Being the optimist that I am, I’m drawn to anything that promotes happiness. So I read with particular interest an article entitled “Cultivating Happiness: Will Positive Psychology and Gratitude Intervention Teach Our Kids How to Be Happy?” The article reported research results on the effect of gratitude intervention—for example, keeping an appreciation journal or writing letters expressing thankfulness—on the happiness of individuals, including families with children.
The impetus for studying what makes people happy is fairly recent. Nearly 10 years ago, Martin Seligman, now director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center, wrote several books, including Authentic Happiness and Learned Optimism, on what brings satisfaction and fulfillment. Later, as head of the American Psychological Association, Dr. Seligman was in a position to steer interest and research to the subject of happiness.
Today, teaching happiness has spread to universities, and some of the classes are the most popular ones on campus. The trend doesn’t stop there.
is cited as a valuable skill parents can teach children. A leading group
researching and promoting parental intervention to teach gratitude and optimism
is the Greater Good Science Center in Berkeley, California.
You may be wondering why I am writing about positive psychology in a space normally reserved for conversations about fitness.
First, I am convinced that when some of us have pesky feelings that we don’t manage well, such as boredom, anxiety, worry and despair, we tend to stuff ourselves with food. If we eat our fill from the bowl of happiness, we may find it easier to resist other bowls, such as ones filled with chocolate sundaes. Moreover, if we teach the skill of managing mind-sets to our children, they will be less likely to medicate unpleasant feelings with food.
that improve our emotional health also improve our physical health. Christine
Carter, a researcher at the Greater Good Science Center, strongly believes that
“families should have dinner together,” notwithstanding conflicting schedules,
differences of opinion about what to eat and teenagers’ moodiness. Her studies,
she says, have shown the benefits of this ritual in improving the emotional
health of children.
Despite the demands of her own career and the complications of her husband’s schedule, Christine tries to practice what she preaches. Not only does her family try to eat together, but before each meal, family members say a prayer of gratitude. They also take the time to review the day’s events by savoring the good moments and extracting lessons from the more difficult ones.
The same practices can be used for those of us seeking to get fit and lose weight. As part of each day’s ritual, we can take time during our evening meal to express appreciation for the gifts we’ve received and to draw lessons from any difficulties. In practicing this ritual, we finish the day—whatever the events—in a state of appreciation.
Third, if I were to pick one factor that predicted whether someone could succeed at losing weight and becoming fit, I would pick outlook. Pessimistic, self-doubting persons have inadvertently stacked the odds against themselves. But confirms what I intuitively feel—that whatever our age, a positive, appreciative mind-set can be learned and must be sustained if we are to succeed in getting and staying fit.
According to Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University, almost all children start out positive and optimistic. Sadly, about half of them inadvertently lose that mind-set as they get older because of either feedback from others or self-criticism. To succeed in our fitness efforts as adults, we have to recover that youthful optimism and remember to take childlike delight in the gifts we receive.
Mike Carville, a
friend of mine and owner of the South Yuba Fitness Center, begins his fitness
classes by reminding students that the muscle they must exercise most
consistently is the one between their ears. The best way to exercise it is to
take lessons from whatever difficulties we encounter and give thanks for the
good that comes our way.
Plus, it takes 11 muscles to frown and 12 to smile. Given a choice, we might as well make the effort and use one more muscle. Every little bit of extra exercise helps, right?