Moving forward: Psychology of the possible

Positive emotions broaden people’s attention and creative thinking, build personal resources and trigger well-being and human flourishing.

July 30, 2010 15:58

smile 311. (photo credit: Akron Beacon Journal/ MCT)

Jennifer Aniston gained her fame as Rachel in the popular sitcom Friends. But in a soon to be released movie titled Counterclockwise, she will portray a Harvard psychology professor. The professor, Ellen Langer, became famous for her groundbreaking research on health and aging.

In a 1979 age-defying research study, described in her book Mindfulness, Langer placed a group of elderly men in a setting that convinced them the year was actually 1959.

The magazines, newspapers and music the men saw and heard were all 20 years old, and the men themselves were told to behave and talk as if it were 1959 rather than 1979.

Over the course of a week, signs of aging appeared to reverse and the men looked visibly younger. Their joints became more flexible, their posture straightened, and the lengths of their fingers, which typically shorten with age, actually increased.

These startling results supported her belief that we are more empowered than we are led to believe. If we believe in the exceptional and the possible rather than the expected and probable, the results can be unexpected healing and healthy change.

This approach to what she considered the positive power of mindful health led to her studying two groups of residents of a nursing home. One group was encouraged to make decisions on their own as to their meals, room décor and entertainment. They were also held responsible for implementing these decisions.

Another control group of residents had the same options of food and entertainment to choose from, but they were served and attended to by the staff.

Results a year and a half later found that the first group was more cheerful, active and alert.

More importantly, they were much healthier, as less than half as many of the more responsible and engaged group had died than had those in the second group.

Explanations for these results are attributed to the power of making choices and the increased sense of personal mastery and autonomy it gives you. Langer calls it being “mindful” versus being “mindless.” Langer believes that if our mind is proactive and thinking in a healthy way, then our body will be healthier as well. We could change our physical health by changing our minds.

Underlying this research is an approach to studying behavior which empowers us. Rather than focus on deviant conditions and what can be done to help people function normally, this research looks to highlight the exceptional. It is focusing on what is possible, not what is probable.

This is a model of mental and emotional well-being which is embraced by the emerging field of positive psychology. Just as the medical field has expanded to include a model for wellbeing and holistic medicine, the field of positive psychology has expanded. In addition to treating disease and mental illness, psychology has expanded to identifying models for success, developing personal strengths and pursuing authentic happiness.

UP UNTIL THE past decade psychological studies on anger, anxiety and depression outnumbered studies on joy, happiness and life satisfaction 25-1. This past decade there has been a growing, enthusiastic group of academic psychologists who are looking to shift the balance.

There has been investment in new psychological research, dedicated positive psychology programs and global conferences on applications of positive psychology. It is a shift from a disease model to a model of psychological wellbeing.

Well-being is often defined by our physiological ability to recover from stress. Physiological stress begins when anger and fear trigger the sympathetic nervous system. This activates the glands and organs that defend the body against attack. It is called the fight-or-flight system in which heart rate and blood pressure increase.

This heightened state of arousal narrows our cognitive focus and makes our body tense.

Barbara Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory suggests that positive emotions can speed recovery from, or undo, this state of physical tension by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. This can occur by eliciting positive emotions. The parasympathetic nervous system helps promote balance, healing and well-being. It slows heart rate, lowers blood pressure and relaxes muscles.

Fredrickson discovered this by setting up a study which purposefully induced stress in participants. Students were asked to speak publicly and she measured their physiological state while preparing for the speech. They all exhibited increased sympathetic nervous system activation (sweaty palms, increased heart rate, increased blood pressure). After five minutes of this heightened state of arousal, participants learned that they didn’t have to give the speech after all. This relief from the stress did not quickly return people to a more balanced state.

The participants were then divided into three groups to measure their recovery. One viewed a sad video, another a happy video, and the third group did not view anything.

She then measured the amount of time it took each person to recover from the anxiety about the possible speech.

Results indicated that positive emotions triggered the sympathetic nervous system and led to a much quicker return to a resting state than experiences of neutral or negative emotions.

In addition to undoing negative emotions and physiological stress, Fredrickson maintains a broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions.

She claims that positive emotions broaden people’s attention and creative thinking, build personal resources and trigger well-being and human flourishing.

This has applications in therapy as well as personal life. When upset or anxious about something, your body will tense and your emotional cognitive energy will narrowly focus on that stressor. The approach suggested by Fredrickson and positive psychology is to refocus and find an activity that changes your emotional state. Such a change will help you recover physiologically, but also allow you to broaden your thinking in more creative ways to readdress what is stressing you.

The studies of Langer and Fredrickson point to an organic approach to our well-being. Our mind-set and emotional state are integral to our physiological well-being. By being more mindful, by refocusing on positive emotions, we can improve our health and psychological resilience. It transforms us for the better and sets us on path to flourishing and healthy longevity.

Essentially we need to remember we are more empowered than we are taught to believe.

As Langer claims in her most recent book, Counterclockwise, “Too many of us believe the world is to be discovered, rather than a product of our own construction, and to be invented.”

Dr. Mann is a Jerusalem-based clinical psychologist and certified life coach who helps teenagers and adults achieve positive goals.

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