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Health Tips & Advice

The Power of Positive Psychology

By Dr. Jack Muskat, Medcan Clinical Director of Psychology

This therapy focuses on optimizing mental well-being rather than addressing a specific challenge.

People tend to think of therapy as a way to get support when they’re going through a particularly difficult time in their life. Perhaps they’re experiencing depression, anxiety, grief or relationship issues. But what if you are already feeling pretty good about your life, but want to feel even better? That’s where “positive psychology” comes in. This fairly recent form of therapy focuses on optimizing mental well-being rather than fixing any specific problems. “By positive I do not mean the rest of psychology is negative,” explains Dr. Tayyab Rashid, a licensed clinical psychologist at the Health and Wellness Centre at the University of Toronto (Scarborough), where he leads Flourish—a preventive mental health initiative. In fact, positive psychology isn’t meant to replace traditional therapy, but instead complement it by focusing on our values and strengths, along with our moods and feelings. Positive psychology acknowledges that a focus solely on curing our depression or healing our trauma without building on our strengths or learning to find fulfilment in life, is just half the battle. To be truly happy we need a focus on the good and the bad. So how does positive psychology actually work?

What most people do during any crisis is resort to catastrophic thinking, denial and rationalization. But one tenet of positive psychology is the idea that optimism is learnable. Even if you’re reading this and feeling like the challenges you face are insurmountable, positive psychology teaches us that change is possible, regardless of external factors that may have affected your life in the past or present. Research has shown that you can develop your capacity to be hopeful and to be optimistic,” says Dr. Rashid, who cites a great resource—Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman, the leading authority on the topic of positive psychology.

That doesn’t mean that change is easy, but there are some small steps you can take, to put positive psychology into practice in your everyday life. Here, Dr. Rashid shares five simple tips you can begin implementing today:

1. Treat every day like a fresh start.

Too often, we focus on the outcome. “A lot of my clients procrastinate … because they’re looking at the finish.” Instead, focus on the start of the process—and the continuing journey. . There will always be setbacks, mental disruptions or external disruptions. But when you focus on the start your attention shifts away from the outcome, Dr. Rashid explains.

2. Do something for someone else.

A study by the University of British Columbia and Harvard Business School showed that spending money on others instead of yourself resulted in greater happiness. And you don’t have to spend a lot to reap the rewards: whether the study participants spent $5 or $20 made no difference in their resulting happiness.

3. Smile.

Studies show that smiling has a positive effect on others. Dr. Rashid explains that smiling creates three degrees of happiness: “If I’m going to smile at you, you’re going to smile at one other person, and that person is going to make the other person they’ve smiled at happy.” Even in difficult situations, smiling can help. “Find a way to smile . . . that’s your emotions’ reset button.”

4. Get a good night’s sleep.

“Sleep is related to self-regulation,” Dr. Rashid explains. A Gallup poll on well-being showed those who sleep seven hours per night have a 4.8 per cent advantage in their well-being index score over those who typically sleep for six hours.

5. Vary your practice.

Over time, these suggestions can stop working. Dr. Rashid shares the example of working with a client who was writing in a gratitude journal. At first, the act of writing down three things she was grateful for was therapeutic and helpful. But over time, she started to repeat the same items, and the journal lost its value. “Every seed or plant needs different care at a different time of the season,” says Dr. Rashid. So rather than only documenting only her own gratitude, Dr. Rashid asked her to jot down any positive interactions she had with friends or family over the week. “You have to keep on shifting because the joy is in the variety of these interventions.”

Overall, one of the greatest benefits of positive psychology is that it teaches us to shift our perspective to maximize our potential for happiness. “If COVID has taught us anything, it has taught us . . . how little control we have over our own life,” Dr. Rashid says. “But the control that we have, why don’t we exercise it in positive paths?”

If you’d like to talk about opportunities to support your own mental health, contact a member of Medcan’s mental wellbeing team at mentalwellbeing@medcan.com.

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