THINK ABOUT IT

By Brooke Adams, communications specialist, University Marketing & Communications

Here’s a thought designed to make you happy: Sept. 13 is International Positive Thinking Day!

The day, created in 2003, is aimed at getting people to embrace positivity in their daily lives — and for good reason, says Trish Henrie Barrus, an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Psychology’s positive psychology program.

Research has consistently shown that thoughts influence emotions, which in turn can influence our behaviors and health, Barrus said.

Martin Seligman helped launched the field of positive psychology in the 1990s after his daughter confronted him about why he was always so grumpy, according to Barrus. It was an “aha” moment for Seligman, she said, who realized psychologists were conducting a lot of research on problems — depression, anxiety, etc. — rather than on solutions.

The positive psychology movement focuses on strengths, resilience and positive approaches to helping people feel better about themselves and their ability to handle life challenges.

Another key figure in the movement: Ed Diener, a U psychology professor who has studied happiness for more than 35 years, coined the term “subjective well-being” to describe a person’s evaluation of how his or her life is going and their emotional state.

According to Diener, “Scores of studies show that our levels of happiness versus stress and depression can influence our cardiovascular health, our immune system strength to fight off diseases and our ability to heal from injuries.”

Barrus pursued the field after getting interested in the concept of gratitude, the subject of her dissertation. She was struck by how feelings of gratitude helped people who lost loved ones in the 9/11 terrorist attacks deal with their grief. Barrus’ research looked at divorced, middle-aged women and what effect gratitude had on their ability to adjust to their new status and deal with depression.

“Depression went down while adjustment scores went up,” Barrus said.

Barrus helped launch the Positive Psychology undergraduate certificate at the U, an online program that offers 16 different courses on topics ranging from coping with difficult people to changing addictive behavior and enhancing happiness and life satisfaction. She designed and teaches four of the courses. A wide range of people pursue the certificate, from athletic coaches to health care and human resource professionals, Barrus said.

While it’s great there is a day set aside to encourage positive thinking, real change requires consistent effort. Barrus said it takes 27 days to break a habit and 60 days to make one.

“We have to keep practicing the behavior we want to have,” she said. “If someone wants to have a certain thought process, they have to literally practice it every day. Some people say they feel like they’re faking it when they try to do daily affirmations, but it actually helps reprogram the brain.”

Positive Psychology emphasizes focusing on a person’s strengths and not their weaknesses. “But you have to know what your strengths are to focus on them,” Barrus said. She recommends this website to help in this “getting to know you” process, which offers a free strengths inventory assessment.

And here’s another idea: Try the “Good Day” exercise. Start your day by thinking about something positive and end it by reflecting and writing down the good things that took place throughout the day.

“People are often surprised about the really good things that happened when they take time to review their day,” Barrus said.