How to Use Positive Psychology to Improve Your Health | Chris Kresser
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How to Use Positive Psychology to Improve Your Health

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You likely already know that long-term, unmitigated stress can hurt your health. I’ve talked before about how to fight stress, but what if you’re struggling with another emotion?

Taking a moment to complete a journaling exercise, like this woman is doing, is an easy way to use positive psychology to improve your mood.
Taking time to appreciate good things through a short journaling exercise can help improve your mood—and your health. Find out how to use positive psychology to shift your focus from bad to good. iStock/Nevena1987

What if it’s chronic anger, frustration, anxiety, sadness, or grief? Do those emotions also affect your health? And how can you let go of them?

The short answer is yes—positive or negative, your emotions do impact your health. The good news is that through positive psychology, you can retrain your brain to follow healthier, more beneficial emotional patterns and learn to let go of negative ways of thinking.

Here’s how you can use positive psychology to rewire your brain and improve your mood and your health.

Anger, sadness, frustration, or grief can, if left unchecked, wreak havoc on your health. That’s where positive psychology can help. Check out this article for more about positive psychology and get tips on how to change your thinking. #healthylifestyle #wellness #changeagent

What Positive Psychology Is and What It Can Do for Your Well-Being

Positive psychology is an evidence-based area of psychology famously championed by Martin Seligman. While president of the American Psychological Association, Seligman publicized positive psychology as a way of joining the more clinical, conventional side of psychology—the part that focuses on what’s “wrong” with a patient—with the people-oriented side of the discipline. (1) According to Seligman:

The aim of Positive Psychology is to catalyze a change in psychology from a preoccupation only with repairing the worst things in life to also building the best qualities in life. (2) [emphasis added]

Seligman—and followers of the positive psychology movement—build those qualities through character strengths. Character strengths are patterns of behaving, thinking, and feeling that we all have within us.

Why You Should Know Your Character Strengths

Seligman, together with psychologist Chris Peterson, described 24 different character strengths in their exhaustive work, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. While the unique combination of character strengths differs from person to person, they can include traits like:

  • Creativity
  • Bravery
  • Fairness
  • Kindness
  • Humility
  • Gratitude
  • Hope
  • Zest
  • And many, many more
Your individual character strengths color how you see the world and how your brain processes new experiences. Understanding your personal strengths can give you a greater sense of authenticity, and using your strengths in your day-to-day life can help you feel more engaged, productive, and positive.

If you’re curious about your character strengths, I recommend taking this free survey from the VIA Institute on Character. If you need help, a health coach trained in positive psychology can assist as you identify your strengths and learn to embrace a more positive mindset.

Why It’s Worth It to Refocus Your Thoughts

Practicing positivity and embracing character strengths—even for a short period of time—have been shown to lessen feelings of depression and increase a sense of happiness. (3) Research also shows that happiness has a positive impact on your overall health and longevity. (4) Positivity has been linked to: (5)

  • Immune system health
  • Cardiovascular health
  • Lower levels of cortisol and a healthy hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis
  • Better wound healing
  • Potentially protective effects on telomeres, the end caps on your DNA that prevent damage during replication

Positive emotions also appear to be connected with a person’s ability to bounce back from a stressful event. Experiencing positivity—even from watching a short, happy film clip, for example—can undo some of the cardiovascular effects associated with stress and anxiety, like increased heart rate and blood pressure. (6) Imagine what long-term positivity could do to improve your body’s resilience.

The Driver behind Positive Psychology: Neuroplasticity

Neuroplasticity is the ability our brains have to change based on stimuli like thoughts, behaviors, and emotions. The structure of your brain and the synaptic connections between your neurons can grow stronger or weaker based on your habitual patterns. In their book, The Emotional Life of Your Brain, Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D., and Sharon Begley state that neuroplasticity explains why expert violinists show extra development in the brain regions that control dexterity, why cab drivers in London tend to have great spatial memory—and why your thought patterns and emotional habits can affect your health. (7, 8)

Positive psychology builds on that concept by encouraging you to switch your mindset. If you traditionally focus on the problems you’re facing or the things that feel “wrong” in your life, changing this one aspect of the way you interact with the world can make a difference.

