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The Glass is Half Empty: Can You Learn to Be “Happy”?

bigstock-Happy-senior-woman-Isolated-o-38673904Happiness is probably a misunderstood emotion. For instance if you suffered from depression and through medication and therapy, the symptoms of depression were no longer present, it is not necessarily the same as being happy. Many believe that happiness has to do with a cheerful mood.   For purposes of this article let’s define happiness as the feelings of fulfillment based on the foundation of: positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment. These elements, which we choose for their own sake in our efforts to flourish, are the rock-bottom fundamentals to human well-being. What is the good life? It is pleasant, engaged, meaningful, achieving, and connected.

We have a choice at every moment; we don’t have a choice about what happens but we do have a choice about what we are going to do about it. Depressive thoughts are magnets for other depressive thoughts. They are more powerful than positive thoughts. It takes approximately three positive thoughts to overcome a negative thought.

So in addition to the emotional well-being that optimism brings, what are the physical health benefits?

There is one trait similar to optimism that seems to protect against cardiovascular disease: ikigai. This Japanese concept means having something worth living for, and ikigai is intimately related to the meaning element of flourishing as well as to optimism. There are three prospective Japanese studies of ikigai, and all point to high levels of ikigai reducing the risk of death from cardiovascular disease, even when controlling for traditional risk factors and perceived stress. In one study, the mortality rate among men and women without ikigai was 160 percent higher than for increased cardiovascular disease mortality as compared to men and women with ikigai. In a second study, men with ikigai had only 86 percent of the risk of mortality from cardiovascular disease compared to men without ikigai; this was also true of women, but less robustly so. And in a third study, men with high ikigai had only 28 percent of the risk for death from stroke relative to their low-ikigai counterparts, but there was no association with heart disease.

The Women’s Health Initiative has the largest study of the relationship between optimism and cardiovascular disease to date, ninety-seven thousand women, healthy at the outset of the study in 1994, were followed for eight years. As usual in careful studies, age, race, education, religious attendance, health, body mass, alcohol, smoking, blood pressure, and cholesterol were recorded at the start. Optimism was measured in yet another way by the well-validated Life Orientation Test, which poses ten statements such as: “In unclear times, I usually expect the best,” and “If something can go wrong for me, it will.” Importantly, depressive symptoms were also measured and their impact assessed separately. The optimists (the top quarter) had 30 percent fewer coronary deaths than the pessimists (bottom quarter). The trend of fewer deaths, both cardiac and deaths from all causes, held across the entire distribution of optimism, indicating again that optimism protected women and pessimism hurt them relative to the average. This was true holding constant all the other risk factors—including depressive symptoms.

So are there magic bullets to overcome pessimism? In this writer’s opinion, there are. By working with women to measure the balance in specific areas of their lives, they can identify goals and determine the ways to achieve them in order to live a more fulfilled life.   Beyond those practical approaches to the obvious needs in their life, we recommend the practice of gratitude, meditative reflection, creativity, and exercise. Gratitude has the power to walk time. Yesterday was yesterday. Our memory is an image that comes from the original. When we look at it and highlight the good, it changes the memory. It doesn’t distort it; it highlights it. Just by doing it research says that your sense of optimism will go up for the next two weeks.

It takes awareness, training, and practice to begin to change your negative thinking. I use a Gratitude Journal template with my coaching clients to reflect on their day which helps them highlight the positive things that happened (even on otherwise dark days). I have observed that at first it might be difficult for clients to fill it out completely, but with consistency of completing the journaling exercise daily, they are soon finding more and more things in their everyday life for which to be grateful. So rather than determining if a glass is half empty or half full, be grateful that you have a glass! Optimism is a learned skill and practicing gratitude is an important tool which will help you change your thinking and change your life!

Bonnie Harken, NCLC, Founder and CEO of Crossroads Programs for Women has spent the last 30 years assisting individuals begin their journey of healing. Look for upcoming programs at Crossroads Programs for Women in Pekin. Begin your journey of finding renewal, hope, joy, direction and passion. Each program is a blend of lectures, group discussion, and therapeutic exercises offering a healing curriculum. We explore the spiritual components of healing from a non-denominational Christian perspective. Why continue to struggle? Tomorrow does not have to be like today. We can help you. Visit www.crossroadsprogramsforwomen.com or call 1-800-348-0937.  All calls are confidential and there is no obligation.