Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, a professional physiologist and sleep expert, offers her practical advice on mastering the art of gratitude and learning to maintain a positive outlook so you can better deal with life’s inevitable stresses.
An abundance of scientific research from positive psychology and psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) shows that being an optimist and feeling grateful, compassionate, and kind is extremely good for your health. Research from the Heart Match institute shows that optimism strengthens the heart, bolsters the immune system, helps you sleep more restoratively and even helps you to recover faster from illness. So being optimistic definitely makes good sense. But how do we become an optimist if our natural inclination is to be somewhat ‘glass is half empty’? Additionally, the brain is also naturally wired with what neuroscientists call the ‘negativity bias’ – this means that we’re naturally more inclined to remember negative than positive events.
Thankfully, research also shows that we can train ourselves to become more optimistic by regularly, consciously and consistently practising the following techniques until they become second nature and habitual:
Smile and laugh regularly even when you don’t feel like it and especially in the morning. When you awaken, avoid diving straight into your day. Keeping your eyes closed, bring a smile to your face. Activating the smile muscles – the zygomatic Maximus and minimus – stimulates the neural messaging in your brain and boosts the levels of feel-good neuropeptides such as dopamine and serotonin. Smiling is also contagious and can elicit a similar response in others and even strangers. It increases social engagement and trust, so we start to feel as if the world is a good place – a vital mindset for being an optimist.
Keep a regular gratitude practice especially as you drift off to sleep – the benefits of regular gratitude are well documented. People who are grateful are happier and healthier and they have a more optimistic view on life. Writing a gratitude journal, meditating on grateful thoughts from our day or even just drifting off to sleep while saying thank you to ourselves can change our biochemistry profoundly. When we’re grateful we produce the neuropeptides dopamine and oxytocin which makes us feel good and even better about life.
When things are tough, train yourself to ask ‘what is good about this situation? How can I learn or benefit from it?’ or even ‘what is the worst possible scenario?’ This doesn’t mean being in denial or delusional about the situation but when storms hit being able to eventually find a still point of balance and equanimity in which you can see the positives as well as the stress of your situation.
Clear the negative stuff – in his book of the same title Martin Seligman writes about ‘Realistic Optimism’ which is allowing space for difficult feelings and emotions as they arise and finding a constructive outlet for them whether through exercise, spiritual practices such as meditation and yoga, talking to friends or a therapist, crying or journaling. It’s important that we get the support that we need when going through tough times so that we can eventually move to a place of peace and optimism.
Limit your exposure to the news and social media – bad news can have a profound effect on our ability to stay optimistic and curiously, endless scrolling through photos of other people having a good time can also depress our mood making us feel as if our lives are lacking in some way or simply not good enough. When times are tough try to read a book or watch programmes that inspire, uplift and make you smile rather than bringing you down.
Evidence suggests that doing such practices regularly for at least 21 days strengthens the ‘positivity bias’ of the brain thus making us more optimistic and happy human beings.