Friday, May 23, 2008

Energized lives


We are a complex, interesting bunch, we humans. Some of us see the glass half empty, others half full, while some just want to get new glassware. All of us want to have a sense of purpose, and sometimes we're up against crazy odds. We can be our own worst critics, diminishing our happiness. How can we stop our negative beliefs about ourselves and what does it take to allow happiness into our lives?

An optimist knows that our negative beliefs are actually distortions. Knowing how to challenge these beliefs could make us all a lot happier. This kind of happiness isn't necessarily us wearing a smiley face saying, "Have a nice day."

Psychologists know it's based in an engaged and meaningful life, in which character strengths like curiosity, kindness, love of learning and a connection to the larger universe all play a crucial role in allowing us to thrive. So how do we turn off the negative self talk? How do we increase our energy so we're ready for what life throws at us?

Martin Seligman, author of "Learned Optimism," and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania have published interesting findings about positive psychology and optimism. With 40 years of teaching psychology under his belt, he had never seen such "life-changing" optimism in his undergraduate students at Harvard as they undertook weekly writing assignments and carried them out. Questions such as "How have you used your strengths?' or writing a one-to-two-page obituary about yourself and what you'd like to be remembered for built positive emotions for his students. They also had to write three good things that happened to them and why they happened. They were all less depressed and happier through a yearlong follow-up period.

An optimist knows how to talk himself or herself out of negative thoughts by interrupting and arguing with abandonment. Usually negative beliefs aren't as terrible as one might think. Dr. Pamela Peeke, one of the country's leading female physicians, compares this negative thinking as bottom-feeding mental habits. In her book "Fit to Live," she asks, "are you a mental Cuisinart, churning the problem and letting it spin for hours? Instead, challenge your ingrained beliefs and look at the situation realistically. Some of Seligman's subjects used a 3x5 card with STOP written in huge red letters, or snapped a rubber band taut on their wrist.

It's easy to complain about things that may set us back or challenge our beliefs, but do we really celebrate the good stuff enough? Savor your feelings of happiness, because we all deserve them. Cultivate your friendships and a strong social network as much as you can. Maintain your normal weight. Exercise daily. Don't smoke. Do something you love every day that makes you happy. Do for others, unquestioned.

And always, as the saying goes, make lemonade from lemons; any glass will work.

Connie Aronson is American College of Sports Medicine HFI certified, ACE Gold certified, and IDEA Elite personal trainer. She's located at High Altitude Fitness and the YMCA in Ketchum.

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