Happiness and Optimism: Enhancing mental and physical health

Wednesday, May 18, 2011 is American Psychological Association’s Mental Health Month Blog Party. This post is dedicated to Mental Health and Mental Health Awareness.

This past weekend, we rode 104 miles in the BikeMS Citrus Tour 2011. One of the fun parts of the weekend was getting to spend a few hours with our friend Wayne, one of the people for whom we ride. Wayne and his wife are two of the most positive, forward-looking people I know. While they struggle through the difficult patches that MS dishes out, they maintain a positive, happy focus on life.

As a person who tends more in the pessimistic direction sometimes struggling with depressive emotions, I am always inspired by those who are naturally optimistic and happy or who have set out to become so. Last summer, I read The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin and in September, started my own project. While I have not completed the formal project, I learned a great deal in the process.

One of the most important things I learned is that I need to focus on happiness in order to become happier. Unless I make my own happiness and well-being a priority, it will never just happen because of events outside myself. Because of my tendency toward negative thinking and pessimism, I have accepted Gretchen’s offer of a ‘happiness’ quote in my inbox each weekday. The ‘Moment of Happiness‘ daily quotation helps me focus, however briefly, on a thought aimed at Happiness. I have collected a few of my favorites and placed them in a notepad on the desktop of my computer. I love to be reminded each time I turn on my computer of Lao Tse’s statement…one of my favorites since my teen years:

Kindness in words creates confidence.
Kindness in thinking creates profoundness.
Kindness in giving creates love.
—Lao Tse

A new favorite is a quotation from Henry James:

Three things in human life are important:
The first is to be kind.
The second is to be kind.
And the third is to be kind.
—Henry James

Reminding myself of these things daily helps correct my own natural tendency. Giving myself the structure within which to work at happiness helps me to move in that direction.

One of the most important things about this process is that it has effects on both mental health and physical health. Dr. Andrew Weil is a well known integrative medicine expert who has written widely. His blog on Monday focused on the physical health benefits of being happy. Dr. Weil reported on a study in the March 2011 issue of Applied Psychology, Health and Well-Being. The happier and more positive you are, the healthier you are likely to be and the longer you are likely to live. Positive expectations about health events seem also to be correlated with better progress after the events. It appears that working to be happier ourselves can have a significant impact on our physical and mental health.

To go a step further, Dr. Weil suggests that having happy friends is one of the best ways to increase our own happiness. Surrounding ourselves with people who have a positive focus on life and who tend toward cheerfulness can significantly increase our own experience of happiness.

None of these comments are intended to minimize the serious impact that clinical depression has on the lives of those who are so afflicted, but our own thoughts and behavior can reinforce that depression or help improve it. Working to be a happier person and to surround ourselves with other people who are happy can be an invaluable contribution to our own physical and mental health.

We strongly hope that Wayne’s positive attitude will help him stay healthy and even recover some of what he has lost.

Please share your comments below.

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0 thoughts on “Happiness and Optimism: Enhancing mental and physical health

  • Donna Wilson says:

    Isn’t it amazing how something like this comes at just the right time! Reminders that we need to focus on the positive and remind ourselves of those that have trials yet remain positive. Thank you very much, Kathy.

    • Thanks for your comment, Donna. Yes, sometimes I just need a smack in the head to remind me to focus on the positive. Just a mental one, of course. Glad this was a useful reminder for you!

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