“Few things in the world are more powerful than a positive push.
A smile. A world of optimism and hope.
A ‘you can do it’ when things are tough.”
– Richard M. DeVos
2020 is off to a rough start. Not two weeks into a new year and a new decade, we are at the brink of war with Iraq, our President awaits trial in the Senate, the Australian continent is burning, and the Eagles have been eliminated from the NFL playoffs. What else can go wrong? In all likelihood, we will be witness to a number of setbacks over the next few months that are political, social or economic in nature. And to top things off, we are quickly approaching what many psychologists consider to be the most depressing time of the year, the last two weeks of January and the month of February. Why? The bills have come in from all those generous gifts you gave when you were filled with that holiday spirit, and the resolutions you made on December 31 are memories. Outside it’s cold, dark, and dreary, your car is never clean, and the roadways quickly fill with the brown slush that follows every snow.
So why am I writing this, to depress you? Not at all, rather I simply want to lay the cards on the table. It can be a tough time of year, but it is how we respond; in fact it is how we prepare ourselves, that will determine the mindset we carry into each day, and into the rest of the year. In her post, How to Improve Your Health in 2020, Sandee LaMotte, a CNN-Health contributor shares five scientifically-validated strategies that will not only improve your mental outlook, but will use the intertwined mind-body connection to improve your overall health. Let’s start with the one that drives everything else:
Practicing Optimism: The research studies are clear and positive. Those with an optimistic outlook are 35% less likely to have a heart attack or stroke, are more likely to eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly, have stronger immune systems, and even live longer. A 2019 study found people with the most positive outlook had the greatest odds of living to 85 or beyond. Additionally, optimists are mentally stronger than those with a less positive outlook. An optimist does not personalize challenges or problems, rather they welcome them as opportunities to learn and grow. The optimist believes that fate only controls the lives of those who choose not to take control of their own.
Volunteer: St. Francis taught us, “It is in giving that we receive.” Again, we find the link between our outlook/behavior and health. Studies have shown that altruism (putting the well-being of others before our own) stimulates the reward centers of the brain. Those feel-good chemicals flood our system, producing a sort of “helper’s high.” Additional studies reveal that volunteering and other good deeds reduce physical pain, and minimize stress, can reduce the risk for cognitive impairment, and like practicing optimism, help us live longer.
Be Grateful: Research has demonstrated that expressing thankfulness and gratitude serves to reduce anxiety and depression and boosts optimism. In fact, middle-schoolers who practiced gratitude exercises had less problem behavior. (Did you read that, parents of adolescents?) Two simple practices can help make this a habit. Take a moment each evening, to think about your day and make a short list of things that went well and one or two people who helped make it a good day. The next morning, prepare a short thank-you note or expression of gratitude to one of those you identified. Starting and ending your day with thoughts of gratitude will serve to make the time in between that much better.
Bolster Your Social Connections: In his popular TEDx talk, psychiatrist Robert Waldinger shares “People who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community, are happier, they’re physically healthier, and they live longer than people who are less well connected,” Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. It’s important to be open to expanding your network, but it is even more important to deepen the relationships you already have. It is the quality of our relationships that sustain us in times of need.
Find Your Purpose: Penn psychologist Martin Seligman, co-founder of the field of positive psychology, says a sense of purpose will come from being part of something bigger than ourselves. Equally important, when we feel we exist for something larger, that very thought relieves some of the pressure. Religion, family, and social causes (volunteering) become ways to increase meaning in our lives.
Is the year off to a rough start? Absolutely, but it is going to get better. The future has unlimited possibilities and all we need to do is look for the positives and take action. It begins with each of us, as individuals, and expands from there. I learned many years ago that the best challenges are those we embrace. I hope you join me.