Thank you, Jane Brody, for a wonderful article in the New York Times on how “Positive Emotions May Extend Life.” Even an old saw such as “Look on the sunny side of life” has the potential to not only raise spirits, but also boosts the immune system, lowers blood pressure, promotes healthier blood sugar and more. According to the article, even people faced with serious health crises such as H.I.V. and cancer can benefit markedly from positive thoughts and feelings. Many people assume that sickness and negative emotions go hand in hand, but a study of 159 individuals with recent H.I.V. diagnoses showed that when trained in 8 positive thinking activities, participants maintained more positive and less negative thoughts. And for the curmudgeons of the world: good news: studies show that people can learn to think positively even if they’re not exactly Little Mary Sunshine.
It’s wonderful to see another article on the positive impact of positive emotions. In a world where so many people believe in the necessity and inevitability of unhappiness, we need more champions of positive thinking, dare I say happiness. Boosting positive thinking through such activities as “recognize a positive event each day” and “list a personal strength and note how you used it” (2 of 8 activities in the article) can only be a boon to emotional and physical well-being.
I love the ideas in Brody’s article but I also recognize that we would naturally be thinking positively if we weren’t already thinking negatively on some level. You may have noticed that as a society, we have a certain value for unhappiness exhibited in shared beliefs about the type, duration and magnitude of unhappiness under certain circumstances. We expect to be unhappy about the loss of a job, for, example, and we also expect it to pass after a certain period of time, especially if our prospects improve. We expect to be slightly put out if we have a cold and devastated if we have a fatal illness. We think we know that people (or we) care about things if we express unhappiness when we don’t get them. As a culture, we tend to support each other in the belief that when bad things happen to good people, good people get unhappy.
We can do ourselves and each other a huge favor by questioning any belief that assumes unhappiness is a given and that happiness is an impossibility. Dealing with these negative beliefs head on and moving past them opens the door organically to positive thinking. If we didn’t believe we had to be unhappy under certain circumstances, we would all be eternal optimists, at least when it comes to our happiness – and what else matters? The desire for happiness is behind everything we do, whether we are aware of it or not. What is that great job for? What is that magical relationship for? What, even, is good health for? To be happy!
Knowing that we have choices about how we feel is tremendously freeing. Whatever helps to flip that switch from negative to positive is a blessing. The Option Method is a powerful way to drill down to core beliefs about unhappiness. Expressing gratitude, practicing mindfulness, setting attainable goals, etc., may be just the ticket for you. At the end of the day, grab on to whatever works for you. It is possible to feel good even in the midst of tough challenges. And isn’t it great to know that even though being happy is its own reward, we’re doing our bodies a big favor.