The New Science of Positive Thinking
July 16, 2012
BY SHARON KIRKEY, POSTMEDIA NEWS
Canadian social psychologist Jamie Gruman is proposing a new way of achieving nirvana: Do nothing.
Instead, live in the moment and embrace the “serene and contented acceptance of life as it is, with no ambitions of acquisition, accomplishment or progress toward goals,” said Gruman, co-founder of the newly created Canadian Positive Psychology Association, a network of scholars and academics studying human well-being and happiness.
Psychology has long focused on our inner torment: understanding why people get depressed or anxious, and how to alleviate it. The emphasis has been on “disorders,” “deficits,” “neuroses” and the need for “therapy.”
Positive psychology emphasizes strengths more than illness. It focuses on happiness, well-being, resilience, empathy, gratitude and forgiveness — how to “flourish” as a human. One idea, said Frank Farley, an Edmonton native and a past president of the American Psychological Association who studies heroism and personality, is that maybe it can inoculate people against mental distress.
More than a decade after its founding, the field is undergoing something of a revival. The neuroscience behind it is advancing. Researchers are finding links between positive emotions and a longer, healthier life span.
At the same time, the notion of a healthy national psyche is being embraced more openly by economists, politicians and political scientists around the globe, including in Canada, where, for example, Green Party leader Elizabeth May recently introduced a private member’s bill in the House of Commons meant to develop a set of indicators to measure “the real health and well-being of people.” A United Nations expert panel earlier this year called for nations around the globe to track the happiness of their people, arguing that economic wealth doesn’t equal psychological health.
Except for those living below the poverty line, “the correlation between money and happiness is almost non-existent,” said Gruman, an associate professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Guelph.
“We’re trying to find out what makes people happy,” Gruman said, “because we’ve learned it isn’t money.”
Science is searching for prescriptions for happiness at a time when North American adults increasingly are being medicated with anti-depressants.
According to new figures released exclusively to Postmedia News by market research firm IMS Brogan, Canadian pharmacists dispensed 40.2 million prescriptions worth $1.7 billion for anti-depressants in 2011 — a 7.5 per cent increase over 2010.
Over the last five years, the use of anti-depressants has increased on a per-person basis in every province except Prince Edward Island. Of the 40.2 million prescriptions dispensed across the nation last year, Quebec had the largest share (14.2 million) followed by Ontario (13.8 million) and B.C. (4.1 million).
In all, Canadians made 7.9 million visits to a doctor for symptoms of depression in 2011, according to IMS Brogan.
Gruman said positive-psych isn’t the Pollyannaish, “lollipops-and-rainbows” approach to living that some critics dismiss it as.
“It’s about living the best possible life. I don’t think that only understanding pathology and misery leads us to knowing how to live the best possible life we can.”
Humans have an innate tendency to focus on the negative, he said, and there’s an evolutionary reason for that.
“When you’re feeling good, that’s the body’s signal that everything is hunky-dory. When you’re feeling upset or anxious or scared, that’s your body’s way of telling you something is wrong. So it’s evolutionarily adaptive for us to be drawn to the negative — it helps us survive.
“When there’s a sabre-toothed tiger running after you, it’s healthy to be scared. You’re going to run away and you’re going to live.”
A healthy dose of pessimism is appropriate at times, he said, adding that life “necessarily requires admitting the negative and recognizing the negative and respecting the negative.”
“But it also involves trying to understand, when you’re not dying of cancer, when you’re not suffering your heart attack, when you’re not suffering depression, when you have a positive moment, how do you make the most of those moments?”
Dr. Adam Anderson is Canada Research Chair in Affective Neuroscience at the University of Toronto. Anderson said a part of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex is activated in response to positive emotions. “You find it in jazz musicians improvising,” he said.
If that is the brain’s “positivity muscle,” can we cultivate it? In randomized, controlled trials, his team has found that mindfulness meditation alters the brain; it changes the activity in the prefrontal cortex.
“Some people are lucky and have the right genes, we think, to be able to live the good life. And, if you don’t, you have to exercise in some way to try to boost that,” Anderson said.
Some equate the good life with constantly seeking the next pleasure, which Anderson said is like an addiction. “That’s like saying a cocaine addict has a really good model for living the good life because they’re trying to maximize the number of pleasures they have.”
Anderson said it’s not about seeking out or wanting things, “but to explore. To be creative, to play.”
The function of happiness isn’t to be happy, said Anderson, who isn’t a positive psychologist but who will be a featured speaker at the Canadian Positive Psychology Association’s inaugural conference this month in Toronto. “It’s evolution’s way of saying, go out and discover new things. Go play, go explore.”
Not everyone is enthused by the rush to “positivity.” All of us struggle with a tension “between our own dark feelings and the grating call of the bright, shiny, happy world,” said Eric Wilson, author of Against Happiness. Self-help books can further guilt us into thinking, “I’m not happy enough.”
But Anderson said the word “happy” seems “so loaded and confused.”
Our economy is built on selling happiness through consumption, he argued — and that increasing depression could, paradoxically, be a fallout of seeking happiness.
“If you go out seeking happiness and you don’t find it — you desire something, you assume that’s going to make you happy, you get it and you’re not happier, or you’re happier for a little bit of time, ultimately, that will make you depressed,” he said.