We’re sure you’ve been told that a good attitude can make a big difference to your well-being. But did you know there’s scientific proof that focusing on the positive can have a major impact on your happiness?
Surely you know someone who has a sunny outlook on life; they look on the bright side of even the worst situation. The truth is, however, that most of us remember negative things more strongly—and in more detail.
The reason for our more negative focus is because our brains are hardwired to hold onto unpleasant memories and emotions more tightly than positive ones. When we process negative emotions, we learn how to avoid similar situations in the future. As a result, we tend to dwell on unhappy events. One study even suggests that this negativity bias is most likely an evolutionary mechanism. Being more aware of bad things may have protected us from danger in the past, and these instincts stuck, becoming part of our genetic makeup.
But negative thinking comes at a price. You know how much your mental health can affect your body if you’ve ever experienced knots in your stomach. Well, a growing body of research suggests that being negative and pessimistic can do more than cause tummy trouble; it can actually make you physically sick. A 2009 study of nearly 100,000 women found that the most cynical participants were more likely to have heart disease. They also had a higher chance of dying during the study period.
As research continues, theories abound. One suggests that feeling bad increases your cortisol levels, making your immune system less able to control inflammation and more disease prone over time. Another theory is that stressed people are more likely to engage in risky behaviors, such as smoking, drinking alcohol, having unprotected sex or avoiding exercise, all of which can have an adverse affect on health.
You can direct your mental health, however, by focusing on what’s going well. “Three Good Things,” a simple, free exercise designed by Martin Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, suggest that you can increase your long-term happiness by almost 10 percent.
Here’s how: For the next week, every night before you go to sleep, write down three things that went well that day and why. The things don’t have to be big; they can be simple (your son’s soccer team won a game), or more complicated (your best friend just gave birth to a healthy baby girl)—just make sure to answer the question, “Why did this happen?”
That’s all you have to do. In Seligman’s study, participants were 2 percent happier than before after one week of the challenge, and their happiness kept increasing, from 5 percent at one month, to 9 percent after six months. And though they were only asked to keep their Three Good Things journals for a week, many of them continued the practice for far longer.