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Let’s face it: achieving happiness can often seem as elusive a goal as sculpting an enviable set of abs like Gwen Stefani’s. It’s often just out of reach, and seems dependent on whatever unfortunate circumstance follows “If only…” — “If only I could get rid of this muffin top… if only I could lose 30 pounds, I would finally be happy.”
But a growing field of research known as “positive psychology” is showing that shedding those excess pounds or carving out that coveted six-pack can be much more attainable if we can learn to be happy now, rather than after we reach our goals.
The Science of Happiness
Psychologists refer to our seemingly never-ending quest for happiness as the “hedonic treadmill.” “We’re constantly running, as though on a treadmill chasing that carrot, and never actually getting anywhere,” explains Timothy Sharp, PhD, a clinical and coaching psychologist, and creator of “The Happiness Diet,” a coaching program that takes a positive approach to weight loss. In fact, when we do finally reach that goal, “we think of something else that we ‘need’ before we can really feel happy,” he adds. One way of understanding happiness, according to Sharp, is as a fleeting emotion that will eventually pass, usually in a short period of time, depending on the positive or negative influence of outside circumstances.
But according to positive psychology, it’s the lens through which you view the world and circumstances around you that shapes your reality, fuels your success and, ultimately, your satisfaction with your life. According to positive communication expert and co-founder of the Institute for Applied Positive Research Michelle Gielan, your life circumstances influence your happiness much less than the way you process those life circumstances. “What we’re finding from the research is that if we’re optimistic, we respond to the world differently,” says Gielan. “If we’re optimistic, we believe that our behavior is making a difference, and we’re therefore more inclined to make positive choices, like going to the gym or sticking to our diet,” she adds.
Your Answer for Obstacles
Not only does being positive make you feel happier, but as Sharp explains, it also helps you cope with challenges in your life so you can persevere and achieve meaningful goals. “Positive emotions are not simply a phenomenon we should enjoy after we have achieved something of significance, but they are also tools we can use to increase our chances of achieving significant outcomes,” he explains.
The fat-loss journey can be rife with ups and downs — one too many cupcakes here, a missed workout there. “Depending on how you process what could be perceived as a setback, that influences whether or not you stick with your diet and exercise program,” explains Gielan. What you tell yourself in the face of challenges — particularly, whether it’s fueled with optimism or pessimism — can often predict your likelihood of overcoming an obstacle and achieving your goals.
See Also5 Habits Of Happy People
“Positive emotions are not just nice — they can reprogram the automatic negative messages your brain gives your body about food,” explains Sharp. According to certified health coach and positive psychology practitioner Suzann Pileggi Pawelski, people with a more flexible mindset are more successful at making changes in their lives and attaining their goals, while those with an all-or-nothing attitude are more likely to lose motivation and fall short.
Discouraged by a perceived failure or setback, like overindulging on treats at an office party, “a person with an all-or-nothing mindset might tell herself that she has completely ruined her diet, will never be able to lose weight, and is a failure at everything she does,” says Pileggi Pawelski. By contrast, a healthier way of thinking when you end up making a poor food choice is saying to yourself, “‘Most of the time I make good nutritional choices, I didn’t sabotage my entire diet, and I’ll be sure to have an extra healthy dinner with lots of veggies.’ With this type of positive thinking, you have much greater success at achieving your goals because you’re more resilient during the tough times,” she says.
Be Realistic, Not Pessimistic
But more often than not, the decision to undertake a fat-loss journey comes at the end of a long road of unhappiness — whether with your body, your health, or perhaps your inability to stick with your goals to create the optimal life you envision for yourself. “Unhappiness can be a motivator for change,” notes Gielan. “If you’re unhappy enough, you might force yourself to do something different,” she says.
In fact, despite its name, the field of positive psychology actually considers the role of negative emotions very important when it comes to making major lifestyle changes. “Some people who don’t understand it think it’s all about being happy and positive — that’s not the case at all,” says Pileggi Pawelski. “Negative emotions are essential in life. If you’re making mistakes or your diet isn’t going well, it helps to notice at those times what your weak points are and to learn from them,” she explains. Being able to recognize and acknowledge your shortcomings is what Gielan describes as “rational optimism,” or taking a realistic assessment of your body, your health and your eating habits at the present moment. “You can then make decisions based on that through an optimistic lens,” says Gielan.
Tapping into positive emotions leads to improved performance, coping and resilience.
Research out of Japan also supports the importance of negative emotions when it comes to creating positive change. In a study published in BioPsychoSocial Medicine, Japanese researchers profiled one hundred obese patients undergoing combined counseling, nutrition and exercise therapy. After six months of treatment, the researchers found that those who were able to improve their self-awareness through counseling were more likely to drop pounds than those who began the program with both high levels of optimism and self-awareness. However, the researchers concluded that having an optimistic outlook is actually likely to help maintain a healthy lifestyle over the long haul.
So how do you make the leap from that swell of negative emotions to the abundance of optimism that will carry you through towards your goals? When working with clients, Pileggi Pawelski takes a positive approach. “I don’t go in saying ‘You can’t eat this, you can’t eat that’ — it’s about feeling better and making more positive nutritional and lifestyle choices,” she says. As Sharp notes, many fat-loss interventions involve restrictive dieting, punishing exercise routines and negativity. “Accordingly, many people feel depressed, hopeless and helpless when they’re being blamed for being overweight or labeled as lazy, ill-disciplined failures,” he explains.
Instead of fixating on the negative, like what you can’t eat, the key is to focus on the positive things you can add to your life, no matter how small, that give you joy and can bring you closer to your goals. “It might be something as simple as adding a vegetable you haven’t tried, or getting more sleep — even singing in the shower or reading a good book,” suggests Pileggi Pawelski.
By introducing more positive activities into your day-to-day life, you are better able to fill a void that women especially tend to fill with food, she explains. “By incorporating more positive activities into your life, the negative habits sometimes go away,” she adds — what positive psychologists refer to as the “crowding out theory.” What’s more, practicing positive habits often leads to a cascade of positive actions. “If someone works out first thing in the morning, for example, they tend to eat better the rest of the day,” says Gielan. “Doing one good habit only spurs you to do better.”
Another thing to consider, says Gielan, is the way you frame your goals. “Are you saying, ‘I want to lose weight because I’m fat,’ or ‘I want to lose weight to feel better?’ Positivity makes you feel more motivated towards achieving your goal,” she says. As Sharp points out, “[goals] can be problematic if they include negative or unhelpful expectations.” What’s more, if we underestimate their difficulty, we can further lose our motivation to follow through in the face of obstacles. Rather, in order to boost our chances of success, our goals should be uplifting and correspond with our values, Sharp notes.
Get Happy, Get Fit
What all this means for you is that you can find your happy place well before those first signs of definition on your tummy start peeking through – and they will. “Change isn’t all-or-nothing – it’s a process,” says Pileggi Pawelski. “It’s opening the door and allowing us to discover ourselves, our strengths as well as our weaknesses.”