From a naturopathic perspective, the ultimate health care goal is to promote optimal wellness for individuals and the greater community at large. While it can be tempting to think of creating “health” primarily on the physical level, it is equally important to consider a person’s mental and emotional state and how to best support the whole person.
Many aspects of life are necessary to promote psychological health, including meaningful relationships with family and/or friends, adequate sleep and movement/exercise, strategies for stress management, recreation, and a healthy diet.1 Another important consideration for optimal mental, emotional, and even physical well-being, is one’s attitude toward life. Whether you are an optimist, a pessimist or have a predominantly positive or negative view of life can determine the quality of your health on all levels.
What is Positive Psychology?
When many people think of psychology/psychiatry, the following clinical aspects of mental health often come to mind, such as emotional pain/trauma, PTSD, mental illness, depression, anxiety and the treatment of these conditions. Within the past two decades, research has developed regarding happiness, well-being, and the traits that encourage positive mental health. These attributes are now viewed as a gateway to improving psychological and physical health, rather than merely managing the things about a patient’s life that are “wrong.” It may appear to be a subtle distinction, but the preventive front end focus on mental health is an important one to note.
The concept of Positive Psychology was officially described in a groundbreaking paper by Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the year 2000. 2 These prominent researchers and clinicians had become dissatisfied with the predominant view of focusing on the reduction of clients’ negative thoughts and behaviors as the best way to improve mental health. They suggested that “building up the good in life, rather than just repairing the bad”, may be a better approach.” 3 Generally speaking, positive psychology focuses on the positive aspects in life, such as happiness, gratitude, resilience, compassion, and love.
According to an article reviewing Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi’s seminal work, the primary purpose of Positive Psychology, “is to measure, understand, and then build human strengths and civic virtues, including hope, wisdom, creativity, courage, spirituality, responsibility, perseverance, and satisfaction.”4 It is important to note however, that positive psychology does not seek to ignore or deny negative experiences, but to help reframe one’s perspective on them.
Health Benefits of Positive Psychology
Research shows that concentrating on the positive qualities of life experiences and cultivating a positive mindset results in mental, emotional, and physical health benefits. Positive attitudes, such as expressing gratitude, are associated with a person’s overall sense of well-being, It is also shown to relieve depression, improve relationships, work-performance, and even result in fewer trips to the doctor! 5, 6, 7, 8
It makes sense that maintaining a positive attitude will benefit mental and emotional health, but it may also improve physical health. It is well-established that a positive mood impacts immune function, and negativity is depressive to the immune system. For example, positivity has been shown to decrease susceptibility to the common cold. 9 In a series of studies involving HIV patients, those who were more optimistic about their lives and future exhibited significantly reduced disease progression compared to those who were not. 10
In addition, coronary heart disease (CAD) patients who presented with a positive attitude exhibited improved heart function over those with depressed moods. The researchers suggested that maintaining an optimistic outlook on life may help prevent heart disease. 11
Accentuate the Positive
Naturopathic physicians have considerable training in counseling and in assisting with mental/emotional health issues. NDs often employ techniques found in the Positive Psychology movement, and provide tools for patients to practically implement this into their lives.
Examples of ways to increase positive meaning in your life:
- Create a gratitude journal – Take time on a regular basis to write down 3-5 things for which you are grateful. Just saying them out loud before bed or when you are feeling critical is another option.
- Perform a gratitude visit – Think about someone who has affected your life in a positive way or has inspired you, and then tell them! This can be in person, or written in a letter.
- Carry out a random act of kindness – Do something helpful or thoughtful for someone that may be above and beyond how you normally behave. Acts of kindness contribute to the giver’s and the receiver’s happiness!
Having a positive outlook on life can help you achieve optimal health on all levels, physical, mental, and emotional.