairy where you can write 3 things you feel grateful about. Do this on a daily basis and you will find that you tend to be more happy and cheerful. This will help you reduce negative thoughts and refocus your attention on positive thoughts and positive emotions.
-Being helpful and sensitive influences behavior. On social media, videos depicting helpful behaviour, motivated to help others selflessly. The emotion that we feel while seeing these videos is defined by Sarah Algoe and Jonathan Haidt (2009) as an uplifting emotion that people feel when they observe a person helping another person; that is, improving the welfare of another by helping him through a virtuous act is called as elevation.
Leading a healthy and longer life:
•Positive emotions are taken for granted but they are very useful in improving our health and improving our ability to handle daily life hassles. Positive emotions build our capability to handle stress and help us feel more satisfied with our lives.
•When we are asked to think about happiness, we tend to assume that all positive emotions are the same as happiness but research has shown that this is not true always.
•Identifying and working upon one’s signature strengths. Signature strengths are the core qualities within an individual which makes a person who s/he is. These are the highest strengths which are present within our personality and identifying them would help us use these traits more frequently for our well-being.
•Fredrickson’s (2008) broaden and build hypothesis states that one’s positive emotions can multiply into an upward spiral, and transform current or immediate positive emotions into positive resources to help in hard times in the future. This emphasizes that we must allow positive emotions in our lives to improve our capability to fight with future challenges in life.
•Building character strengths is more important than improving weaknesses. If we build our main strengths (signature strengths) then it enhances flourishing (Seligman, 2013). Flourishing means that we enjoy better physical and mental health and well being.
•Positive psychology focusses on increasing resilience in people. Resilience means the ability to strongly face problems and bounce back when we face obstacles in life. For example, we should be like a spring. Stressors might pull and stretch us from different directions but we must contract and regain our original state of mind. We should be able to handle challenges and function to the best of our abilities.
We must see the world from a positive perspective. Negative emotions don’t support our development and growth. For example, when we wear dark glasses then the world seems to be a dark place to live in. In the same way, if you believe that everyone is negative and the situations are always negative then you may not consider various possibilities that could improve your life. When we have negative emotions, we may lose out on opportunities and over-think about everything.
The fact is that positive events tend to occur more frequently—a positivity offset—but we may be softer or less noticeable. Live your life to the fullest. Live in the present moment. Broaden your mindset to accept happiness and several other positive emotions. Positive emotions have the capability to broaden our horizons and make life easier and more pleasurable. Wear the spectacles of positivity to identify and recognise positive emotions and behaviours. Happiness can be compared to the rays of sunlight. As plants require sunlight and they must keep their leaves open to absorb sunlight, in the same way, we must absorb happiness as it’s important for our well-being and good health. The character faces obstacles, adversity, struggle or conflict while expressing their signature (main) strengths. To express these signature strengths in difficult times, one must identify and strengthen these signature character strengths. World is a place full of changes and when we develop a growth mindset, we become more ready to accept changes in life. To lead a flourishing life, we must become more open to experiencing positive emotions and maintaining positive relationships. For example, gratitude is a positive emotion which one must express for every relationship one has in his/her life. If we succeed in applying these principles of positive psychology, we can become flourishing individuals who are happy with ourselves and more satisfied with life.
Bethany E. Kok, Kimberly A. C. , Michael A. C. , Lahnna I. C. , Tanya V. , Sara B. Algoe, Mary B. , Barbara L. Fredrickson, 2013. How Positive Emotions Build Physical Health: Perceived Positive Social Connections Account For The Upward Spiral Between Positive Emotions And Vagal Tone. Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1177/0956797612470827 Available at: http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/05/06/0956797612470827
Danner DD, Snowdon DA, Friesen VW. Positive emotions in early life and longevity: findings from the nun study. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2000;80:804-813
Dweck, C. S., 2006. Mindset : The New Psychology of Success (18th Ed.) New York, Random House.
Lee, L., James, P., Zevon, E., Kim, E., Trudel-Fitzgerald, C., Spiro, A., Grodstein, F. and Kubzansky, L., 2020. Optimism Is Associated With Exceptional Longevity In 2 Epidemiologic Cohorts Of Men And Women.
Seligman, M. E. (2013). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York: Atria.