The power of positivity

Aruna Sankaranarayanan

A recent article in The New York Times reported that the most popular course at Yale University is ‘Psychology and the Good Life’. This course has a staggering enrolment of 1,182 students. Large lecture classes at Yale usually attract around half the number of students. That so many students, who are majoring in a broad array of disciplines, should evince interest in a positive psychology course speaks volumes about the myriad pressures plaguing students across campuses worldwide.

Yes, we do live in highly-charged times. An article published in a website states that 70 million Indians suffer from mental health ailments. Young people are particularly vulnerable as the strains and stresses on them have only multiplied over the years. Despite living in a more connected age, students often feel lonely, misunderstood and isolated. With parents also anxious about their admissions and career prospects, young people often don’t know who to turn to when they feel overwhelmed. In addition to the burden of ever-increasing academic expectations, youngsters also have to navigate a tricky social terrain, both real and virtual. Moreover, young people are ridden with angst by the unpredictability of tomorrow’s workplace.

Sunnier disposition

But cheer up. All is not lost. Writer and positive psychology advocate, Shawn Achor, provides concrete tips and strategies in his book, The Happiness Advantage, that can help you course through life more smoothly without getting bogged down by negativity. In fact, he argues that “happiness is the precursor to success” rather than the other way around.

Most people assume that our happiness is based on life’s circumstances. If fortune favours us, we smile. If not, we frown. This is indeed true, but only to an extent. Research in positive psychology indicates that we can actually raise our happiness levels regardless of our situations by adopting simple but empirically proven practices.

And guess what? As our happiness levels rise, so does our chance for encountering success. And, this only fuels our happiness further, resulting in more positivity. In fact, Achor exhorts us to think of happiness as “not just a mood” but a “work ethic.” So, how do you go about sporting a sunnier disposition? Achor suggests the following activities as they are known to boost people’s moods:

  • Far-fetched though it may sound, innumerable studies point to the immense benefits of meditation. Just close your eyes and focus on your breathing for five minutes a day.
  • You may also do something kind everyday. It could be as simple as slowing down your bike so an old man can cross the road.
  • Exercise at least three times a week for 45 minutes. Working out has been found to alleviate even the symptoms of depression.
  • Instead of spending money on things, invest in memorable experiences. Take a friend out to lunch, go bowling or watch a play.
  • Engage in a hobby where you can exercise your ‘signature strengths’, be it painting or miming.

Turn setbacks into opportunities

Next, you can also adopt what Stanford psychologist, Carol Dweck, terms a growth mindset, wherein you believe that your talents, skills, abilities, and even your happiness levels for that matter are not fixed inherently but are mutable. With the right kind of effort and practice, you can surprise yourself on how much you can actually accomplish.

According to Achor, “The mental construction of our daily activities, more than the activity itself, defines out reality.” For example, in one study, hotel maids who had been led to believe that their daily work was a form of exercise actually shed weight and had reduced cholesterol levels after some weeks. In contrast, the control group, who hadn’t been told to conceive of their work as exercise, did not show the same benefits.

It also helps to look at the positives of a situation, no matter how dire, rather than simply fixating on the drawbacks. In order to cultivate a sunny side-up world view, jot down at least three good things that happen to you every day, no matter how miserable your day has been. After a few weeks, you may start noticing the pluses of what appears to be a bleak situation more readily.

Achor narrates the story of two shoes salesmen who were dispatched to Africa to study the market. One salesman described the situation as “hopeless” as no one wore shoes there. The other responded that it was a “glorious opportunity” as people didn’t have any shoes as yet. Similarly, over time, you may start reframing events in such a way that setbacks transform into opportunities. He also urges us to invest in social relationships so that we maintain strong ties with family and friends.

Of course, this means meeting people fact-to-face on a frequent basis rather than simply exchanging ‘likes’ on social media. In fact, people with strong social networks are less likely to feel threatened by negative events.

So, while you may be focused on an upcoming exam or a job interview, remember that your happiness is central to your life’s successes. And, just as you spend time and effort in pursuing academic and professional goals, make sure you also devote resources to being contented and optimistic.

(The author is director, PRAYATNA)

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