The joy of positivity
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]hree years ago, junior Katey Klucking’s life came to a sudden stop when she learned that her grandfather had lung cancer. As she sat in the living room with her family, time seemed to stand still. The year after that, in the same room, her family told her that her grandmother had breast cancer. When Klucking’s parents led her and her two brothers into the living room this past August for the third time, she once again knew her life would never be the same.
Her mother had stage two breast cancer.
It was four or five days before the start of school, Klucking remembered, and she already knew something was off before her parents even told her.
“My parents told me and my siblings in our living room, so I knew it was going to be bad because we never go in our living room,” Klucking said. “Also, my brother was home, and he’s a junior in college, so he’s never home. When they told us, I kind of went into shock. I didn’t cry; I just stared because I didn’t want to believe it, but I knew it was true. I didn’t cry for probably an hour and a half. I cried after, when we had left the living room.”
As her parents began to spend more and more time in Chicago, Ill. for her mother’s treatments, Klucking found it more difficult to maintain a positive demeanor. She said one of the hardest parts has been trying to stay strong in front of her younger brother and assuming a motherly role by driving him to school and packing his lunches. Although it was initially challenging to be around other people with her mother’s illness weighing on her conscience, she eventually discovered that was the key to distracting herself from those depressing thoughts.
Dr. Judith L Alpert, a professor of applied psychology at New York University, said the worst thing to do when going through a traumatic situation such as Klucking’s is to remain silent and keep every emotion bottled up inside.
“It is very important for people to be able to talk about the traumatic event. People should find someone that they trust to talk about the trauma,” Dr. Alpert said. “It may be a school psychologist or a teacher, for example. If the person chosen doesn’t get it, then try another person. Talking is important and can enable the person to get stuff out and eventually, to feel better.”
For Klucking, that person was her school counselor. After spending four hours just talking about what was bothering her, she noticed a change in how she felt. In addition to discussing her feelings, realizing that her family members’ situations were much worse than hers strengthened Klucking’s mentality.
“In the beginning I would cry all the time. At school, my teachers would just tell me, ‘If you have to cry, then leave.’ So I would cry, but now I’ve realized that there’s no reason to cry. I’m not the one that’s sick. My mom and dad were both recently gone for two and a half weeks and just got back, and that entire time I was crying because I missed my mom,” Klucking said. “At first I was just thinking of myself, but it got easier for me because I started thinking about what my mom is going through as well as what my dad is going through because he’s there with her. He witnesses everything. That’s the reason we don’t go to Chicago; they don’t want us to see what she’s been going through. I’ve changed from worrying about myself and thinking about myself all the time to thinking about my family members and what they’re going through.”
Continuing to think positively is crucial when it comes to personal health, especially after experiencing something terrible. A study by professors at Ghent University and University College London showed that people can choose to avoid feeling negative emotions.
This is important, as positivity has been proven to lower rates of stress and depression, create better coping skills and even increase one’s lifespan. The University of Illinois conducted a study that concluded that optimistic individuals are twice as likely to have ideal cardiovascular health as those who are more pessimistic.
Constantly being around families whose children are battling illnesses has allowed Ronald McDonald House director of family services Angela Huntington to see this progression towards positivity countless times. It is the organization’s job to make them feel comfortable, after all. The Ronald McDonald House does this year round, but the holidays are particularly special. The staff provides families with traditional holiday meals, gives out presents during Christmas for every family member and decorates the house festively.
Huntington says making families feel a sense of normalcy during a difficult time in their life is very important. These increases in positivity are also known as post-traumatic growth, which is characterized by building relationships and showing an appreciation for life despite having gone through a traumatizing event. As the families spend more time with the organization, Huntington notices a drastic change in their demeanors.
“Families typically come to us in a state of shock. About 80 percent of the families staying with us have a baby in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). This means that they most likely either experienced a traumatic birthing experience or were given news that their child isn’t doing well and has to stay in the hospital,” Huntington said. “What was supposed to be the most beautiful experience of their lives is now tarnished with emotions of terror and sadness. As families get comfortable here at the House, it is obvious that their stress level decreases as they are able to get a peaceful night’s sleep and a full belly. All this while being just a stone’s throw away from their little one in the NICU.”
Huntington believes the knowledge that their babies are close in case something goes wrong gives parents a sense of peace. They eventually become much more relaxed once they get into a normal routine of sleeping, eating and being with their baby whenever they want. Whether the situation involves a premature baby or a family member with cancer, being surrounded by caring people can help. Klucking stresses the importance of utilizing that resource.
