The mental and physical advantages of a positive mindset can enhance quality of life and longevity.
Does what we think and feel really in influence our well-being? The overwhelming evidence from the new field of positive psychology says a resounding yes. A positive outlook on life has been shown to help you live longer and provide a type of inoculation to the immune system. Those with positive outlooks manage better, and temperament determines our capacity for coping with stress and life challenges: A positive attitude gives us fortitude.
Since its beginning, psychology has studied the causes of depression and anxiety and the effectiveness of various treatments. In recent years the topic of research has shifted to improve not only the negative impact of these symptoms but also to increase positive emotions and well-being. The reason for this shift comes from a sobering fact: Not being depressed isn’t the same as being happy.
One of the most convincing studies to date, The Nun Study, looked at the impact of positive emotions and attitude on longevity and well-being. In 2001, researchers from the University of Kentucky sampled the sisters because they have regularized diets, live together, have no children, and do not smoke or drink to excess. In other words, their physical backgrounds and conditions are controlled by life circumstances — making them perfect subjects for a study. Since the nuns’ living conditions, histories and environmental factors were “controlled” by their life choice, the impact of their emotional disposition would help determine their longevity. The dramatic findings show that attitude can profoundly influence not only the quality but also the length of our lives.
“Drag your thoughts away from your troubles… by the ears, by the heels, or any other way you can manage it.”
– Mark Twain
The investigation shows there is a direct relationship between being positive and longevity. The analysis took place nearly 60 years later, when the nuns were between 75 and 94 years old. What the researchers found about how positive feelings affect longevity was nothing short of astonishing. At age 85, 90 percent of the most cheerful quartile were still alive while only 34 percent of the bottom quartile survived. At age 94, the numbers were even more affected with 54 percent of the top quartile still alive — compared to 11 percent of their less optimistic counterparts.
Yet, the study wasn’t just about happiness. It was about the effect these positive life approaches might have on the devastating effects of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Follow up research has revealed the sisters with a more positive outlook have less disease and lower mortality rates — and a natural immunization against the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease.
Can we change what we feel?
But what if we aren’t born to be happy? What if our natural disposition isn’t so sunny? Can we change who we are emotionally? Again, the answer is a resounding yes, and the methods for doing so are surprisingly simple.
Experts explain that negative emotions tend to be stronger than positive emotions. This is often referred to as a “negativity bias” in our thinking, and there is good reason for it. They point to thousands of years ago when we did not trust people outside our tribe and worried about what foods and animals were safe. Negative thoughts were necessary to survive — and positive ones had less value.
Intentional activities — measures we deliberately engage in to bring joy into our lives — are what make the difference. Perhaps one of the best categories of these intentional activities to try comes from a familiar phrase: count your blessings.
Acknowledging our gratitudes has long been a staple of transforming negativity. Many studies have been done on gratitude. Here is a down-to-earth way that has been shown to increase well-being while keeping negative feelings at bay.
The gratitude review involves taking a few moments to look at the last 24 hours through the lens of gratitude. It has the powerful ability to reframe our memory by highlighting specific things that we are thankful for. It tends to work better if specific events are identified — so make a list and aim for a minimum of three — with no upper limit. Making this gratitude list on a regular basis has been shown by research to do a few very effective things for our emotional well-being.
First, it changes how we felt about the previous day. It will make a good day feel even better and reconstructs our memory toward greater positivity of a not-so-terrific day. Secondly, it makes people feel better, more appreciative in the moment. Finally, research shows that this one exercise can create a feeling of optimism for up to two weeks.
This intentional activity, which takes about the same amount of time it takes to brush your teeth, has at least the equivalent benefits for our emotional well- being as brushing does for our dental health. In fact, once you get used to the idea of doing it regularly, you can review your gratitudes while you brush your teeth — and allow that smile to come from the inside as well.
Dr. Dan Tomasulo is a psychologist and speaker working at the University of Pennsylvania with Martin Seligman, the Father of Positive Psychology. Honored by Sharecare as one of the top 10 online in influencers on the topic of depression, he is also the director of the New York City Certificate in Positive Psychology at the Open Center and teaches positive psychology at Columbia University. For more information go to: Dare2BeHappy.com