Three Small Steps to Rewire Your Brain for Positivity

Sometimes, just taking one small step toward positivity is enough to make a difference in your life. With that in mind, here are three easy techniques you can try out today to change your focus.

1. Choose Your Words Carefully

If you’ve been stuck in a pessimistic pattern for a while, it will start to come out in the way you think and speak. You may tend to frame everything negatively, or you instantly consider what could go wrong in any given situation.

Think about a recent challenge you encountered, remember how you thought and spoke about it, and take a look at the table below. Which column did you fall under? Can you try changing your internal dialogue to a more positive view?

Pessimistic Thinking Optimistic Thinking
Your problems are permanent.

“This is always going to be a problem for me.”

Your problems are temporary.

“This will pass.”

Your issues are pervasive.

“This is catastrophic.”

Your problems are local.

“This isn’t the end.”

Your problems are personal.

“It’s all my fault.”

Your problems aren’t personal.

“This is a common problem for many people.”

Your problems are uncontrollable.

“There’s nothing I can do.”

Your problems are at least somewhat controllable.

“One step at a time.”

Changing the way you think isn’t a simple endeavor—but it’s well worth the effort. Mindfulness can help you challenge negative thoughts as they occur to you.

Being mindful means you’re aware of your body, your sensations, your thoughts, and your feelings as they occur. Mindfulness can improve your positive emotions while lessening feelings of negativity or stress. (9) The practice also helps you feel more compassionate—toward others and yourself. (10)

For tips on how to start practicing mindfulness, check out my article “How to Avoid a Near-Life Experience.”

2. Remember Your Past Wins

Positive psychology is a success-focused movement. Instead of thinking about all of the things that could you wrong in your current situation, you focus on what could go right—and you develop a clear plan to help you reach that success.

One of the best ways to do this is by thinking about a past success you enjoyed. It could be a promotion you earned at work, a time you overcame a fear or apprehension, or the last time you felt healthy and fulfilled. With that memory in mind, ask yourself:

  • What led to your success?
  • What did you learn?
  • Who helped you reach your goal?
  • What resources did you use back then, and can you use them again?

Often times, the same strategies that worked for us in the past can work for us again. Even if your past success doesn’t directly apply to your current situation, giving yourself credit for a time when you overcame obstacles to reach your goal can motivate you to keep trying now.

3. Try a Happiness Intervention

A happiness intervention is a simple writing exercise that can be helpful if you’re struggling with something that’s particularly challenging. It’s a great way to stop negative thoughts from taking over and reorient yourself toward positivity. Here’s how to do it—and be sure to get a pen and paper ready, as you’ll be writing by hand for this.

Think about what your life looks like several years in the future. Imagine yourself as reasonably successful. You’ve accomplished some of your big goals, and your life has improved.

Set a timer for five minutes and write about your future life until your time is up. Don’t worry about grammar, punctuation, or sloppy handwriting. Just get as many details down as possible in the given timeframe.

After you’re done, take a look at what you’ve written. How do you feel now? Did you learn anything about the challenges you’re currently facing? Do you feel motivated to take any small steps now to get to the future you wrote about?

If you enjoyed that happiness intervention, there’s no need to stop there. Try one of these techniques:

  1. Write down three things that went well every day for one week. Be sure to note the reasons they went well too.
  2. Determine your top five signature character strengths. Over the course of a week, try to use each strength in a new way every day. Record your results.
  3. Write a thank-you letter. Take time to express gratitude to a friend or family member who helped you in the past.

The more often you complete a happiness intervention, the more effective it will be for you.

Need Help? Work with a Health Coach

If you’ve given these techniques a try to no avail or you’re fighting against years of negative habits, it may be time to give health coaching a try.

A health coach can act as a guide as you learn how to reframe your thoughts and adopt a different mindset. And that mindframe switch can make a huge difference in your health and happiness. That’s why, in the ADAPT Health Coach Training Program, all of our health coach graduates are trained in positive psychology and character strengths.

Even if you’re facing serious negativity, a health coach trained in positive psychology can help reorient you toward a more success-focused conversation.

  1. Hey!
    This article was very helpful! In the end, you recommend working with a coach. Where do you recommend finding a coach? Do you recommend working in-person or virtually? thanks!