Mind & Spirit

Discover the power of positive thinking

By: Bonnie Schiedel

Author: Canadian Living

Mind & Spirit

Discover the power of positive thinking

By: Bonnie Schiedel
This story was originally titled "Accentuate the Positive" in the November 2009 issue. Subscribe to Canadian Living today and never miss an issue!

It's starting to get darker earlier every day. Another factory just announced a month-long shutdown. The news is an endless stream of alarming details about the economy, health crises, global security and the environment. No doubt about it: for many of us, this is a really tough time in a really tough year.

It may seem like it's only logical to be blue and worried these days, but there is another option: positivity. Defined as a range of positive emotions (including love, appreciation, hope, resilience and gratitude), positivity can help you live a happy, productive and healthy life. "Trying times almost inevitably bring negativity," writes Barbara L. Frederickson, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, in her new book, Positivity (Crown, 2009). "Unchecked, the narrowed mindsets of negativity can pull you in a downward spiral and drain the very life out of you."

Frederickson, who has devoted most of her life to studying positivity, says this mindset can loosen negativity's grip on your mental outlook and open your heart and mind to a broader range of possibilities. "As it does, it sets you on an upward spiral, a positive trajectory that cuts through dark times and leads you back to higher ground, stronger than ever."

In short, positivity is about your attitude and approach to life: looking for the good in the world around you, hanging on to hope when life gets tough, making a contribution to the world and feeling optimistic about the future. If you embrace positivity on a daily basis you won't be continually, blindly joyful – but you will be receptive to emotions and events that will make you happy.

Health benefits of being positive
The health benefits of positivity are remarkable. Studies point to a reduced risk of high blood pressure, depression, diabetes and cardiac disease. Positive thinkers also live longer and are better able to fight off infection, cope with pain and recover from major surgery and illnesses. What's more, they also may have a better quality of life when living with chronic conditions.

There are likely a number of elements at work when it comes to explaining why a sunny outlook equals better health. For instance, positive thinkers sometimes make better health choices. A Finnish study found that optimists ate more fruits, vegetables and low-fat cheese than pessimists, and that pessimists were more likely to eat low-fibre food, drink alcohol, smoke and have a higher body mass index. Other studies have taken factors such as smoking, age, gender, ethnicity and waist-to-hip ratio into account and optimists still come out on top, healthwise. One such study, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, reveals that optimists have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol (high levels of cortisol can wreak havoc on your immune, digestive and cardiovascular systems) and lower levels of two markers of blood inflammation associated with a higher risk of heart attack and stroke.

Page 1 of 4 -- Think the glass is half-empty? Learn how you can be optimistic on page 2.
Clearly, thinking positively is the way to go. But is it really achievable?

It's not uncommon to think that you need youth, health and wealth to feel good about your life and encouraged about your future. Or, you may feel that positivity is simply naive in today's complex world. Not so, say experts. "One of the main misconceptions about optimism is that people who are optimistic are not realistic; that they're approaching the world with clichéd rose-coloured Pollyanna glasses," says Lucy MacDonald, an Ottawa counsellor and the author of Learn to Be an Optimist: A Practical Guide to Achieving Happiness (Chronicle, 2008). The truth is, positive thinking is neither naive nor dependent on your bank balance. It may even be more common than we think.

In a Gallup poll of more than 150,000 adults in over 140 countries, released in May of this year, 89 per cent of people said they expect that in the next five years their life will be as good as or better than their current life, and 95 per cent expected their lives in five years to be as good as or better than their life was five years ago. (Recession? What recession?) The most encouraging aspect of the study is that factors such as age and household income appear to have only a modest effect on an individual's level of optimism.

While it's true we tend to be hardwired with either a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty personality (research links tendencies toward optimism and pessimism to genetics and family upbringing) you can take control of your thoughts. "Optimism is a skill that can be learned," says MacDonald. Here are 10 ways to boost your positivity.

1. Create positive surroundings.
"Consider your surroundings and how they support you," says Dr. Denise Larsen, director of research at The Hope Foundation of Alberta and associate professor of counselling psychology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. "Keep simple objects around you that give you a sense of hope: pictures of family or a scene in nature, a seashell from a holiday."

Make it a habit to go to places that make you feel good, adds Larsen, whether it's a nearby park or bookstore. This may seem trivial, but it really works, says Joan Kovacs of Edmonton, who has learned to live more positively and hopefully after seeking counselling for clinical depression at The Hope Foundation. "Whenever someone says, 'let's go for coffee,' I suggest a local store that's a combined gift shop, flower store and coffee shop. I love being around the colours and all the pretty things. That shop always lifts me up."

2. Take an online road trip.
Visit www.roadtowellbeing.ca, a free website developed by psychologists at the Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon. The site takes you through a virtual map featuring areas like "The Forest of Conflict" and "The Plains of Optimism," explaining key points about positive mental and physical health and offering self-assessment worksheets to help you along the way.

