Reasons to be cheerful

Timothy Barber
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IF YOU believe the old Rodgers &amp; Hammerstein song, all you need to do to lift your mood on a bad day is to whistle a happy tune &ndash; if only life really were so simple. But it seems that a positive outlook has worthwhile outcomes beyond merely getting you more easily through the day. A recent report by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh in the US has shown that women who are optimistic in life have a lower risk of heart disease. The study showed that optimistic women were 9 per cent less likely to develop heart disease and had a 14 per cent lower risk of dying from any cause after more than eight years of follow-up. A previous Dutch study showed similar results for men.<br /><br />Clearly, happiness is good for you. But moving through life with a smile on your face and a sunny outlook takes a lot more than happy whistling in 2009. There&rsquo;s any number of recession-related circumstances that will make all the talk of profits and returning bonuses less than a cause for celebration for many people. So how do you stay positive when you&rsquo;re surrounded by reasons to be miserable?<br /><br />To some extent, it seems, your outlook is down to your personality. Dr Sheri Jacobson, a psychotherapist with London-based Harley Therapy, says: &ldquo;Some people are inherently more disposed to view the positive side of things, and that&rsquo;s to do with the environment they&rsquo;ve grown up in, whether they come from a household with a can-do attitude.&rdquo; So is there hope for those of us predisposed to negativity? Of course &ndash; it would be much too pessimistic to suggest otherwise, after all, but it can take hard work.<br /><br />Jacobson says that cognitive behavioural therapy can be the key. Put simply, this is a method that aims to change dysfunctional habits of thought and behaviour by helping people identify when their thinking reinforces bad effects, and changing these habits. She says that you can learn this yourself, without the help of a therapist. &ldquo;The premise is that by balancing negative interpretations with more reasonable ones, we can change our thoughts and behaviour, and improve our mood.&rdquo;<br /><br />So how to go about it? A starting point is to realise the value of the negative things that happen to us. Optimism should not be about denying negative things. &ldquo;Bad things happen in life, and they are important for us,&rdquo; says Averil Leimon, a lifestyle coach for the consultancy White Water Strategies, and author of Positive Psychology for Dummies. &ldquo;These bad times are what help us build up our resilience in life, and prepare us the next time we encounter something difficult.&rdquo;<br /><br /><strong>NEGATIVE EMOTIONS</strong><br />You have to accept a bad situation, but the problem comes when you brood on it. The fact is, negative thinking and memories are known to lodge more effectively in our brains than positive ones &ndash; that could be the result of human evolution developing adaptive strategies to think in terms of risk and danger. We have to work harder to be positive than to be negative, and the key is to carefully balance out those negative emotions with positive rationalisation. &ldquo;A lot of people naturally rehearse failure, and go into situations preparing for the worst. Then you&rsquo;ll find yourself looking for evidence to back up that bad attitude,&rdquo; says Richard Reid, a psychotherapist at consultancy Pinnacle Proactive.<br /><br />&ldquo;You have to come up with sensible and balanced alternative thoughts,&rdquo; says Jacobson. &ldquo;If you start to analyse the thoughts going through your mind, like &lsquo;I&rsquo;m worthless&rsquo; or &lsquo;things can&rsquo;t improve&rsquo;, you can come up with sensible, more realistic alternative thoughts.&rdquo;<br /><br />Jacobson describes negative expectations of a situation, whether it be a difficult meeting or one&rsquo;s career prospects, as &ldquo;fortune telling&rdquo; &ndash; ie inaccurate. But looking at things with a fresh angle can open up constructive avenues. For instance, someone can look at tough times as an opportunity to consolidate relationships with colleagues and develop skills for future recessions. The important thing is to be organised and structured about taking action to be positive, rather than being vague. Even thinking about the qualities you need to overcome a situation &ndash; being calm, being constructive &ndash; and repeating them out loud can have an effect, says Reid. &ldquo;If you say them and put effort into your tone, as if you believe them, it&rsquo;s surprising how much of those qualities you can take on.&rdquo;<br /><br />If work life is a drag, Jacobson also suggests that engaging in positive behaviour in other areas will have the effect of negating rather than reinforcing negative thoughts. Throw a dinner party, take up a sport, take a class &ndash; if you reduce opportunities to wallow, you&rsquo;ll reinvigorate your outlook. You could even just teach yourself to whistle a happy tune &ndash; maybe Rodgers and Hammerstein knew what they were talking about after all.<br /><br /><strong>POSITIVE STEPS </strong> FOUR STRATEGIES FOR OPTIMISM<br /><br /><strong>Challenge your negative thoughts.</strong> &ldquo;Don&rsquo;t let negative emotions dominate you, don&rsquo;t believe them. Find rational, more balanced ways of looking at the world. Dig deep, and find better alternative, more balanced thoughts that are still accurate.&rdquo; &ndash; Sheri Jacobson<br /><br /><strong>Restructure your day.</strong> &ldquo;People put off tasks they don&rsquo;t enjoy and sticky in the comfort zone, but still think about them and that brings them down. Doing things in a fresh way will give you a new experience of it, and if you start the day with those difficult tasks and get through them, it gives you a positive boost for the rest of the day.&rdquo; &ndash; Richard Reid<br /><br /><strong>Count your blessings.</strong> &ldquo;At the end of each day for a two week period, think about three things that have been good about that day at work and write them down, and savour them. Every small achievement will have a cumulative effect and it will train you to look for positive things.&rdquo; &ndash; Richard Reid<br /><strong><br />Commit a deliberate act of kindness.</strong> &ldquo;Every day go out of your way to do something nice for another person. It might just be giving up your seat on the Tube or something more, but kindness affects everyone around you, increasing a positive atmosphere from you. It helps you as much as it helps others.&rdquo; &ndash; Averil Leimon