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Happiness Defined

Issue June 2009

With all that we have to worry about these days, sometimes it’s hard to be "happy."  Perhaps it’s fitting that positive psychology is gaining ground.  Positive psychology explores how people can use their strengths to lead a more fulfilling life.   Three keys to fulfillment may lie in work, relationships with others, and the understanding of oneself.

Dr. Martin Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and considered the "father of modern positive psychology," put this movement on the map by declaring it the theme for his term as the president of the American Psychological Association.  He noticed that psychology had been focusing on "mental illness" for too long and wanted to explore how to properly nurture natural talent and improve day-to-day life.  By focusing on positive psychology, people can take a more active role in reducing negative aspects in their life while also increasing the positive.

Positive psychology research seems to prove the validity of ideas many believe to be "common sense."  An example is the theory of "self-reinforcing," which is the more you do something you like or that makes you feel good, the more you will want to do it.  We see this is often the case with exercise.  Physical activity triggers positive emotions that motivate and inspire.  Rebecca Scritchfield, RD, a Washington D.C.-based dietitian and health fitness specialist says, "There’s no question that exercise elevates mood. My clients who are successful at initiating an exercise program often report improved emotions as the first noticeable benefit. They also say that it is easier to follow a balanced eating plan because they feel so good."  It is important to help consumers find physical activities they enjoy and can fit into their lives.  Maybe it’s a daily walk or gardening or dancing, but whatever it is if a person likes to do it, the chances that they will stick with it increase.

Accentuate the Positive
Health professionals can use positive psychology to help clients understand life holistically by focusing on hope and resilience, developing strengths, and fostering positive emotions.  Dietitians can take a similar holistic approach, helping patients build healthful lifestyles by balancing their daily lives with their long-term health goals.   Scritchfield says, "I know I've done my job as a dietitian if I can get my clients to focus on the positive. Healthy, lifelong eating habits start with appreciating the nourishing foods they include in their eating plan, not fretting over that ‘one ingredient.’ I find they are more successful because they enjoy food more and they take the struggle out of eating healthfully."  Success often begins on core tenets of positive psychology, sometimes in unexpected ways. These include:

  • Developing strengths: a good bargain hunter can find satisfaction in applying those skills to buying healthful foods at the grocery store.
  • Foster positive emotions: taking a fun hike with the kids may energize someone to get out more on the weekends.
  • Hope and resilience: many dieters say they tried and failed many times before successfully achieving a healthful lifestyle and those stories are both reassuring and motivating.

The Power of Positive Thinking
Brittany Barber, a psychology doctoral student at Marquette University, suggests easy ways to incorporate positive psychology into everyday life, including starting each morning and ending each evening by writing down three things that make you happy, proud, or grateful and why.  Did the morning sun encourage you to take a walk before work? Perhaps you ate three pieces of fruit as part of your effort to be healthy.  Giving yourself recognition will reinforce those positive actions, and will help reframe how you think about your day by book-ending it with positive thoughts.

Barber also encourages people to be mindful of their actions and feelings, which is a concept that can be applied to diet.  Before eating, look at the food and notice what it is made of.  Make choices that will fuel your body.  Pay close attention to every bite to savor the flavors.  This will increase enjoyment of a meal as well as accentuate "fullness" cues.  Many people have become mindless eaters and that may play a large role in overeating and weight gain, as Brian Wansink, Ph.D. points out in his book Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think.

Positive psychology suggests that happiness begins with daily decisions.  In the beginning, these decisions may not be easy, but they eventually become habit. Dr. Wansink notes in his book, "There’s only one thing that’s strong enough to defeat the tyranny of the moment.  Habit."

We cannot be happy all the time, but positive psychology can help us find happiness in many of the choices we make each day.  Future articles in Food Insight will look at how positive psychology can impact nutrition, physical activity, and food safety. 

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