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:
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.
MARCH 2016: Editor’s Note: “Marching” Toward Better Health • 3 Tips to “Savor the Flavor of Eating Right” This National Nutrition Month • 8 Spices from Around the World • Future of Food, Part II: Serving Up Meat, Over Glass • Tip o’ the Mornin’ to You: Don’t Feel Green on St. Patrick’s Day (or Any Day)
FEBRUARY 2016: Editor’s Note: Future Foods, Coming to a Plate Near You • Future of Food, Part I: Food Innovations of Tomorrow • Why You Should Check Food Labels for Potential Allergens • Super Confused About Super Foods? An Educated Consumer Is a Healthy Consumer • How Librarians Prevent the “Dunning-Kruger Effect” • Citrus: Great Fruits for Heart Health
JANUARY 2016: Editor’s Note: Gold Medals and Silver Anniversaries • Feeling List-less? Then Check Out This Litany of New Year’s Food Trends • Happy 25th Anniversary, IFIC Foundation!: Serving Up Food Insights • A History of Communication: Insights from IFIC Foundation’s Sylvia Rowe Fellows
NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2015: Chew on This: A Food Technologist Puts Red and Processed Meat in Perspective • Understanding, Evaluating, and Communicating Nutrition, Part III: Research Funding • Training the Next Generation of Science Communicators, Part II • Achoo!: Food and Other "Prescriptions" for Surviving Cold and Flu Season • When Nutrition Gets Personal: Study Shows New Frontiers in Understanding Glycemic Response
OCTOBER 2015: Orphan Crops • Answering the Challenge of "Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life" • Weeding Through the Facts on Herbicide Resistance • Rainy Day in Nashville Fails to Dampen RDs' Spirits • Understanding, Evaluating, and Communicating Nutrition, Part II • Training the Next Generation of Science Communicators, Part I
SEPTEMBER 2015: 4 Clever Food Safety Hacks • Hashtags & Hyperbole • Understanding, Evaluating, and Communicating Nutrition, Part I
SUMMER 2015: What's Your Health Worth?, EXPO Milano 2015, "Single Study Syndrome"
MAY 2015: Future of Food (EXPO Milano), Grilling Tips, Food & Health Survey Webcast
APRIL 2015: Food & Nutrition Lessons from Mom, Microbiome, Flowers & Food Security
MARCH 2015: Chemophobia, Fitness Trackers, Dietary Guidelines 2015
FEBRUARY 2015: Farming Cocoa for Your Valentine’s Day Chocolate, At the Heart of Fats and Oils
DECEMBER 2014/JANUARY 2015: 2015 Food Trends Forecast, Gluten & Health, Life after PHOs
NOVEMBER 2014: A Very Southern Farm Tour, Diabetes Awareness, Turkey Safety for Thanksgiving
OCTOBER 2014: RDNs for Nutrition Expertise, Nutrition Behavior Profiles, Fall Food Days
SEPTEMBER 2014: Food Safety Month, Physical Activity & Obesity, Using Video for Education
AUGUST 2014: Back-to-School Nutrition, Pesticide & Health, Sustainable Nutrition
JULY 2014: Perceptions of Food Technology, Millennial Food Preferences, Introducing the FACTS Network
MAY/JUNE 2014: Food & Health Survey, Produce Safety, Summer Grilling Tips
APRIL 2014: ASN & Processed Food, "Banned Ingredients"
MARCH 2014: Nutrition is in Bloom - Changes to the NFP, Nutrient Adequacy, Trans Fat Q&A