Don’t just Accentuate the Positive

You’ve got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
And latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between”

The words from this Johnny Mercer song – which topped the billboard charts in 1945 with competing versions from Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters and Artie Shaw among others – resemble modern day personal development mantras.

Experiencing positive emotions is good for us. It widens our focus, broadens our attention and builds our psychological resilience.

But is it true that by eliminating negativity you can be happy and flourish?

Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, warned that “optimism may sometimes keep us seeing reality with the necessary clarity” . Researchers have found that optimistic people tend to be physically healthier, less depressed, performed better at work, and live longer but the studies couldn’t prove cause and effect.

Perhaps people who are healthier and live longer are more positive and optimistic, or their outlook might be because of a third factor eg they were more energetic.

Pessimists often get a bad press. Defensive pessimists are people who worry about being stressed by exams or job interviews. However this worry helps them to prepare better for such situations. Psychologists at Wellesley College found that forcing defensive pessimist to “cheer up” rather than worry actually made their task performance worse.

And research amongst elderly people found that pessimists were less prone to depression after experiencing negative life events such as the death of a friend. Probably because they had time time to mentally prepare themselves.

Barbara Frederickson, a leading member of the positive psychology movement and psychology professor at the University of Michigan, found that people need to have some negativity in order for them to flourish ie “live within the optimal range of human functioning”.

She likens positive emotions to the fuel that is needed to flourish but said we don’t know how much we need or what the balance should be between experiencing positive and negative ones. So she asked participants to answer a questionnaire and then record their feelings on each of 20 emotions over 28 days.

The participants who scored higher on psychological and social functioning reported an average of 3.2 positive emotions for every negative one. These negative emotions acted as an “anchor for reality” and prevented a Pollyanna-ish, or over-optimistic, attitude to life.

So everyone needs some negativity to keep them grounded and the formula seems to be three times as many positives for every negative. And pessimism isn’t all bad either.

Source: Scientific American. May 2011 and the APA Monitor on Psychology. Frderickson’s research with Marcial Losada from the University of Brazil was published in the American Psychologist (vol 60 No 7) and presented to the APA Annual Convention in 2005.

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Psychotherapy beats medication

Talking therapies are better for you than medication if you suffer from anxiety or mild to moderate depression. But their effectiveness depends largely on the relationship with the therapist.

Sounds a bit obvious perhaps but a professor of counselling psychology, Bruce E Wampold, says his research show that, in addition to having a customised treatment plan, this is what makes a good therapist:

  • a sophisticated set of interpersonal skills
  • building trust, understanding and belief from the client
  • an alliance with the client
  • an acceptable and adaptive explanation of the client’s condition
  • a treatment plan that is allowed to be flexible
  • is influential, persuasive and convincing
  • monitors patient progress
  • offers hope and realistic optimism
  • is aware of client’s characteristics in context
  • is reflective
  • relies on research evidence
  • continually improves through personal development

So with an effective therapist psychotherapy can work better than medication and with anxiety and moderate depression has better outcomes in the long-term with fewer relapses. This has been the argument for using psychotherapy in the UK NHS for these conditions and now Norway has issued guidelines saying psychological interventions should be tried before medication.

Of course GPs and medics are under pressure from the pharmaceutical companies and there aren’t enough therapists available in the NHS leading to long waiting lists but talking therapies should be the first intervention to try.

And the evidence is that people are now more open about mental health problems and more prepared to discuss it rather than try and maintain a stiff upper lip.

Are you happy? – part 2

Married people are happier than single people (it could be that happy people get married more easily).

And the 30% improvement in happiness due to being married makes up for  all the negative affects of unemployment.

Just don’t get divorced (the two worst life events are losing a spouse and unemployment).

But how do you know if people are really happy? Women look less happy but angrier than they are, whereas men look less angry and happier than they are.

Probably because we expect women to be happier than men and men angrier than women and we notice when people display behaviour that doesn’t fit our expectations.

Optimism is associated with happiness, good physical and mental health and longevity whereas stress lowers our immune system so we are more likely to become ill. So middle-aged people who are happy have fewer physical symptoms of diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.

Older people also focus more on the positive aspects of goods and services because they focus more on emotional goals than young adults.(See “Are you happy”).

We are attracted to happy people because we think they will give good genes to our children.

Extraverts are happier than Introverts because they spend more time doing enjoyable things. But introverts who are asked to behave as extroverts can be even happier than real extroverts.

Happiness IS NOT associated with: wealth (once basic needs are met), education, high IQ, youth (20-24 year olds are more depressed than 65-74 year-olds) or watching TV more than 3 hours a day – especially watching soaps.

But it IS associated with: religion (although it may be the community rather than the belief), having lots of friends, and drinking in moderation (compared to tee-totallers).

We are not evolved to be happy all the time otherwise we would have nothing to strive for. However 50% of happiness may be due to our genes compared to les than 10% due to our circumstances. We may have a “set point” or range of happiness to which we return after experiencing ups and downs. So  winning the lottery may not make us happy forever.

According to ideas from positive psychology we can raise our happiness levels by enjoying life more eg by savouring sensual experiences, by becoming more involved in things, and by finding ways of making our lives more meaningful.

Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of “The How of Happiness: a practical guide to getting the life you want”, suggests the following  to raise your levels of happiness:

  1. Count your blessings – keep a gratitude journal each week of 3-5 things
  2. Practise being kind – both randomly and systematically
  3. Savour life’s joys
  4. Thank a mentor
  5. Learn to forgive
  6. Invest time and energy in friends and family – these are more important than work to your happiness.
  7. Take care of your body and health
  8. Develop strategies for coping with stress and hardship – having a strong belief system helps.