Is Positivity Overrated?

Photo by Shoaib Altaf
Photo by Shoaib Altaf
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The Challenge: Given the global challenges, can positivity really make a difference?
The Science:  We get major physical, mental, and social benefits from positivity.
The Solution:  Engage in positivity, in your favorite way, to benefit yourself and society!
How many of you are inundated these days with repetitive blog posts on “10 Keys to Happiness”, or “How Your Gratitude will Change the World” in your social media news feed?   Are you sick of seeing them?  While these posts are well-meaning, given the current state of global affairs, they might seem meaningless.  Let’s face it – we are facing serious critical issues in our society – from rampant depression to pervasive heart disease, to wars and genocide. Can the power of positivity really help us with these problems?

It’s a legitimate question, and in order to understand the power of positivity, it helps to actually explore the science behind it.

Feeling Good

In the psychology world, people often refer to our natural human tendency to “feel good” as “positive affect”.  How do we get more positive affect?  Well, no surprise – one way to feel good is to engage in positive activities.  For me, for example, no matter how crappy of a day I’ve had, getting out in the water – feeling the cool Pacific Ocean on my skin, with the warmth of the San Diego sun and catching a barreling wave on my surfboard — always makes me feel better.

That is, when I can actually FIND the time to get out to the beach, which is not nearly as often as I’d like.

Most of us don’t get the chance to engage in our “happy” activities as much as we want. Work, kids, other obligations take priority. But a key aspect of positive affect is how much we can experience states like happiness, contentment, and excitement – no matter what’s happening in our lives at the moment.  If we can maintain a sense of positivity no matter what we are doing, what does that do for us health-wise?

As it turns out, feeling good matters quite a bit for our health. It seems that those who experience high levels of positive affect, meaning feeling happiness, excitement, and so forth – have longer lives, less disease complications, better cardiovascular health, and reduced negative immune responses to stress. How does this work? One theory is that these positive emotions, sustained over periods of time, improve our abilities to handle stress, and protect our bodies from the negative consequences of stress, through several biological pathways.

But what if you’re stressed out to begin with? Can just putting a smile on your face actually help at that point?  Well, interestingly enough – laboratory research suggests that if you literally create a smile on your face and are then presented with things that stress you out, your body’s heart rate responses to those stressors are decreased – providing meaning to the well known phrase, “grin and bear it”.

Interesting. But some of us might wonder if this relationship between positive affect and health isn’t just for super privileged societies, where for some of us, our biggest concern is whether our smartphone battery is actually working. Does the relationship between positive affect and health work in more disadvantaged societies?

Well, a recent study examining the effects of emotions and health in 142 countries suggests that in societies where hunger and homelessness are rampant, the relationships between positive affect and health appear even stronger.

This is just a smattering of some of the studies out there, but it’s noteworthy to know that in all these studies, these findings aren’t just accounted for by the absence of negative emotions. That is, it’s not that these people with more positive affect and better health outcomes are suppressing themselves from feeling things like anger, sadness or disappointment – those are normal emotions that we all have to feel and go through. But alongside those emotions, when we allow ourselves to also feel more positive emotions, those positive emotions are independently driving these beneficial health effects.

Living a valued life

Part of positivity includes “feeling good”, and it also includes living a life that is consistent with your values  – in short, a “life worth living”.   Think about things that you do that feel very meaningful, that make you feel connected to others or to your life purpose. For some of us, that feeling comes when we are of service to others. For some of us, it’s engaging in, or being touched by, art.  For some of us, it’s spending time with our loved ones that nurture us. It can be all of these things, and more.

This aspect of positivity is sometimes referred to as “eudaimonic well-being”, related to the Aristotelian view of “eudaimonia” or “living a valued life”. It relates to things like life purpose, positive relationships with others, personal growth, and a sense of mastery and autonomy over our lives.

Eudaimonic well-being, or living a valued life, also relates to better health.  For example, older women who reported living a more valued life were found to have less lower cardiovascular risk, a better immune and hormonal profile, and improved sleep. And a study of nearly 9,000 women 85 and older found that those elder women who had higher levels of life purpose and personal growth were 2-3 times LESS likely to die!

Recent studies suggest that eudaimonic well-being even impacts us down to the genomic level – men and women with higher levels of eudaimonic well-being showed downregulation of genes that turn on inflammatory immune activity in the body.

So positivity seems to guide a better trajectory of health for us, from our genes to our lifespan. What about the world?

What About the World?

The science of positivity goes well beyond our physical bodies – it greatly impacts our social networks. For example, a study examining networks of happiness in 5000 people over 20 years suggests that if you are happy, there’s a 42% increased chance that your friend a half-mile away will also feel happiness up to 6 months later. You are also much more likely to be happy if you are surrounded by happy people (we’ve probably all experienced that!). In fact the research suggests that happiness appears to extend up to three degrees of separation.

Why is this? Simply put, we create ripples of emotion wherever we go. Our emotions are reflected not only in our brains and bodies, but through our interactions with everyone we touch. When we feel better, we reach out more to others in positive ways that benefit our loved ones and communities, and our positivity continues to ripple. The energy of our positivity brings forth more genuine connection, and with that, greater peace and understanding.

If this sounds too airy-fairy to you, consider some of the most successful revolutionaries in our time – like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela. These were spiritual and social revolutionaries who understood the power of positivity as a means to enhance connection and social justice. Their revolutions were built on the understanding that societal transformation begins from within, and through the practice of non-violent action – which is rooted in positivity – they could better right social injustices and bring freedom to their societies.

So What Can We Do?

What we can learn from these and other great leaders, is to deeply understand that all of us want and deserve to live with happiness and live according to our values, that we are not at all as separate as we seem. We can commit to spreading our own positive emotions, and actively choose to envision the future of well-being- for all beings.

One of the great take-aways from the science, is that there are so many ways to experience and create positivity in our lives in a way that benefit us and society. There is no one way. It can be done as a formal meditation or prayer practice, or be as simple as listing 5 things you are grateful for every day. It even means simply sharing your happiness with others through a smile or a laugh. The science supports all of these approaches – because they all cultivate positive thoughts, words, and deeds around yourself and your loved ones.

It’s really that simple. The science behind positivity suggests that we are evolutionarily wired to experience and express positivity and a valued life – so that we can have optimal health and success.

As we connect with positivity, we embody it – and we continue to co-create it. In fact, science suggests that Positivity is our birthright – and literally, what will help us save ourselves, and our planet.

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Shamini Jain

Shamini Jain

Dr. Shamini Jain is a psychologist, scientist, and social entrepreneur. She is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at UC San Diego, where she is also Chair of the Center for Integrative Medicine’s Research Committee. She is also the Founder and Director of the Consciousness and Healing Initiative, a collaborative effort that links scientists, practitioners, entrepreneurs, and educators to facilitate healing through an understanding of consciousness and consciousness-based practices. Dr. Jain conducts clinical research in the areas of psychoneuroimmunology and integrative medicine. Her extramurally funded research has included examining the impact of integrative medicine interventions in cancer populations, PTSD, and heart failure. Her published, NIH-funded research in biofield healing, a form of integrative medicine, has been featured in TIME magazine and CNN. Dr. Jain has received several awards from scientific organizations for her work. Dr. Jain obtained her B.A. in Neuroscience and Behavior from Columbia University, and her Ph.D. degree from the SDSU/UCSD Joint Doctoral Program in Clinical Psychology. She conducted her clinical residency at the La Jolla VA Hospital/UCSD, and her post-doctoral fellowship at UCLA’s Division of Cancer Prevention and Control Research.
Shamini Jain

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