“Don’t be afraid to talk about it because when you tell people about it so that they’re aware, then you’re surrounded by people who are willing to help you. If you keep it bundled in and nobody knows about it and they say something that not necessarily triggers you but brings you to an emotional standpoint to where you can’t take it, you’re just going to explode and everything’s going to come out at once,” Klucking said. “So you should just tell people like, ‘Hey, this is what I’m going through right now, and if you could be there for me that would be awesome.’”
Being more open about her emotional state led Klucking to discover friends she didn’t even know she had as well as a newfound appreciation for religion. While she has always identified herself as a Christian, she never read her Bible until friends started sending her Bible verses. Gradually, Klucking realized that true positivity comes from having and confiding in a strong support system and not stressing over irrelevant things.
A study conducted by professors from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Virginia found that people from all over the world collectively ranked happiness as being more important than being rich, going to heaven and discovering the meaning of life. Although Klucking still naturally worries about her mother’s condition, she has managed to pull some positivity out of it in the form of a greater understanding of what’s important and what isn’t.
“The biggest thing is just not taking the little things for granted. If your parents get mad at you, it’s like, ‘So what, big deal.’ Or if you get a bad grade on a test, go retake it. Don’t overthink the little things because there’s always someone going through something worse than you,” Klucking said. “There’s definitely someone going through something worse than me; maybe someone’s parent passed away. So that is what I’m thankful for, that I still have my mom here. Even though she’s going through a great deal of pain, I know she’s going to make it out.”
Don’t worry, be happy
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n 1978, assistant professor of psychology at Northwestern University Philip Brickman challenged the popular belief that people could become happier by simply changing their life for the better. He found that both lottery winners and recently handicapped adults expressed the same levels of happiness 18 months after the event.
As a result of this experiment, psychologists started to question whether it was even possible to sustain happiness. If people ultimately get used to anything that happens to them and end up at their former happiness level, is there any hope for “staying happier?”
Sophomore Kai Ford seems to think so.
“Happiness for me always starts with a conscious thought. I choose to focus on happy memories during a particularly bad week, or force a smile when it’s the last thing to describe my mood,” Ford said. “I believe a negative connotation has been placed on choosing happiness. It’s either seen as too difficult or ineffective. Deciding to give somebody a compliment, eat your favorite food, finishing [your] work, doing your hobby — it’s small actions that either improve your mood or prevent negative feelings that allow you to become happier. Although it is slow, it is effective when regularly tried.”
Ford is not alone in his belief in taking conscious actions to maintain happiness. Psychology professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia Ken Sheldon and Psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside Sonja Lyubomirsky published The Challenge of Staying Happier: Testing the Hedonic Adaption Model. The paper found that people who appreciate the original positive change consistently are less likely to feel unfilled and revert back to their original level of happiness.
“Our study suggests that [maintaining positivity levels] is an attainable goal, realizable when people make efforts to be grateful for what they have. The ‘pursuit of happiness’ is central to the U.S. world view, yet the very expression also illustrates a paradox of that worldview. Perhaps when one pursues happiness too singlemindedly, one fails to notice and take advantage of what one already has,” Sheldon said in the paper. “In other words, striving for ever-greater happiness may set one on a hedonic treadmill to nowhere. The current study suggests a resource-maximization framework, in which happiness is best pursued by extracting the most possible from the present, before turning one’s attention to the future.”
Research like Sheldon’s find that all too often, people find themselves on a “satisfaction treadmill.” In his paper Experienced Utility and Objective Happiness: A Moment-Based Approach, Psychology Professor at Princeton University Daniel Kahneman suggested that people can adapt to their new level of happiness and normalize that level so that it feels like their initial well-being. They may cope with this plateaued sense of happiness by over consuming and overspending. This showcases the adaption of our nervous system when it comes to being positive.
“Happiness plateaus because the nervous system resists change. It tries to keep things in equilibrium. However, [being appreciative of what you have] fights against the tendency to take X for granted and not notice it anymore. As soon as you stop noticing it, it stops affecting happiness,” Sheldon said. “Appreciation is the psychological opposite of adaptation. Rather than taking X for granted and no longer noticing it, one instead amplifies one’s attention toward X, lending it more power to have impact. Appreciating how his life experiences have improved since the purchase — and recognizing that this improvement is neither inevitable nor permanent — will help to thwart [the urge for more material items].”
