Practicing Happiness: Tips for Maintaining a Positive Attitude

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Dr. Mirgain on NBC-15

Dr. Shilagh Mirgain discusses happiness during a recent NBC-15 interview. Watch the interview


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Smiling womanMadison, Wisconsin – While it may seem like some people are just naturally happier, that doesn't mean there isn't hope for the rest of us. Happiness, like many things, is a skill that can be cultivated.


But why is it so important to be happy?


Sometimes it seems that we live in a chronic state of stress. The problem is that when we experience stress, our bodies enter into that "fight or flight" mode – our heart rate increases, breathing becomes shallow, cortisol is released and even our cognition becomes impaired. Over time, a chronic state of stress can cause heart disease, obesity, anxiety and depression. For our health, we need to find a way to step out of that state of stress.


Research shows that a sense of positive well-being can lower stress-related hormones and lead to better immune function (meaning, happy people get sick less often). And similar research suggests that happier people tend to live longer lives. Quite simply, happier people are healthier people.


Feeling happy, however, can take some effort. UW Health psychologist Shilagh Mirgain, PhD, explains, "Negative experiences are like Velcro, they tend to stick to us causing us to worry or ruminate about them longer after they happen. Positive experiences are the opposite - they don't influence our mood and we quickly move on from them."


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People who are happiest have three positive, emotionally uplifting experiences to every one negative experience according to research. So the challenge, she notes, is trying to overcome the natural negative tendencies of the brain and hold on to the feelings of happiness. One way is through practice.


Holding On to Positivity


Mirgain offers a few techniques to help focus the mind on positive experiences. These techniques can help us increase our own positivity ratio.


The Pause Button


When a positive thing happens, Mirgain suggests stopping for 10 to 15 seconds and trying to absorb the feeling.


"Hold your awareness on the positive experience by focusing on your body sensations, emotions and the sense of what is rewarding about the experience," she suggests.


The Reset Button


This is a re-centering technique that helps the mind move beyond the negative experience. When a problem, stressor or anxious thought occurs, Mirgain suggests actually visualizing putting it to the side.


"Imagine a box with a lid on it. Visualize putting the stress into the container, snapping the lid on tight and moving it out of sight," she explains. "You can pick it up later, but by putting it to the side in the moment, you can allow yourself a deep breath and create space for another way of thinking."


Activating the Positive


This technique helps counteract the effects of stress, allowing you to calm your mind and body. You get the most benefit when you practice this exercise regularly such as at the start of the day, at line in the grocery store or when you are waiting for someone. You can also use this technique when you feel overwhelmed or emotionally upset, during a challenging conversation, or even if you're wrestling with a difficult decision.


  1. Focus

    To begin, focus your attention on center of your chest – around your heart. If it helps, close your eyes and place your hand over the center of your chest to direct and keep your attention on that area.

  2. Breathe

    Breathe normally, but deeply. As you breathe, focus on the heart area and imagine your breath going in and out of the space. Continue breathing and try to find a natural rhythm that feels good to you.

  3. Activate

    Once you're in a comfortable rhythm of heart breathing, try to recall a positive feeling – a time when you felt good – and try to recreate that sensation. Imagine breathing this sensation into the heart center.

  4. Maintain

    Keep maintaining the sensation for at least a minute or two- imagine it filling up the heart and becoming stronger with each breath you take.

"Step three is really the most important step," explains Mirgain. "It can be challenging, but some easy ways to think about positive experiences include remembering one of the best experiences in your life, a special place you visited when it felt good to be alive or time spent with a family member, friend or pet where you felt really loved and supported. It could even be feeling grateful for all of the good things in your life right now."


According to research, this technique actually shifts our heart rhythms, and our entire physiology, in less than a minute allowing us to feel calm, centered and even more creative.


The Treasure Chest


We experience positive moments throughout the day – a smile or hug, recognition for a job well done, a laugh with a friend. They might seem like small things, but cumulatively, they can make a big difference. Think about a treasure chest, or savings account. By putting even the small moments in there, it can fill and continue to sustain us even in times of stress. Seeking out, noticing and remembering the good things in our life can help us keep a better balance.


"We can use simple strategies to help us regain our center when we're stressed, upset, or feeling overwhelmed," says Mirgain. "We need to practice the conditions of happiness. And we know because of research that the more we practice happiness, it can literally change our physiology. We become happier."


Date Published: 09/23/2013

News tag(s):  shilagh a mirgain

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