The Impact of Positivity on Mental Health

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In her article for the Atlantic, Emily Esfahani Smith writes, “There are two ways to think about kindness. You can think about it as a fixed trait: Either you have it or you don’t. Or you could think of kindness as a muscle.” Viewing kindness as a muscle means viewing it as something that grows with practice; that by getting in the habit of being kind, it becomes easier and more rewarding to do so. 

 

In psychology, this is sometimes termed as practicing positive thinking. Practicing is the key word-- it’s difficult to turn negativity off and positivity on immediately. It’s a habit to get into, a way of shaping one’s thoughts and reactions to the world. And it’s a practice that can have remarkable effects on a person’s mental health. 

 

Below are three fundamental ways in which positivity can impact mental health-- the first in a series we’ll be publishing weekly on the ways that positivity impacts your life. If you find this one enlightening, make sure to come back next week to learn more.

1. Positivity Reduces Symptoms of Depression

In a study involving patients struggling with depression, subjects were asked to begin practice positive thinking by listing their strengths and making efforts to act upon them. This sort of framing-- or filtering, as it may be called in the psych world-- led these patients to have an overall higher level of happiness, and reduced symptoms of depression such as lethargy and apathy.

By practicing positive thinking, persons struggling with depression may find themselves making more positive memories; not because they are necessarily having more positive experiences, but because they are encouraged to focus on the positive aspects of experiences instead of dwelling on small negative occurrences. Instead of blaming the actions of others on oneself, practitioners of positive thinking are encouraged to consider the other person’s point of view, and to understand that any harm was not personally motivated. Overall, by reducing negative thinking, people find themselves with clearer thoughts and an improved mood.

2. Positivity Decreases Symptoms of Anxiety

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In a similar study to the one above, a sample of persons with anxiety were asked to commit to performing six small acts of kindness a week. At the end of the week, subjects reported an increased mood, and reduced avoidance of social situations. These effects are most likely because witnessing, receiving, or performing kindness reduces production of cortisol-- the so-called stress hormone. This means that individuals prone to anxiety may feel more relaxed, and less on ‘high alert’. Moreover, positive thinking encourages individuals not to catastrophize the potential negative outcomes of situations, and to cut off damaging thought spirals before they become detrimental.

3. Positivity in the Workplace Leads to a Widespread Boost in Employee Wellbeing

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When considering variables of hope, optimism, and resilience as measures of workplace positivity, a recent study found that the presence of those variables correlated with the mental health of employees. Low levels meant decreased mental wellbeing, while high levels increased mental wellbeing, and a stable, positive environment encouraged mental stability and wellness.

 

It’s no surprise that many people struggle not to take their work home, and constant negativity can really grind a person down. For those invested in their work, frequent criticism and limited praise can have a negative personal impact. By being kind to your employees, and letting them know that they’re appreciated, you can help them stay happy and, most importantly, healthy, both physically and mentally. 

 

Of course, there’s more to treating complex mental illness than simply thinking positive thoughts, and kindness and positivity are no replacement for therapy, medication, and proper accommodations. However, it has been shown, time and time again, that patients who were instructed to practice positivity under the supervision of medical professionals saw great results. And for those who don’t require specific treatment yet still struggle with anxious and depressed thinking, practicing positivity can be an extremely useful tool to have in your arsenal.