Happiness, Optimism, or Positivity?

Some say that we should be happier, and we should be. Others say that it helps to be optimistic, again no questions from me, we should try to as much as possible. But where does positivity fit into things and which of the three is possibly better for us?


The state of being happy, an emotional state. Making the best of what you have rather than having the best there is. A feeling of contentment. Happiness is different for each of us, it is for me the final outcome, the fruit of our labour if you like. We cannot be happy all of the time but being as happy as we can is the best that we can hope for when times get tough. Or is it?

In her book, 'The Myths of Happiness', Sonja Lyubomirsky discusses the many factors involved in happiness. The overarching message is one that we already know, what makes one person happy may not make another person happy and it is doing more of what makes you happy that is of greatest benefit for us.

However, if you have unresolved challenges, you may need to get them sorted before you can become truly happy.


"Forever the optimist", always looking for the best in everything. It is said that optimists see the glass half full rather than half empty. Nevertheless, the glass remains with less than its total capacity. What about if we saw it as a glass that once emptied, could be refilled, because that is what it is.

Optimists, similar to those who explore happiness, are looking for the good in everything. Seldom do you hear an optimist say "Lucky we didn't die", most will say "What did I learn?"

Being optimistic may change your thoughts about a situation but it won't provide you with total control. Optimism could be viewed as hoping for the best whereas it might be better to prepare for the worst so that you increase the chances of a better outcome.

Conversely, preparing for the worst involves negative thinking, looking at what could go wrong rather than what could go right. Could this make you only look for negative things?


Positivity, similar to the above two states, goes further to involve doing things that makes us happy, steering our thoughts, and controlling or changing our emotions. Barbara Fredrickson examined positivity and found it doesn't just change the content of our minds, it also widens the span of possibilities. In her book, 'Positivity', Barbara shows us that science indicates that positivity doesn't just reflect success and health, similar to happiness and optimism, positivity also produces success and health.

Barbara lists ten forms of positivity; joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe, and love. Doing any or all of these things in a meaningful way will help us greatly.

Positivity, in short, is doing what makes us happy and feeling the joy that it brings.

No matter what state you choose, happiness, optimism, or positivity, it should always be a positive one. Positivity may not be for you despite science suggesting otherwise, just trying to be happy may be enough to change you.

The challenge is though, your brain (and your mind) can tell the difference between what is genuine and what is not. A recent study found that insincere positivity puts us at risk of having a heart attack in the same way that anger does.

'Fake it until you make it' might help initially, then it is up to you to 'Make it, to make it'.

Let's talk!

Exciting Times To Get Your Brain Excited.

There have been some encouraging discoveries, developments, and confirmations in relation to how to support our mind (mental) health. Here are a few of them;

*Neuroplasticity is a good place to start. Simply described, neuroplasticity is the brains ability to form new connections, to rewire itself. If a part of the brain gets damaged, it often has the ability to form new connections, termed functional plasticity. We can also change our brain's physical structure as a result of learning, termed structural plasticity.

In his book The Secret Life of the Mind, Dr Mariano Sigman researched what predisposes our brains to change and stay changed. Heat is the answer. Simply repeating a thought over and over will not necessarily change our brains unless there is a determination (motivation) to actually make the change, when both of these work in tandem dopamine is released into our brain thus the brain becomes 'plastic' similarly to what water does to clay. Therefore, to change our brains faster for longer, it comes down to both motivation and effort.

*Epigenetics is proving to be another field of exciting development for psychology. We know that all of us are who we are from the affects of both nature (genetics) and nurture (what happens to us). Recent science, through fMRI scanning shows that we can actually turn some genes on and some off by controlling our thoughts on a specific thought. Unfortunately not all genes can be used in this way, we can't 'think' ourselves taller or to grow more hair!

*A team of engineers and physicians at the University of Southern California (USC) have recently discovered that mood variations can be decoded from neural signals in the human brain and thus by using this code, the goal is to create a technology that helps clinicians obtain a more accurate map of what is actually happening in a depressed brain at a particular moment in time. By obtaining a more objective assessment of our mood over time to guide a more directed course of treatment.

*Researchers have identified a new process in the brain that is responsible for the delayed stress response and the long-term effects of stress: with a delay of 10 minutes after the "danger" occurred, the area of the brain that reacts to stress and responsible for further action is activated via cerebral (brain) fluid. This could provide new perspectives for understanding the processes at play in post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic stress and burnout.

*Researchers are recognising more and more that the intestinal microbiota (gut microbes) affects our health. The human intestine contains tens of trillions of microorganisms and humans have developed a symbiotic relationship with these bacteria. Studies show that the intestinal microbes also influences the brain. By transferring specific microbes from the gut of a person who has had depression may help immunise others from depression. (Transferring faeces may work the same way...)

So what do all of these 'new' and encouraging discoveries, developments, and confirmations mean for the future? If we continue to advance the way that we are, brain diseases and disorders may well become less frequent and when they do occur, they can be healed much faster.

Something that is common with all of these studies that is overwhelmingly obvious, we are discovering, developing and confirming what we have always known - eating a balanced diet, exercising at least four times a week, reducing harmful habits, and having a balanced lifestyle will help us all. Furthermore, if we bring enthusiasm and effort into the mix, we increase the chances of a positive outcome.

