Depression, which involves feelings of sadness and hopelessness, is the leading cause of disability worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. So it comes as very good news that scientists are coming closer to understanding what generates the opposite of depression—feelings of happiness and life satisfaction—and identifying strategies that can help people achieve these upbeat feelings.
In a study published Sept. 20, 2013 in the online journal PeerJ, 1,400 adults were asked to re-port their levels of positive and negative emotions, estimate their ranking on Happiness-Depression and Satisfaction-with-Life scales, and indicate how often they used specific strategies to increase their own happiness. The researchers then profiled the study participants who ranked themselves at the highest levels of happiness. Results indicated that participants who reported being most inclined to react positively to issues and events and least inclined to react negatively were more likely to feel happy and self-fulfilled than those with low positivity and high negativity or those who ranked high in both categories or low in both categories. Moreover, participants with high-positive, low-negative reactions were more likely to use certain identifiable strategies to promote feelings of happiness than the other participants.
“This study provides further evidence to support what scientists are learning about the effects of positive and negative emotions on our well-being,” says Nancy Etcoff, PhD, Director of the MGH Department of Psychiatry’s Program in Aesthetics. “The researchers found that the happiest participants tended to use strategies that helped them pursue goals, establish social affiliations, and develop spirituality, among other tactics. The findings suggest that we may be able to teach people to rethink how they approach things and help them adopt strategies more conducive to happiness and self-fulfillment. People with mild to moderate depression might be greatly helped by this research.”
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Dr. Etcoff suggests using these six approaches to establish a mood-boosting positive attitude:
- Reframe. Instead of focusing on your problems and trying to avoid harm, concentrate on what you can gain and how you can grow through challenges. Keep positive feelings in the forefront.
- Be mindful. Try to examine your situation in a detached way, acknowledging any negative emotions you may be experiencing, but not getting carried away by them. Cultivate a sense of perspective.
- Exercise compassion both for yourself and for others. Try not to be judgmental.
- Be grateful. Instead of dwelling on the negative aspects of a situation, think about what you are grateful for. Reminding yourself of the good things in your life is a strong antidote to negative feelings. Expressing your grati-tude toward others can be a powerful way to bring people closer.
- Capitalize on positive experiences by savoring them and sharing them with others. Enjoying the good things together creates a deep bond of shared pleasure and warm memories.
- Do something active. Try to be physically active and take good care of yourself. Volunteering and helping others can also boost your mood.
The participants in the PeerJ study were offered a range of mood-boosting strategies and asked to identify those they were most likely to use to make themselves feel happier. The participants who reported feeling happy and self-fulfilled—those with high-positivity, low-negativity profiles—were significantly more inclined to choose the following strategies:
Direct Attempts: Participants who were the most self-fulfilled scored higher than all other partici-pants in this category, which involved directly attempting to smile, get themselves in a happy mood, improve their social skills, and work on their self-control.
Social Affiliation: Happy participants were more apt to use strategies that involved communal values and cooperation, such as supporting and encouraging friends, helping others, trying to improve oneself, interacting with friends, and receiving help from friends and loved ones.
Instrumental Goal Pursuit: The happiest participants were more likely to engage in activities in-tended to achieve goals, such as studying, organizing one’s life and goals, and striving for the accom-plishment of tasks.
Active leisure: Happy participants tended to choose strategies that involved activities, such as exercise or hobbies, in which they are able to use their personal strengths and become absorbed by the activity itself.
Religion: Participants who were happiest and most self-fulfilled more frequently sought support from faith, performing religious activities, praying, and consuming less alcohol as suggested by their religion. This choice is thought to help the individual live in harmony with a changing world.
“It’s especially important to avoid using mental control to dodge negative thoughts and sweep problems under the rug,” says Dr. Etcoff. “Becoming more proactive and taking control of the situa-tion offers a better chance for happiness.”
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