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The science of being positive

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There’s growing evidence that a positive outlook and feelings of thankfulness, also referred to as gratefulness, can have a beneficial effect on the brain and body. “If thankfulness were a drug, it would be the world’s best-selling product with a health maintenance indication for every major organ system,” said Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy, head of the division of biologic psychology at Duke University Medical Center.

The word gratitude is derived from the Latin word gratia, which means grace, graciousness, or gratefulness and thankful. As 2021 unfolds and we look back on a bleak 2020, perhaps there are some things we can be thankful for, such as a vaccine arriving for COVID-19 and some major breakthroughs in healthcare. And that if you’re reading this article, you made it to 2021!

Studies have shown measurable effects on multiple body and brain systems. Those include mood neurotransmitters, reproductive hormones, social bonding hormones, cognitive and pleasure related neurotransmitters, inflammatory and immune systems, stress hormones, cardiac and EEG rhythms, blood pressure, and blood sugar.

“Humans have a negativity bias where ‘bad stuff’ in our life outweighs the good by a measure of about 3:1, said Renee Jain, a certified coach of positive psychology. “This developed over millions of years to help us survive threats in our environment. Fortunately, we no longer have to worry about a saber-toothed tiger attack- ing us on the way to work. Unfortunately, we still have this bias.”

The brain’s fundamental organizing principle in life is to avoid threat and maximize rewards, said Mitch Wasden, CEO of Ochsner Medical Center in Baton Rouge. “The brain’s primary reward chemical is dopamine,” he said. “But we can’t feel rewards and threats unless we focus attention on them. Until an event comes to our own attention, we don’t get the neurotransmitter release that allows us to feel good or bad.”

But the brain doesn’t know whether it’s reacting to reality, fiction or even past events. Feeling thankful acts as a “mental movie,” Wasden explained.

The brain releases dopamine, which, in turn, has a positive effect on mood and emotional well-being.

“One of the best practices uncovered from this research is known as the Three Blessings exercise,” said Jain. “Before going to bed, write down three good things that happened to you during the day. Those who continue this exercise for one week can increase their happiness for up to six months.”

You don’t have to start a gratefulness or thankfulness journal to realize the benefits. Just the occasional moment of sorting through the tough parts in life and finding the positive, then taking a moment to be thankful, can change your mood to the positive.

More Insight: Check out this helpful article on the 5 pillars of mindful living.

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