Most mornings as I leave the Y after my swim and shower, I cross paths with a coterie of toddlers entering with their caregivers for a kid-oriented activity. I can’t resist saying hello, requesting a high-five, and wishing them a fun time. I leave the Y grinning from ear to ear, uplifted not just by my own workout but even more so by my interaction with these darling representatives of the next generation.
What a great way to start the day!
When I told a fellow swimmer about this experience and mentioned that I was writing a column on the health benefits of positive emotions, she asked, “What do you do about people who are always negative?” She was referring to her parents, whose chronic negativity seems to drag everyone down and make family visits extremely unpleasant.
I lived for half a century with a man who suffered from periodic bouts of depression, so I understand how challenging negativism can be. I wish I had known years ago about the work Barbara Fredrickson, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina, has done on fostering positive emotions, in particular her theory that accumulating “micro-moments of positivity,” like my daily interaction with children, can, over time, result in greater overall well-being.
The research that Dr. Fredrickson and others have done demonstrates that the extent to which we can generate positive emotions from even everyday activities can determine who flourishes and who doesn’t. More than a sudden bonanza of good fortune, repeated brief moments of positive feelings can provide a buffer against stress and depression and foster both physical and mental health, their studies show.
This is not to say that one must always be positive to be healthy and happy. Clearly, there are times and situations that naturally result in negative feelings in the most upbeat of individuals. Worry, sadness, anger and other such “downers” have their place in any normal life. But chronically viewing the glass as half-empty is detrimental both mentally and physically and inhibits one’s ability to bounce back from life’s inevitable stresses.
Negative feelings activate a region of the brain called the amygdala, which is involved in processing fear and anxiety and other emotions. Dr. Richard J. Davidson, a neuroscientist and founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin — Madison, has shown that people in whom the amygdala recovers slowly from a threat are at greater risk for a variety of health problems than those in whom it recovers quickly.
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