People often say, “just be positive”. Though how does positive thinking actually improve your health? Here’s the lowdown.
A positive emotions include experiences beyond happiness such as curiosity, awe, gratitude, inspiration. Think about what happens when you experience positive emotions – your thoughts and behaviours become expansive or exploratory, opposed to negative, small and self-belittling in nature. Positive thinking allow us to build enhancing actions and options in our life and thus improves our personal resources, meaning and purpose in life.
It is always important to clearly state that a focus on cultivating positive emotion does not mean a concerted effort to avoid or reduce negative emotion. Negative and sad emotions have a place in the normal range of emotional health. They are natural and adaptive emotional responses. In fact research shows that if our focus is on avoidance, the strength of the subject we are avoiding actually gains strength and influence in our mind and life.
So our aim is rather to accept and experience negative emotion, whilst remaining open to the experience of positive emotions and and cultivating the growth of these positive thoughts in all areas of our life and days.
But how do positive thoughts actually impact your health?
Given that the mind and body are inextricably linked and influential on each other, when you experience a positive emotion, your biochemistry reacts. What actually happens is, a surge in oxytocin and progesterone occurs within your body and hence your nervous system receives some restorative therapy. This brings a welcoming effect on both your mental and physical state. On the flip side, when you experience emotions of anger, fear and sadness, your stress response within your nervous system is switched on, and it is these positive chemicals within the body that together with cardiovascular reactivity, help to return you to a healthy baseline void of negative feelings. Thus positive emotions (and their subsequent chemical make up within the body) play a regulatory role to help to absolve the impacts of stress.
Together with fellow researcher Marcial Losada, in 2005 Barbara Fredrickson’s proposed a guide for achieving and maintaining a positive mind state. The guide is a Positivity Ratio of maintaining a mind state of 3 positives to 1 negative. They suggest that this is the ‘tipping point’ above which the individual is more likely to be flourishing – that is when they are experiencing enhanced and even optimal wellbeing and emotional health. Fredrickson likens this to the melting point of ice – Below the threshold of zero degrees chemical compounds are stuck in a solid form whereas above zero degrees they are fluid and mobile – a nice analogy for psychological health.
Whilst her ratio and particularly the method used to establish this ratio has received challenges in recent years, we’re encouraged to hold this idea loosely and look at the driving research on emotion, which underpins this.
7 helpful tips to achieve the Positivity Ratio:
- Keep a daily emotions journal noting your emotional states, triggers and reflections. Greater awareness of your emotional balance is the first step to recognising opportunity to shift.
- Pay attention to human kindness, noticing actions that have been done by others but also those which you have acted on yourself. Altruism is highly associated with improved wellbeing.
- Take advantage of good weather. People who can spend more than 30 minutes in the outdoors when the weather is good experience improved mood.
- Complete Barbara Fredrickson’s two minute ’positivity ratio’ test at positivityratio.com to get an idea of where you are at today. Try again in a few weeks.
- Seize opportunity to practice mindfulness. In our busy world of rumination we miss many opportunities to experience positive emotions. It is important to offer up space for positive experience.
- Keep a daily gratitude diary that provides you with a routine way to actively acknowledge and record positive things in your life and positive emotions. We do not always attend to the subtle goods and due to our evolution are more primed for negative sources of information. This can help us appreciate the small and the big things that are great, each day.
- Engage a coach or psychologist to gain support to sustain your intention and accountability.