What if happiness isn't something we need to chase? What if
like our physical immune system, each one of us also has a built-in
psychological immune system? I mean, it only makes sense, doesn't it? What if the capacity for resilience, joy, and love is
naturally built into the human system...that none of us could ever permanently
lose access to these states-of-mind even if we tried? I mean...even people with
dementia have moments of lucid thinking... even people who have been
psychologically diagnosed still experience fluctuations in mood and spontaneous
recoveries. Well, this universal capacity for resilience is exactly what
researchers are discovering.
When I came across this notion, that every human being on
this planet is capable of resilience, it shocked me. Resilience is defined by a
person's flexibility in response to changing situational demands, and the
ability to bounce back from negative emotional experiences (Block & Kremen, 1996;
Lazarus, 1993). It is so incredibly simple and yet so incredibly
revolutionary because this truth is in stark contrast to our current cultural
narrative about well-being and possibilities. We believe that only certain
people deserve to be happy or only a few people are lucky enough to be mentally
healthy. For years, the field of psychology has cited things such as
childhood upbringing, past traumas, current mental health diagnoses, health,
lack of resources such as money, or even the weather as the reasons why
basically...some of us are just doomed to struggle.
Now, please understand me correctly...I am not implying it is people's fault that they feel bad or that the
victims are to blame for experiencing negative emotions often. There are definitely
horrible, difficult, and traumatic situations people go through and I honor
However, the attention given to these outside events greatly
underestimates the power of the human spirit and thus the capacity for
resilience. "Just the way it is" is an opinion, not a fact. See innovative researchers, coaches, and counselors around
the world are discovering the causes of mental wellbeing and resilience. And
one of the major factors linked with the experience of resilience...is if the
person believes they can be resilient! Said another way, if someone thinks he
or she has the ability to rebound quickly from stressful situations, that
person will physiologically rebound from stressful situations quickly (Tugade, Fredrickson,
& Barrett, 2004).
Here's the thing. People are very poor predictors of how they
will actually react during and after a negative experience. It is this faulty
predictive system that actually leads them to make decisions that prolong the
experience of emotional turmoil (Carpenter, 2001).
As Harvard Psychologist Daniel Gilbert states,"We
underestimate how quickly our feelings are going to change in part because we
underestimate our ability to change them. This can lead us to make decisions
that don’t maximize our potential for satisfaction."
Therefore our experience of feeling hopeless, unwell, broken,
or not good enough are not rooted in truth. They are merely reflections of our
quality of thinking in that moment and the actions we take from that
state-of-mind. The good news is the human
emotional system is built to change.
Of course, the emotions we experience when we think in
pessimistic ways are absolutely real. However, they are the result of self-fulling prophecies, not objective truth. This means no
person is doomed to struggle for the rest of his or her days, no matter how
bleak the situation is.
There is always the potential for greater awareness, creative
insights, and change in mood regardless of circumstance. How hopeful is that?! Here is the reality. When any person experiences negative
emotions, the sympathetic nervous
system is activated.
This is often referred to as the fight, flight, or freeze response where our
heart rate is escalated, blood pressure rises, and stress hormones course
through our system. This physiologically narrows our attention to support
specific action tendencies such as escape or attack (Tugade, Fredrickson,
& Barrett, 2004). However, useful this was when our ancestors were running from
saber tooth tigers in the caveman days, in the modern Western world we don't
come across truly life-threatening situations that often. Yet, our bodies
respond the same way they would as if we were running for our lives as they do
when our boss yells at us, we get into a fight with our spouse, we have to give
a public speech, or experience stress that we mistakenly attribute to our job,
Here is the good news. Short-term bouts of this stressful
response do not hurt us. It's a natural function of the human system. However,
when people live in states of prolonged stress and negative thinking for years,
it does impact both their psychological and physical health (Baum
& Polsusnzy 1999).
Here is the hopeful news. Positive emotions have the ability
to counter the physiological effects of stress and negative emotions. They
allow us to bounce-back from negative circumstances quickly and effectively.
Furthermore, they broaden our attention which leaves us with access to more
creative ideas and solutions we would not otherwise realize. (Tugade, Fredrickson,
& Barrett, 2004)
How helpful is that when solving the
real-world problems each one of us are bound to encounter during the course of
our lives? And here is the best part of all. Anyone can learn this
skill. The brain is plastic...meaning it can and does change
itself. The brain has an amazing ability to create new connections between
brain cells. Therefore, repeated focus on positive emotions and the actual
experiencing of these emotion increases our personal resources. This becomes a
cyclic effect that builds upon itself leading to greater and greater senses of
wellbeing and resourcefulness.
"In line with the broaden-and-build theory, research has
shown that positive emotions and broadened thinking influence one another
reciprocally, leading to appreciable increases in functioning and
well-being." (Tugade, Fredrickson,
& Barrett, 2004)