3. Visualize your future. Psychology researchers in the United States conducted a month-long study on positive thinking and found that the most effective and long-lasting way to improve your mood was to visualize your "best possible self," writing down details about your ideal life in the future.

Page 2 of 4 -- On the next page, find 7 more tips to bring out your inner optimist.

4. Look at it another way. "Reframing is a wonderful technique," says Dr. David Posen, a former family physician in Oakville, Ont., stress consultant and author of The Little Book of Stress Relief (Key Porter, 2003). "By seeing an upside to a negative situation, by changing the way you look at things, you change the way you feel. There are many different valid ways of looking at a situation, and some feel better than others. You may as well pick the interpretation that feels good."

For example, Amanda McCloskey of North Bay, Ont., injured her knee this past spring and wound up wearing a brace that encased most of her leg. "I was really disappointed that I wouldn't be able to play soccer on my adult rec team," she says. "Then, I decided to help coach the team instead. I'm still out there enjoying the games and having fun with a great bunch of women." Adds Posen, "If you're having trouble reframing a problem, ask yourself, What would I tell someone else with that same problem?"

5. Hang out with positive people. "It's really important to connect with people who listen to and care for and support us," says Larsen.

6. Write it down.
"When you are unhappy, it can be annoying to be told to cheer up and be grateful that you have your home, your family, your health and so on," says MacDonald. "However, counting your blessings and identifying and celebrating them is precisely what you should do." Keep an optimism journal and write down what you are grateful for. Include the basics (food, shelter and loved ones) and then walk around your home or neighbourhood to notice other things. At the end of the day, reread your list so you go to sleep on an "up" note. And if you're grateful to the people in your life, tell them so, to help keep the positivity going.

7. Stop that thought.
Turn off that negative little voice in your head, says Posen, especially when it's about something you can't control, like waiting for test results. The first step is noticing the gloomy commentary. Next, say something forceful like "Enough!" or "Stop it!" – whatever it takes to get your attention. (Soon you'll be able to do this silently.) A variation on this tip is to wear an elastic band on your wrist and gently snap it when you notice the negative thoughts. Lastly, substitute pleasant or distracting thoughts so the negative ones don't return.

8. Be kind in small ways. "I have learned that hopefulness does not just appear and stay; it has to be nurtured," says Joan Kovacs. "For me, it's important to feel I can give back to the world. Sometimes it's very tiny things, like holding the door for someone at the mall. At my job as a receptionist, I show people where the coffee is and say a few friendly words, rather than just saying 'OK, I'll let the counsellor know you're here.' These are just simple things, but they make a difference in life."

Page 3 of 4 -- Learn how a small gesture can make a big difference in your outlook on page 4.
9. Seek mental peace. When Carol Parker, of Kitchener, Ont., was struggling with a stressful job, she learned to how to meditate. "I soak in a hot bath, because it's the quietest room in the house, and the water helps you feel relaxed and weightless," she says. "I say 'drum a dum dum, rum a dum dum' a few times, then take in a deep breath, and then breathe out through my mouth. As I exhale, I picture my negative thoughts leaving my body with my breath."

Find it tough to calm your thoughts while you're sitting still? Going for a brisk walk and mentally repeating a phrase with a four-part beat, such as "I can do this," helps too, says Carolyn Scott Kortge, author of The Spirited Walker: Fitness Walking for Clarity, Balance and Spiritual Connection (HarperCollins, 1998). 10 | Look for laughter. Humour makes it easier to be hopeful. Study participants who watched a 15- minute comedy video had significantly higher scores for hopefulness than those who did not view the video. That study says humour may inhibit negative thoughts, allowing positive thoughts to become dominant; in turn, those positive emotions stimulate our thoughts and actions, helping us pursue more creative ways to solve our problems.

Unrealistic optimism
When it comes to your health, there is a potential downside to thinking that things will turn out just fine. A number of studies have shown that "unrealistic optimism" (or good, old-fashioned denial) can be used to justify unhealthy choices. For example, a recent study found that smokers thought lung cancer was only a risk to people who smoked more cigarettes a day than they did, or for those who'd smoked longer. A 2008 study of hepatitis C patients revealed that people who were overly optimistic about their ability to cope were unprepared for the reality of the treatment's side-effects, and were then more likely to delay seeking help. Bottom line: Thinking positively doesn't mean you get to bury your head in the sand.

Want to find out just how positive you are?
Take a positivity self-test online at www.positivityratio.com. The test was developed by psychologist and author Barbara L. Frederickson. You can take it regularly and track whether your sense of optimism is rising or on the wane.

Page 4 of 4 -- Dicover the ways your health can benefit from optimism on page 1.
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Mind & Spirit

Discover the power of positive thinking