Savour positive emotions to boost wellbeing

Appreciating the breathtaking moments of life can help build positivity

Appreciating the breathtaking moments of life, and savouring the emotions associated with them, can help build positivity and boost wellbeing

“Concentrate [yourself] upon the moments of a life that is itself but a moment.” This quote from Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray could have been taken from a modern manual on mindfulness, or an article on positive psychology. It also sums up new research that encourages us to savour the emotions associated with special moments to enhance feelings of wellbeing.

The university study reveals that the it’s not just the response we have to something beautiful or breathtaking or moving, but the ability to keep hold of positive emotions – to savour them – that can boost wellbeing. And the research looked at people who can and people who can’t savour the moments of life, and who are perhaps more inclined to feel depressed.

“It’s important to consider not just how much emotion you experience, but also how long these emotions persist,” said researcher Aaron Heller, University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate and assistant professor of psychology at the University of Miami. He added: “We’re looking at how one person can savour a great deal from that beautiful sunset or a memorable meal, but how another person who might be susceptible to depression can’t savour that sunset and those positive emotions subside quickly.”

The study looked at how the effect of a positive emotion on neural pathways in the brain, even if it lasts for a few seconds. The research found it could “predict the persistence of a person’s positive emotion minutes and hours later… [leading to] a growing understanding of how mental disorders such as depression might be manifested in the brain”.

The study explored sending frequent prompts sent to people via their smartphones, to help embed positive emotions more regularly and efficiently. The researchers also suggested that meditation, and showing kindness and compassion to others, could impact on an individual’s ability to savour the moments – and the positive emotions – of life.

Social snubs are harder to shake off if you’re depressed

Not fitting in and being rejected by the crowd hurts more if you're depressed. (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/StuartMiles)

Not fitting in and being rejected by the crowd hurts more if you’re depressed. (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/StuartMiles)

The hurt of being snubbed by someone who used to be your friend, or being rejected by social groups goes deeper and lasts longer if you’re suffering from untreated depression, according to a study from the University of Michigan. This seems to be adding insult to injury to people who may already be feeling bad about themselves. However, there is a scientific reason to explain this.

The researchers tested stress-reducing chemicals (called opioids) in the brains of depressed and non-depressed people in the context of online dating, where likes and rejections often come in equal measures. In short, when depressed people received rejections they found it harder to regulate their emotions, while non-depressed people were able to cope with the social stress and move on without giving it much more thought.  When someone liked them back, both depressed and non-depressed people felt an uplift (which the researchers were surprised about, because depression can affect the ability to feel joy). However, the feeling of social acceptance was short-lived in people with depression.

Feeling down? Sit upright to avoid a slump in mood

If body posture affects your mood, then slumping can make you feel down. (pic courtesy of Master isolated images/Freedigitalphotos.net)

If body posture affects your mood, then slumping can make you feel down. (pic courtesy of Master isolated images/Freedigitalphotos.net)

If you’re feeling low, chances are your body posture will mirror your mood. You may slump or slouch, as your body slackens and gives up the fight. Yet, new research has found that this also works the other way round: our body posture can have an effect on our emotions. If you slump, you’re more likely to keep hold of negative thoughts.

In tests, the researchers asked 30 depressed people to sit either in a slumped (depressed) or upright (non-depressed) posture while imagining themselves in a scene in front of them, where positive and negative words flashed on a computer screen. They found that upright patients were able to recall a balance of positive and negative words, whereas the slumped patients showed “recall biased towards more negative words”.

They concluded that posture has more of an impact on mood than previously believed. The body can influence the mind and how we feel about ourselves.

The researchers said: “Training patients in mindful body awareness might be useful because it fosters an intuitive understanding of the interplay of bodily and emotional processes.” In other words, becoming more conscious of the mind-body connection might mean you could catch yourself before you fall into a slump. Becoming aware of your posture could therefore be a quick boost to your mood.

A sense of ‘belonging’ can help beat depression

Feeling affinity with a group can help alleviate depression. (pic courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Feeling affinity with a group can help alleviate depression. (pic courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

If you’re depressed, you can feel lost and alone, as if everyone were against you. It can be a terribly isolating place, and it’s easy to withdraw from interacting with the world. Yet making the effort to connect with a group can be one of the first steps to recovery from depression.

A study from the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) discovered that finding a connection with social groups can help alleviate depression and anxiety and prevent relapse.

People who took part in the research joined either a community group with activities such as yoga, sports and art, or took part in group therapy. What made the difference in both groups was the sense of connection participants felt with the other group members. Those who did not identify with the rest of the group had a 50% chance of feeling depressed a month later. However, among those who felt a stronger connection with the group, less than a third were clinically depressed a month later.

The difference is a feeling of being supported by the rest of the group, of everyone being ‘in it together’. In other words, depressed people began to feel a sense of ‘us’ rather than ‘them’. The study concluded that “joining groups, and coming to identify with them, can alleviate depression”. 

