I crack a wry smile every time I do the exact thing I said I’d never do. I will never let my kids eat junk food or I’m never going back to the United States, and best of all: you’ll never catch me at one of those dorky programs for self-improvement. I would have put good money on that last one.
Turns out, one of the best things I’ve ever done was attend a dorky program for self-improvement. My former therapist mockingly called them “weekend miracles,” and I assumed they were strictly for suckers. My whole persona was much more ‘cynical know-it-all’ than ‘personal-growth-loving optimist.’ The old version of me wouldn’t even do lunch with this new version. In truth, that ‘weekend miracle’ put me on a path to becoming someone who lives a far better life.
Making room for the notion that we cancultivate a positive outlook and that it makes a difference to our wellbeing was a huge shift in mindset. I used to think our baseline happiness was a fixed thing, simply the result of the way we are. It’s now clear to me that the thoughts I hold onto determine whether I live in a state of low grade misery or peaceful contentment. I’m not suggesting we pretend to have no problems. I simply mean that when you condition yourself to operate from a calm, positive place, the physical and mental benefits are profound. It doesn’t work with Swiss watch precision, but it does work.
In our head-centered culture, we value ticking off our to-do list far more than increasing our positive experiences throughout the day. According to author and world-renowned researcher Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, cultivating positivity is more important than happiness. She teaches that finding more ways to have micro-moments of connection is just as critical to physical health as exercise and eating your veggies. All day long we have the opportunity to connect with others in a positive way. Saying good morning to a stranger, laughter with loved ones, smiling at a baby—doesn’t even have to be your baby! I notice a boost in how I feel after I’ve said thank you to the traffic cop who saved us from arriving late, chatted with my neighbor Bob and helped a kid find her chile lime at the grocery store. Most of the time, our brains are being shaped unwittingly. Looking for ways to bolster our outlook makes a difference.
Choosing moments of connection is known to increase our wellbeing. It is just one example of a simple habit that builds our overall positivity. We now know there is a formula to wellness and any one of us can shape our brains through training. Lucky for us, all these neural circuits exhibit plasticity. Wellbeing is an actual skill set to be learned. It’s like playing the piano. If you practice, you get better.
So what skills should we target to improve our wellbeing? According to Richard Davidson, Founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, there are four components that can be improved with practice.
- Resilience. After experiencing an adverse event, we can return to baseline more quickly when we focus on the things we can control instead of the multitudes we have nothing to do with— our own goals, for example. It’s helpful to recognize that the problem likely doesn’t pervade every aspect of our lives. For more tips on how to bounce back quicker, check out: https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/resilience.htm
- Positive Outlook. If you are someone who has the ability to see the good in others and to savor positive experiences, you lower your risk of all sorts of mental and physical illness. Developing the habit of focusing on the good to come out of a challenging situation, being able to laugh, even when times are tough lowers stress, anxiety and depression. Spending time with positive people raises your self-esteem and helps you see the bright side too. Speaking sweetly into your own ears doesn’t hurt. If you start the day on a positive note, you increase feelings of peace and positivity. https://www.healthline.com/health/how-to-think-positive
- Paying Attention. “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind.” A shocking 47% of the time, American adults are not paying attention to what they are doing. Being present and deeply listening is critical to wellbeing. You can learn to maintain focus through mindfulness or other cognitive training. Most obviously, maintaining good sleep, nutrition and exercise is key. For more, Harvard has some tips: https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/tips-to-improve-concentration
- Generosity. When we engage in altruistic behavior, it has a ripple effect. If someone else sees us do something kind or generous, it makes them more likely to be generous too. This has a direct effect on our feeling connected to others around us, like what we do matters. It helps us feel less lonely. All these wellness circuits are interconnected. The more positive we are, the more full of joy, the more we want to share it with others. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/click-here-happiness/201902/what-is-generosity-and-how-be-more-generous-person
When we understand that we are the ones responsible for the quality of our lives and that the tools to improving them are at our fingertips, we get the sense that it’s all going to be okay.
WRITING PROMPT: Would you say you have a positive outlook on life? What do you think of the “weekend miracles?” Ever been to one? What was your experience?
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