In 2006, Rhonda Byrne wrote a book called “The Secret”. I do not know of too many books which have polarized the readers into two extreme groups of either “Love it” or “Hate it”. In my family too the schism is very evident. I fall into the “Hate it” category whereas my wife is a member of the “Love it” group. The book is about the positive thinking. The subject is nothing new. Madam Blavatsky the controversial Russian philosopher and Dr. Norman Vincent Peale the American author of the 1952 best seller, The Power of Positive Thinking have raved about this concept much before Rhonda Byrne. In this book however, the author stretches the limits of reality. She writes about being able to bring world peace by using your Secret powers for common good or losing weight by visualizing yourself as thin. While I am okay accepting the fact that positive thinking is beneficial, I do not embrace much of the extreme almost occult concepts of this book which has made my life miserable because now in my own house I dare not utter any words which may have a negative connotation in the presence of my wife.
I am a man of science. I do not have much of an appetite for superstitious balderdash which I think this book is mainly about. But as I have said, I do believe in the benefits of positive thinking so I will explain my view point which is based on science and backed by scientific experiments. Barbara Fredrickson is a psychology researcher at the University of North Carolina and she published a landmark paper that provides surprising insights about positive thinking. In this article I shall attempt to deliberate on Ms. Fredrickson’s paper titled “The broaden and build theory of positive emotions”.
Before dwelling on the benefits of positive thinking, let us analyze negative thinking. Assume that you are walking through a forest and suddenly you see a tiger in front of you. You experience fear which is a negative emotion and your singular thought would be to figure out how to escape and save your life. At that moment, the rest of the world does not matter. Your focus is entirely on the tiger and you are only thinking of how you can get away from it. This is a useful instinct if you are trying to save your life but our normal day to day lives are not about stumbling across tigers. Nor are we in a constant fight for survival. However, our brain is programmed to respond to all negative emotions in a similar way. It shuts itself off from the rest of the world and only focusses on the negative emotion. The negative emotion may be fear or anger or hate or jealousy or any of the multitude of negative states of mind. The reaction of the brain is the same in all instances of negative thought. It focusses only on the negative. It goes into the survival mode.
Now think of a positive state of mind. This could be in a situation where you are strolling in a very beautiful garden or sitting by the bank of the river in your village feeling the gentle breeze caress your body or sharing intimate moments with a loved one in a moonlit night. You can conjure up any thought that makes you feel happy. At such times the mind is at its creative best. It can think of ways to better your life and bring joy and happiness to others. It comes with new ideas and the positivity gives you the confidence to try new things and dare to challenge the status quo. Free from the tyranny of negativity, your mind tells you that all is well.
To test the effects of different emotions Ms. Fredrickson conducted an experiment where she split her research subjects into 5 different groups and showed them different film clips. The first two groups saw films that created a feeling of joy and the second group saw films that created feelings of contentment. Group 3 was the neutral group which was shown neutral images which did not create a particular type of emotion. The last two groups were shown films of negative emotions. Group 4 was shown films that created a feeling of fear and the Group 5 was shown films which created anger.
After showing these research subjects the films, they were asked to imagine themselves in similar situations and to write down what they would do. Each participant was given a piece of paper that started with the phrase, “I would like to—“.
Groups 4 and 5 which were shown films of fear and anger had the least number of responses to the question whereas the Groups 1 and 2 which were shown films of joy and contentment had the most number of responses. The number of responses from the neutral Group 3 was in between the number of responses from the negative emotion and positive emotion groups. Ms. Fredrickson proved through this experiment that people with positive emotions see more possibilities in life and have a broader outlook. It is important at this point to note that positive emotions are not to be confused with sensory pleasure which is achieved by physical gratification like eating when hungry or drinking when thirsty or even through drugs, alcohol and other intoxicants. The effects of sensory pleasure are momentary whereas the effects of positive emotions are long lasting.
According to Ms. Fredrickson’s study, positive emotions broaden the thoughts and actions that come to mind. Joy, for instance creates the urge to play; push the limits and be creative. Interest which is another positive emotion, creates the urge to explore and expand the self in the process. Contentment, creates the urge to savour current life circumstances and integrate these into new views of self and the world.
The benefits of these positive emotions are far reaching. Take play as an example. As mentioned above, the desire to play is created by the positive emotion of joy. Playing any sport keeps us healthy; builds strength; develops our athletic skills and the ability to communicate with others (social skills). In fact, even during hard times when negative emotions tend to take over, the long-term benefits of positive emotions see us through the crises. This is the reason why sport was such an integral part of the educational system for my generation. The importance of “play” has regrettably been lost in the educational institutes today. Most schools and colleges are soul-less concrete establishments devoid of playing fields and recreational facilities crammed with bookwormsfollowing an anachronistic educational system which is singularly obsessed with the CGPA acronym.
I will not dwell too deeply into the intricacies of Ms. Fredrickson’s research paper because that would make this article relevant only to the sociologists. My objective here is to point out the benefits of positive emotions which are supported by scientific research. The practical question then is: how does one develop positive emotions? Is it something natural which some people are gifted or can it be nurtured? Generally speaking, positive emotions are created by hormones and neurotransmitters like Serotonin, Endorphin, Dopamine and Oxytocin. When we are young, the body produces ample quantities of these hormones and neurotransmitters. As we age, their production declines. This explains the zest and euphoria of childhood and adolescence. The good news is that we can take proactive measures to increase our body’s production of these “happiness” hormones and neurotransmitters. Here are three basic ideas which are now widely accepted as being beneficial to the production of the happiness hormones and neurotransmitters.
1. Sports- Playing any physical sport is the best way to improve your health and bring joy.Team sports also build friendship and camaraderie. Rigorous exercise like running is known to give something known as “Runner’s High” which is caused by the production of dopamine in our body. No matter what your age or gender, physical exercise is the sine qua non for a happy healthy life.
2. Diet- Your gut mitochondria is the secret to good health. Most diseases like type 2 diabetes, hypertension and in some cases even cancer have their origin in the gut. A diet of processed food, trans fats, sugary drinks and unhealthy deserts is the recipe for poor health and chronic diseases. A wholesome balanced diet is necessary for a strong gut mitochondria and healthy living. A healthy body produces more happiness hormones and neurotransmitters.
3. Worship and meditation- Research has shown that those who have a deep religious faith and regularly worship and meditate display more positive emotions than those who do not. For example, three months after Fredrickson’s experiment it was found that people who meditated daily showed greater motivation, positivity and mindfulness. They also had lesser symptoms of illness.
Positive emotion is not just a vague term used by the pot smoking hippy generation. It is a scientifically proven reality. Cultivating positive emotions can have a profound impact on improving the quality of our lives and help us develop our talents by igniting the passion for exploration and adventure.