I love learning new things!
This week I learned a few cool “scientific” things about the power of forgiveness and focusing on the positives.
The Power of Forgiveness
I have always believed that giving and receiving forgiveness brings freedom and healing in a way that nothing else will. But this week I learned that it has been scientifically proven that forgiveness can literally buffer us from the stress that causes mental and physical health problems.
In a recent study in the Journal of Health Psychology Loren Toussaint explored the connection between stress and forgiveness on our mental and physical health. Unsurprisingly a correlation was found between high stress levels leading to more health problems. But interestingly, he found was that where people showed forgiveness–of both themselves and others–the connection between stress and mental illness practically disappeared.
“It’s almost entirely erased–it’s statistically zero. If you don’t have forgiving tendencies, you feel the raw effects of stress in an unmitigated way. You don’t have a buffer against that stress…. Forgiveness takes that bad connection between stress and mental illness and makes it zero.”
Wow! That is actually pretty mind-blowing!
This is scientific proof that forgiving yourself and forgiving other people will significantly diminish (or possibly completely erase) your feelings of stress, anxiety, and anger.
Yet the act of forgiveness itself is not an easy thing to do. Forgiving a person or asking for forgiveness can be quite confronting because it asks you to face your hurt, or the hurt you have caused others, to articulate it, to then cope with any response and to finally make a conscious decision to let go of your anxiety, anger or stress.
The upside though is that that if you are brave enough, you are quite likely to get rid of any associated stress, anxiety or anger. That in itself might be good enough reason to give forgiveness a go!
The power of focussing on the positives
Now, although it was not always the case, it is no secret that I am now an optimist. I am the annoying sort that will give most people the benefit of the doubt and I will hunt for that silver lining if it kills me!
Now let’s be clear, I have a personal faith in God, and that faith is very much the source of my optimism and annoying positivity. I know many others – with a faith or without – who believe in the power of positive thinking – so I am hoping that regardless of your beliefs you might find what I am about to share as interesting as I did.
Most of us would concede that there is sound psychological evidence that shows that people who can envision their future in a positive light are far more likely to actually live out that positive life. Some would say that God has a part to play, others would say it is because of our own beliefs and the sceptics would likely argue that any positive result was all a co-incidence.
But let’s consider for a moment the concept of visualising your future.
Visualization is the process of forming mental images. So, envisioning your future involves visualising events or situations that have not happened yet.
A rugby player may visualize himself kicking a difficult goal, or a ski jumper may picture herself executing a jump and landing it perfectly before she competes. Actors, writers, and artists often use visualization to create a character or a picture in their minds before writing it down or acting it out. Everyone uses visualization to some extent. We picture what we will have for dinner before we buy the food or cook it. We picture what we are going to wear to an upcoming special event. We imagine how a conversation might go and sometimes we rehearse difficult ones.
Visualization is a really effective way that we can prepare ourselves before taking action.
Visualising our future in a positive way can help to ensure that the next steps we take are in a “healthy” (positive) direction rather than an “unhealthy” (negative) direction.
As humans, our first “knee-jerk” reaction to uncertainty or difficulty is usually a negative one. If we don’t counter that initial negative response with a conscious effort to find the upside we will get stuck in the negatives which can affect both our mental and physical health.
Professor Barbara Fredrickson is a social psychologist from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and has been a researcher in human emotions for the past 25 years. In a recent interview for ABC Radio National she put it this way:
‘Negative emotions really hit us like a sledgehammer. They are really much more intense and attention grabbing than our positive emotions, which are comparably more subtle … we have an ingrained negativity bias.’
‘I think of positive emotions as nutrients. In the same way that we need to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables to be healthy, we need a variety of positive emotions in our daily experience to help us become more resourceful versions of ourselves,’
Oh my goodness! I love that concept – positive emotions as nutrients!! Although I am actually visualising a Positive Emotion Multivitamin as I type! So many aspirations to nourish with “a variety of fruits and vegetables”, so little time!!
Barbara Fredrickson then went on to explain –
‘What seems to be unique about positive emotions is that they expand our awareness so that in the moment that we are experiencing positive emotions—and they are very fleeting states, they last from seconds to minutes, not hours, weeks and years—our peripheral vision expands, our ability to take in more of our surroundings and connect the dots and see the big picture is facilitated, whereas neutral states tend to narrow our mindsets and then negative emotions narrow our mindsets even further, so that having more moments of that open mindset help us connect with others and build our relationships, it helps us build our resilience, it helps us build our physical health because we become more energetic.’
I have to agree! When we find the positives, we do expand our peripheral vision to see the bigger picture.
Taking time out to “dream” a little and visualise your future in a positive way, particularly when you are facing uncertainty or a difficult time, is a powerful tool.
But it is more than trying to “be” positive in a forced and insincere way. Even Barbara Fredrickson suggests that this is one of the most difficult things about positivity.
‘A little knowledge of positive psychology is a dangerous thing because people think that they can be happy just by deciding to be happy and that it’s just a simple manoeuvre, and it’s not so simple,’ ‘There are ways to deceive yourself into thinking that you are happy, or being obsessive about being happy. There is some work to show that people who value happiness too much, it just backfires. It’s a delicate art, learning how to facilitate the genuine positive emotions.’
‘… some of the better approaches are more other-focused; focusing on the wellbeing of others and being kind and compassionate to others is less likely to lead us into that self-deception state. There are ways to do this pursuit of happiness that are successful and lead to genuine positivity, and there are very easy ways to do it wrong. It’s trickier than it seems.’
Now that is the bit that I found interesting! The concept that the cure for the forced, dangerous, deceptive, obsessive pursuit of “happiness” is to focus on the wellbeing of others – to find the positives that also mean being kind and compassionate to other people.
Call it what you like – a moral compass, an outward focus, an internal knowledge of right and wrong – it seems that our happiness, the genuine kind – is inextricably linked to our focus on others not just ourselves – to loving our neighbour just as we love ourselves.
What are your thoughts on the power of forgiveness and positive thinking?