By Michele Robison, PhD | Associate Director of the Counseling Center
Is it really important to count our blessings? According to research, the answer is a resounding Yes! When we are able to focus on the blessings, or what is going well in our life, we experience positive emotions. Positive emotions are known to increase dopamine and serotonin levels, neurotransmitters that not only enhance mood but improve memory as well. In fact, optimistic people have been shown to engage in more creative thinking, are better at problem solving, have improved performance, rebound from negative events more quickly, set more goals, put more effort into attaining goals, stay more engaged in the face of difficulty, rise above obstacles more easily, cope better in high stress situations, and maintain higher levels of well-being then their pessimistic counter parts.
Negative thinking is believed to be the cause of 75-98% of illnesses (Leaf, 2011) and fear triggers more than 1,400 physical and chemical responses and activates more than 30 different hormones. (Leaf, 2009). Now that can’t be healthy!
Even a momentary focus on the positive can have a beneficial impact.
One study showed that children who were told to think about something that makes them happy before putting blocks into particular patterns, significantly out-performed children who were not given that instruction. Another study showed that students who were told to think about the happiest day of their life before taking a standardized math test, significantly out-performed the students who were not given that instruction. And Doctors who were primed to feel happy by simply giving them a lollipop came to more accurate diagnoses more quickly and were more creative in treatment solutions then the doctors who were not primed to feel happy. (Achor, 2010) Note to self, next time you see your doctor give him/her a lollipop and reap the benefits of doing so!
Scientists have shown that we can create new neural-pathways in our brain with intentional focus. If we tend to focus on the negative, our brains will be wired to pick up the negative and drop the positive in our day-to-day lives. The good news is, it works the other way around as well.
In a study at Harvard University, research subjects played the game Tetris for several hours a day, three days in a row. Tetris is a game where shapes fall from the top of a screen and the objective is for the player to rotate the shapes to create an unbroken, horizontal line across the screen before it hits the bottom of the screen. After playing Tetris for several hours over a three-day period, subjects dreamt about falling shapes and begin to subconsciously find themselves looking at how various shapes in their environment could be turned to create unbroken lines.
Shawn Achor, the author of The Happiness Advantage stayed up playing the game Grand Theft Auto until 4:00 A.M. He recounts that for five hours following playing the game, he found himself scanning the streets looking at which cars he could break into. The good news is he stopped himself from acting on his thoughts yet this does demonstrate the power behind where we place our focus. Think about the video games you play. What impact might they have on your thought life?
There have been numerous studies that have shown that intentional focus allows our brain to get stuck in how we view the world. With ongoing repeated focus, we can actually create new neural-pathways in the brain that are enduring. This means we are not doomed to a life of negativity. We can use our mind to change our brains, to change our mind for the better! What? In other words, if we begin to scan our environment for things that are going well, we will eventually create new neural-pathways so that our brain focuses more easily on the positive aspects of life rather than the negative. This does not mean we will not ever experience negativity again. It does mean, we will have a better outlook when facing adversity and we will rebound more quickly from the adversity.
The 3 Blessings Journal is one way to train our brains to scan for the positive in life. Depressed subjects were asked to write down 3 things that went well at the end of the day and why it went well for a period of one week. At the end of the week, subjects reported not only a significant decrease in depression but also a greater level of happiness. This effect was seen up to six months later. (Seligman, 2011)
By simply writing down 3 things that go well in our day along with why it went well, we can experience a more optimistic look on life and reap the emotional and physical benefits.
I would be remiss if I did not point out that what science is now discovering is what God’s word has been teaching us all along, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving present your requests to God. And the peace of God which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Phil. 4:6-7. God is deserving of our thanks but it is much more than that. When we seek Him through prayer and give thanks, He guards our hearts and mind. What does this mean? It means we experience peace and joy despite our circumstances. God knew that by giving Him thanks, it would transform us. We reap the benefits of a life filled with joy and peace.
Image sourced from Marquette Magazine
- Achor, Shawn. (2010). The Happiness Advantage. New York: Crown Business Publishers.
- Leaf, Caroline. (2011). You Are What You Think: 75-98% of Mental and Physical Illnesses Come from Your Thought Life. www.drleaf.com.
- Leaf, Caroline. (2009). Who Switched Off My Brain? Inprov, Ltd.
- Seligman, Martin. (2011). Flourish: A New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being. New York: Free Press