What is significant about this research, however, is that the ‘group’ aspect of social interaction is crucial, rather than just the interpersonal relationships within groups. Finding groups with whom you have an affinity could be the first step to feeling lighter and happier.

Turn Blue Monday into ‘Blooming Monday’

Mental health charity MHRUK is urging everyone to wear bright colours to combat Blue Monday.

Mental health charity MHRUK is urging everyone to wear bright colours to combat Blue Monday.

Today is meant to be the most depressing day of the year. Christmas festivities are well behind us, and it’s a while before the clocks go forward and we can enjoy some daylight on our journey to and from work. That’s why mental health charity Mental Health Research UK is urging us to change one thing about our appearance in a bid to brighten up the saddest day in the calendar.

It is calling on individuals and organisations to ‘ditch the grey on blooming Monday‘ and to pick bright colours from our wardrobes instead of our usual darker shades. Even if workplace dress codes insist on formal clothes, the charity says that people can brighten up their day with a colourful scarf, tie or even socks.

While this may sound lighthearted on a bleak day, the point of MHRUK’s campaign is serious: to combat the stigma of mental illness, raise funds to research into the causes of depression, and “develop better treatments to reduce the misery resulting from it”.

MHRUK found that 30% of workers leave home in the morning before sunrise and return home after sunset during the winter, putting them at risk of seasonal affective disorder.

Visit www.blooming-monday.com for ways to get involved in the campaign.

Workaholics are at risk of compulsive internet addiction

60% of people are at risk of compulsive internet usage, says research (pic: istockphoto.com/matka_Wariatka)

60% of people say they use the internet compulsively, says research (pic: istockphoto.com/matka_Wariatka)

It’s Monday morning. You log onto your emails at work and yet there are no surprises. Why? Because you’ve had your smartphone by your side all weekend and you’ve been checking your emails compulsively, unable to switch off. You see ‘relaxing’ as a pointless waste of time. Pushing yourself harder to achieve career success is what drives you. But it can also be what drains you.

If you recognise yourself here, then you could be among the 60% of workers who use the internet compulsively, often as a coping strategy. Increasingly it is high-fliers and overachievers whose internet usage can be excessive and compulsive, rather than students and the unemployed. That’s according to research among 516 people aged 18 to 65 by Dr Cristina Quinones-Garcia of Northampton Business School and Professor Nada Korac-Kakabadse of Henley Business School, which was presented at the British Psychological Society’s Division of Occupational Psychology’s Annual Conference in Brighton.

Using the internet was strongly linked to working obsessively, and overuse of the internet could lead to “measurable withdrawal symptoms” such as anxiety, isolation and depression. The researchers said that workaholics will often wake up several times in the night to check their emails, and their health and relationships suffer because they can’t manage to tear themselves away from their computer. They tend to be the high-achieving successful employees, but continued compulsive usage could lead to burnout.

This research is the latest in a growing body of evidence around the dangers of excessive internet use. A study by Missouri University of Science and Technology investigated the impact of heavy internet use on mental health and found that young people who used the internet excessively – including games, social media and email – showed signs of addictive behaviours, such as introversion, craving, loss of control and tolerance.

The Guardian offers five ways to curb your internet use and get your life back. However, if you’re worried that your internet use is getting out of control and having a negative impact on your life, email davanticounselling@gmail.com or call 07956 823501 to take the first step to speak to a therapist about it.

Can spirituality make you more resilient to depression?

Researchers says spiritual beliefs can protect the brain from mood disorders such as depression. (pic: istockphoto.com/Skaya)

Researchers says spiritual beliefs can protect the brain from mood disorders such as depression. (pic: istockphoto.com/Skaya)

Apparently it can. A scientific study has suggested that spirituality gives people who are prone to depression a thicker outer part of the brain – which may offer some protection from depression.

The report studied 103 adults aged 18-54 from a family background of depression, and took MRI scans of their brains. They found a thicker cortex – the part of the brain that processes senses, language and emotion – in the survey participants who said religion or spirituality was important to them, compared with those who didn’t. A thinner cortex is linked with higher risk of depression.

However, being spiritual does not give you a thicker cortex, the researchers reported. Nor does more frequent attendance at church.

Myrna Weissman, professor of psychiatry and epidemiology at Columbia University and chief of the Clinical-Genetic Epidemiology department at New York State Psychiatric Institute, who worked on the study, said: “Our beliefs and our moods are reflected in our brain, and with new imaging techniques we can begin to see this. A thicker cortex associated with a high importance of religion or spirituality may confer resilience to the development of depressive illness in individuals at high familial risk for major depression.”

What to make of these results? The researchers had previously found a 90% decreased risk of depression among the adult children of parents who were suffering from it. The therapeutic value of these findings is not clear, not even to the scientists, who believe that it’s the start of further research.

Weissman says the body and mind are connected – but how? Does having faith or belief in something beyond the physical here-and-now body help sustain people through difficult times? In an area that must be incredibly difficult to measure, I’ll be interested in what scientists can prove in the future.