Along with appreciation, people can maintain an increased level of happiness with multiple methods. Sheldon recommended being involved in meaningful and interesting projects.
Doctor of family and community medicine Hannah Gov-Ari suggests a healthy diet and exercise.
“I think [healthy diet and exercise] is crucial. Eating right and reducing the carbs, especially in the morning. Kids will eat too many carbs in the morning and will have a carb rush by afternoon and become tired and irritable and not interested in what’s going on, as opposed to eating a good meal in the morning. One that has high protein in it and has one of the amino acids which is good for serotonin, which is low in depression,” Dr. Gov-Ari said. “Maintaining a healthy diet and exercising are so important, there are many studies that show its direct effect on mood. This is the first thing I recommend. When we talk about strategies to help [feeling unhappy], one of the biggest ones is staying active [and eating healthy].”
However, with something as layered and nuanced as happiness and what makes people happy, there are always multiple aspects. Dr. Gov-Ari points out the relevance of depression in many teenagers lives and how that can drastically change their perception of happiness and the methods they use to deal with it.
“[There are many reasons] that people are depressed. Some are genetics …, families and parents that are prone to anxiety and depression, it is likely their kids will have it. But there are ways to deal with depression. If you have a coping skill, you can deal with it,” Dr. Gov-Ari said. “Those [without a genetic history of depression] may have a better endpoint than those who do have [a genetic tendency], but it is definitely treatable. In order to deal with depression, there must be, first, awareness. Second, motivation, and third is [defeating] the stigma society has with it and … reaching out for [professional] help.”
Dr. Gov-Ari recommends therapy as an outlet and sees being able to talk about it and organize one’s thoughts as a vital way to help combat depression. In regard to self help when dealing with an unhealthy mental situation, Ford recommends more than just being mindful, but bringing other physical factors or actions to keep you calm and positive.
“I suggest finding a place, activity, people, or item that [makes] you even the slightest bit happier and utilizing that as your anchor. Give it detail, story, influence and soon it will no longer be just a physical thing but an idea that runs through your mind,” Ford said. “Regularly it will ground your anger, scare away your sadness and shield you from despair and depression. It might seem dumb, but I assure you that belief in its ability to help you is the key to achieving happiness.”
Negative people may affect long term health
[dropcap]N[/dropcap]egative friends and family members are much like an empty bag of chips, barren and useless. People often come in and out of others’ lives just as stress does, along the way most people run into negative people as well. While it may or may not be a coincidence, it turns out these negative people could be doing more harm than good.
Toxic people are everywhere and seem to have a direct influence on mood. But what if those seemingly harmless rants that are suffered through on the daily basis have terrible side effects on people’s health?
Doctor David Beversdorf works as a neurobiologist for the University of Missouri-Columbia and is the director of the Center for Translational Neuroscience. He believes the understanding of the effects of stress on health are still evolving.
“Negativity from others can serve as a stressor, but it is extremely important how one processes this negativity,” Dr. Beversdorf said. “Whether it is a physiological stressor for a person, and whether they are good at deflecting or avoiding it. Severe chronic stressors do impact health.”
Stress related health problems can cause problems like weight gain, headaches, depression, digestive issues, anxiety, depression and even heart disease. When negative people bring stressors into people’s lives, there is a natural tendency to sympathize with them and help them in some way.
Senior Danielle Lea says she’s definitely dealt with negative people in the past.
“I had people in my life that I thought were good for me,” Lea said, “but all they did was let me feel small and brought me down.”
With negative people ranting and complaining, they don’t want to help and contribute to other people’s stresses. It’s a bad cycle that seems to repeat itself as long as one stays connected to the negative people that interfere with the general population’s health.
Sheldon Kennon from Mizzou’s department of psychology doesn’t think negativity from others can affect teenagers so severely as it can affect adults.
“Unless we’re talking about them being physically aggressive, not just psychologically noxious,” Kennon said. “But a lifetime with a negative spouse could knock you off sooner than you’d otherwise go.”
The brain’s fight or flight response is alerted when in these high stress situations. The hippocampus, the part of the brain that controls these type of situations, is overtly used to the point of exhaustion. This causes stress in all forms to manifest and completely take over our personal lives.
Lea believes the best way to deal with stress is to confront the problem head on and says she overcame the negativity in her life by sticking up for herself and saying something.
“How I deal with negative people is disclude them from my life,” Lea said, “because they aren’t worth my time and they only bring me stress.”