"The 'Positive Psychology' of Emotions and Behavior" by Allen Weiss, MD, MBA, President & CEO

The “Positive Psychology” of Emotions and Behavior

December 1, 2011 -  "The state of your life is nothing more than a reflection of your state of mind,” says Wayne Dyer, a well-known author and motivational speaker.

That’s more than basic self-help advice. It turns out that positive emotions, attitude and behavior have a profound affect on every individual, every community, every business.

University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Martin Seligman defines this as “positive psychology” and explains how our behavior and our success are intimately intertwined.

His 2011 book Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being focuses on why things go right, why people have good experiences, feel fulfilled, and enjoy happiness. These positive events, people and environments, in turn, become affirmative forces for those around them. This virtuous cycle is still maturing and has not been completely accepted by academicians. Nevertheless, there is a growing body of scientific evidence that differentiates positive from negative mindsets.

Rather than being saddled with diagnosing and treating problems, positive psychology analyzes well people, organization, and environments, looking for common themes.

Seligman’s new notion of authentic happiness is a premise of well-being where the measures of positive emotion, engagement, meaning, positive relationships and accomplishment are central.

Then we come to Barbara Frederickson, a Stanford-trained PhD and professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina. She has developed what’s come to be known as the “Broaden and Build” approach to positive emotions, and the positive affect they have on individuals.

She’s conducted several randomized controlled lab studies in which individuals are randomly selected to see two types of films: those that induce positive emotions like happiness and contentment and those that induce negative emotions like fear or sadness. She found people who experience positive emotions are more creative and inventive, and are better able to grasp the big picture. In contrast, negative emotions, especially those which become stressful, narrow individuals’ sphere of activity. Positive emotions broaden and build one’s thought-action repertoire and are more conducive to flourishing.

For those with a business background, here’s something especially interesting. This same “broad and build” environment appears to benefit companies’ long-term growth prospects.

Frederickson and her colleagues visited 60 companies, and transcribed every word spoken in business meetings. Each sentence was then assigned either a positive or negative rating. Next they computed the ratio of positive and negative statements—which is called the Losada Ratio, after the man who invented it. Of the 60 companies, about a third were doing very well, a third were doing poorly, and a third were just OK. Now here’s the interesting thing. The companies that flourished had a positive-to-negative of nearly 3:1. Companies below that level were not doing well. (But companies with an extremely high Losado ratio of 13:1 or higher were not performing well—presumably because they didn’t give problems and risks the attention they deserved.)

Separate research by psychologist John Gottman suggests that couples in successful marriages have a positive-to-negative statement ratio of 5:1.

And what about the overall habits of happy people? Psychologists who propagate positive psychology say there are seven of these habits:

1. Relationships. People who have one or more close friendships appear to be happier. (Quality matters, not quantity.) Most everyone is happier with friends or family than being alone. A close relationship—with a willingness to reveal one’s personal issues along with less intimate feelings—helped with the feeling of happiness. Many superficial relationships didn’t compare.

2. Caring. People who volunteer or care for others on a consistent basis seem to be happier and are less subject to depression. Most people who care for others consistently do so because of a genuine desire to help and improve the world around them. Many studies have shown a very significant association between volunteering and psychological well-being.

3. Exercise. This is a personal favorite—as long as it doesn’t become an addiction. Regular exercise is associated with improved mental well-being and less depression. (An aggregation of 23 rigorous studies shows exercise has a “large clinical impact” on depression.) The “runner’s high” isn’t limited to running. Any exercise which releases endorphins stimulates the brain’s happiness receptors. Social contact while exercising is an added benefit.

4. Flow. When we are deeply involved and focused, we can reach a joyful state. Viktor Frankl, neurologist, noted author and youthful survivor of a Nazi concentration camp, states, “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather a striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him.” The loss of self-consciousness when you are completely absorbed in an activity—intellectual, social, or physical—is described as “flow.” This activity must be enjoyable, voluntary, and challenging—but doable. People who experience flow also develop other positive traits such as high concentration, high self-esteem and better physical health.

5. Spiritual Engagement and Meaning. There is a close link between spiritual and religious practice and happiness. Religious organizations provide strong social support for like-minded people with opportunities for socializing and community service. Spirituality and prayer also provide an opportunity to meditate, which has a strong link to well-being as it calms the body, reduces stress, ameliorates anxiety and supports positive thinking. The act of believing in something greater than oneself seems to help foster resilience to negativity and sadness.

6. Strengths and Virtues. Discovering your unique strengths and abilities—and then having the pleasure and satisfaction of utilizing them in a positive manner—is critical to happiness. Aligning everything you do with your competencies rather than your weaknesses—your relationships, career and hobbies—makes for a happier life. Early in life, if you are fortunate, you will understand your own talents and abilities so that you can maximize these gifts to be successful in the family you grow and the career you choose.

7. Optimism and Gratitude. “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty,” is one of Winston Churchill’s most famous quotes. It suggests that optimists and pessimists have fundamentally different ways of interpreting the world. Optimists believe negative events are temporary, limited and manageable. Optimistic mothers deliver healthier, heavier babies. Pessimists view problems as internal, unchangeable, and pervasive. Pessimism is linked to depression and many physical diseases including coronary heart disease.

Gratitude is the parent of all the other virtues. Being grateful feels good emotionally and is physically beneficial. The mere act of giving thanks gives a pleasant feeling of muscle relaxation. Gratitude is also central to many cultures and religions. Grateful people find themselves having a feeling of belonging which in turn decreases stress and depression. They are happier, have a stronger feeling of social support, and feel less stressed and depressed.

“The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitudes,” said the 19th century philosopher William James. Your success as an individual, a couple, a small team or a large organization depends on your individual approach to life. Let that approach be positive.


Past Health Advice Articles

Dr. Allen Weiss is CEO & President of the NCH Healthcare System. He is board certified in Internal Medicine, Rheumatology and Geriatrics, and was in private practice in Naples, Florida from 1977 - 2000. Dr. Weiss is active in a variety of professional organizations and boards, and has been published in numerous medical journals, including the American Journal of Medicine and the Journal of Clinical Investigation.