What Are You Thankful For? Positive Psychology and Mental Health

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Have you ever woken up on the wrong side of the bed, been greeted by a perky co-worker with a chipper “Good Morning!,” and had an urge to snarkily respond, “What’s so good about it?” Sometimes we feel so much stress and pain that we get caught up in our negative thoughts, and it seems like the slogan “Life is Good” is just a cruel joke. In the pit of despair or worry, it may be difficult to even remember or recognize positive things in life. Decades of research have provided strong evidence that negative thoughts are related to stress, negative mood, and anxiety. In fact, it has been found that depressed people tend to display unintentional memory bias, in which they tend to remember more unpleasant experiences than positive ones compared with non-depressed people. In recent years, a new field of scientific study and clinical practice has emerged called Positive Psychology, which focuses on studying happiness, resilience, and mental wellness. Positive psychology researchers have found that making a habit of focusing on positive aspects of life is related to better mental health, ability to cope with stress, and lower risk of psychological problems.

Now, I’m not going to play the part of Suzie Sunshine and promise that if you just think positively, all your stress will go away. I also don’t advocate trying to ignore stress by trying to see the “silver lining” and telling yourself, “I’m lucky. It could be worse.” It’s not usually helpful to hear that from other people, so it’s not helpful to tell ourselves that either. When we tell ourselves things like “other people are suffering worse than me,” we are actually invalidating and minimizing our feelings – which doesn’t feel good. Now, not only do you still feel bad about the original problem, but you also feel bad because you feel like you shouldn’t feel bad. So, our attempt to feel better has actually made us feel worse.

Rather, I encourage you to combine your gratitude practice with mindfulness practice. Acknowledge and compassionately make room for your stress in your current experience, and then expand your focus to include what is good that is ALSO happening in this present moment. Instead of “yeah, but,” we are saying “yes, and.” We are not ignoring or invalidating our stress, we are simply reminding ourselves that there is more to life than just our current stress or pain. Pain is often a helpful signal that something isn’t right, and can help motivate us to make positive changes. Further, realize that we have stress because we care. We don’t worry about things we don’t care about. We can also have pain from doing things that are good for us! When we are working out and feeling soreness in our muscles, we are becoming stronger. Therefore, it can be helpful to remind ourselves of the positive things in life that we are grateful for when those things are causing us stress (e.g., “My legs are so freakin’ tired, and I’m grateful my legs are strong and working to support me.”) It’s also important to focus on what really matters to us when we are trying to decide what stress we are willing to endure. For example, most of us will agree that parenting is pretty stressful. When you care about your children as much as you do, it’s understandable that you’ll feel intense stress or pain if something bad happens to them. And yet, people willingly have children and take on sleepless nights and protective panic and frustration because it’s worth it to them to raise and love a child. We can better cope with life’s inevitable stress when we are living in accordance to our values, and we remind ourselves what makes life worth living – the things that really matter to us. The things we are grateful for. We validate our very real stress, and we balance that stress out with reminding ourselves of the positive aspects of our lives.

In honour of this Thanksgiving holiday weekend, I encourage you to spend a little time intentionally thinking about at least 3 different things you are grateful for, and perhaps consider making a daily habit of challenging yourself to notice and document the positive aspects of your life in a gratitude journal. You may have noticed gratitude challenges circulating on social media lately, which is another fun way of intentionally focusing on positive things in life and connecting with others at the same time. So, when we are rushing around trying to get the turkey on the table and attempting to keep ourselves from throwing a dinner roll at an annoying family member, remember the reason we put ourselves through all the drama. We welcome the stress of the holidays because we value time spent with family and friends. The times in our lives when the challenge of positive thinking seems most difficult, are the times we can most benefit from practicing gratitude.
I’m thankful for the opportunity to write for the Blitz Conditioning community! What are you thankful for?

Happy Thanksgiving!
References and Further Reading:
http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201005/giving-thanks-the-benefits-gratitude
http://www.positivepsychology.org
http://www.positivepsychologycanada.com/What-is-positive-psychology

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