The Bright Side of Life

April 28, 2013

positive thinking

by Jamie Arnold

Whenever events and circumstances make us unhappy, we usually ask ourselves questions like

–          What is the reality of the situation?

–          What should my attitude to it be?

–          What should I do about it?

There is not much in the way of wise counsel, be it religious, philosophical or psychological, that does not in some way address these basic questions.

The Monty Python film “Life of Brian” pokes fun at the whole matter by ending with a crucifixion scene in which the song “Always Look at the Bright Side of Life” is sung. Originally written for the film, this song is now a virtual folk anthem, glaring irony and all. It’s an ode to the extremes to which we humans will go to view life with a tall order of stiff upper lip topped off with Polyanna’s rose-colored glasses.

Shadow and Light

What’s the alternative to forced, seemingly unfounded, optimism in the face of unhappy emotions and experiences? Psychotherapy and psychiatry are readily available to help us with what ails us mentally and emotionally so that we can gain perspective, heal if necessary, and go on with life. Engaging in psychotherapy does not require a simplistic optimism that belies the darker realities of a situation; it encourages us to explore these shadows in more depth.  On the other hand, some branches of psychology have emerged in reaction to what they see as a singular emphasis on negative human conditions in their field. Humanistic psychology and positive psychology focus a little more on the bright side, so to speak. Rather than dismissing Polyanna, a psychologist studying positive psychology would be interested in her core attitudes and coping mechanisms to see if they have the potential to make the rest of us healthier and happier.

Positive thinking is one of the central ideas of the so-called New Age movement in America and elsewhere. It also permeates Buddhist thought and, probably, the commonsense attitudes of many of our ancestors who somehow survived to pass on life to those who thrive today. Despite the need to understand and address what seems like negative realities, our mental health really does appear to benefit if we get into the habit of putting a positive spin on our lot and especially on the future.

Give Yourself the Gift of Positive Thinking

Neuroscience has entered an exciting era in which brain imaging is being used to identify what the brain looks when we feel joy, hope and other positive emotions. By scanning to identify which areas of the brain are more active when we feel upbeat and optimistic, neuroscientists can even devise ways to train and exercise those areas of the brain to become activated more readily. They can also identify areas most associated with depression and other psychiatric imbalances and likewise create more accurate ways to lessen the effect of those types of brain activity.

This is exciting news for everyone alive today. Our generation is blessed with the knowledge and the proof that it’s possible to change our thoughts and attitudes for the better, and that, most of all, it’s beneficial for us in the long run to do so. The catchphrase for this phenomenon is brain plasticity, which refers to the fact that we can train and improve our brains just as we can our bodies. All it takes is the right set of methods and exercises.

A Healthier, Happier You

What are some of the benefits of cultivating positivity and optimism? According to experts at the world-renowned Mayo clinic, you’re more likely to live longer with a higher quality of life, experience less depression, enjoy a stronger immune system, experience less heart disease and better manage stressful situations. Whether optimism is a cause or effect of living a healthier lifestyle, there is a relationship. Positive people tend to be more physically active and eat healthier foods while engaging in fewer addictive behaviors.

If you don’t feel that you have the positive mental attitude that would bring you these benefits, try some simple exercises and do them regularly just as you might start a physical exercise routine. Maintain your motivation by detaching from any expectations for a while. If you expect to feel better overnight and it doesn’t happen, don’t let yourself become discouraged; just keep going. Develop positive affirmations that you can apply to your life, or borrow some generic sayings from religious or self-help sources and repeat them until their simplicity begins to win you over. There is a piece of traditional folk wisdom that suggests, “If you’re not happy, fake it and it will eventually feel real.” This is absolutely true. The brain begins to remold itself to reflect a more positive outlook. Enduring happiness may not be as simple as that, but research suggests this approach is on the right path!

Your positive inner coach should focus on simple phrases that deal with a better future, forgiveness, gratitude and other humble concerns. The capacity to believe that even bad situations and feelings will turn out for the best is a powerful antidote to life’s ills. Holding on to anger and disappointment have the capacity to poison us, so stop counting your wounds and affirm your forgiveness of others. Likewise, make simple statements of gratitude for the people, experiences, and opportunities that benefit your life.

Are you ignoring negative realities by practicing positive thinking? Perhaps you are; or you may be avoiding putting a negative spin on a more benign reality. Each situation and each person is different, but adopting a positive attitude can absolutely help you feel happier in the long run. Just give it a try – it’ll work wonders in your life.

 Image Credit: Wagner Cesar Munhoz