Finally, let's not forget the huge benefits of socialisation, of talking with real people in real life. Socialisation is hardwired into us all.

Let's talk!

Depression - Caused By Our Thoughts Or A Chemical Imbalance?

Another question I get asked regularly in my resiliency coaching sessions, "Is depression caused by chemicals changing in our brain that subsequently change our thoughts, or do our thoughts change the chemicals in our brain?

Early thinking was that depression was down to a lack of mood regulation chemicals such as serotonin. The answer now is, it's not that simple. Current neuroscience suggests that while chemicals are involved in depression, it is far more complex than that.

According to the Harvard Medical School (2017), there are many possible causes of depression including not just faulty mood regulation by the brain, it is also genetic vulnerability, stressful events, medication complications, medical problems, and a few more lesser factors.

It's believed more so now that several of these forces interact to bring on depression. And, the combination that causes depression for one person may not be the same for another person. Genetics, like most things about us, is now known to play an even more important role than previously thought.

Because of advances in medical technology, it is now certain (for now at least) that three parts of the brain play a significant role in depression; the amygdala, the thalamus, and the hippocampus.

  • The amygdala, a structure deep in the brain that's associated with some emotions, is activated when a person recalls emotionally charged memories such as a frightening situation causing us to go into fight-or-flight. Activity in the amygdala is much higher when a person is sad or clinically depressed. This increased activity continues even after recovery from depression. Controlling the fight-or-flight response through breathing can reduce this activity.

  • The thalamus receives most sensory information and relays it to the appropriate part of the brain. Some research suggests that bipolar disorder may result from problems in the thalamus, which helps link sensory input to pleasant and unpleasant feelings. Studies give hope to the possibility that we may be able to change signaling within the hypothalamus to slow down the aging process and increase longevity through what we eat.

  • The hippocampus is smaller in many depressed people. Stress may be a key factor here as it is believed that stress can suppress the production of new neurons in the hippocampus. Research shows that we do have the capacity to grow new neurons above and beyond what is generally produced in our hippocampus and to make them become mature and strong within weeks and months. The best way to generate new hippocampal neurons is to exercise, both physical and mental.

There is emerging research that shows forcing ourselves to think happy thoughts may also help. We have always known that if you are having more happy thoughts than sad ones you will probably be much happier. This however, is more about your mood and is still influenced by other complexities listed above.

While neuroscience and research is advancing along with the technology used to see inside our brains, we come back to what we have always known - breathing, exercise, a good diet, and controlling our thoughts can help reduce the risk of depression.

And of course, don't forget smiling.

Let's talk!

Are They Serious Or Simply Crying Wolf?

Do people who continually threaten to commit suicide actually mean it or are they just crying wolf to seek attention? Yes is the answer to both questions.

When people are hurting, there are many reasons why they want to tell you - You hurt me so now I will hurt you, I want to share my pain with you, I am hurting and I can't or don't know how to fix it, or I want to tell you how I feel and this is the only way I know how to do so.

When we are faced with this statement for the second, third or fourth time, we begin to wonder if the person is actually serious or maybe just seeking attention. The difficulty is that it is often too hard to tell.

We can, if we are properly trained, assess people for signs that they can't consciously feign - lethargy, reduced eye contact, crying genuine tears, and looking pale - but again none of us can truly tell if the person is serious. There simply is no way of genuinely knowing if someone is going to take their life.

I have read recommendations that you should ask them directly, "Are you thinking of killing yourself and have you made a plan yet?" That might work. However, I can tell you from personal experience that a lot of people will tell you that they aren't thinking of committing suicide and don't have a plan yet go on to do so. There are others who will say yes and tell you about their plan but haven't gone through with it, yet.

The difficulty we have as the recipient of this continual message "I don't know how I can keep going", "I just want to kill myself", or "One day I won't be here" is what to do about it. It often feels like you are being emotionally blackmailed and you are left wondering if you should take the comment seriously, get help for the person, or simply ignore it.

You can eliminate the latter, never ignore it. Ignoring something is the same as sanctioning it.

You should, however, always do the first two things. Always take the comment seriously and always try to get the person some professional help. On every occasion that they suggest they are thinking about killing themselves do these two things.

Here are the reasons; we know from research that people will often make many threats of suicide and do eventually go through with it, we also know that if we push people away who want to disclose what they are thinking may make them feel isolated and fragile, and we also know that by telling someone time and time again may actually convince ourselves to go through with the threats.

On every occasion that someone suggests that they are considering suicide, no matter how it is said or how it sounds, take it seriously. The person may well be crying wolf, but we never really know for certain.

So, what should you do if a person continually says that they are struggling and can't go on? Ask them to repeat what they just said. Why, because we want to confirm that what we heard was correct and to hold the person to account by getting them to repeat it.

If they confirm it, say "I take these comments very seriously and I want to help you as I would hate to think that you told me this and I did nothing about it". This shows that you care, reinforces your concern for their safety, and again holds the person to account.

There are many organisations now providing assistance to those who are struggling. Encourage the person to get help and tell them that you will be following up with them tomorrow to see how they are. You might want to go with them which will again show that you care and won't sit idly by when they make such a comment.

If you have genuine concerns, call the police. They will initially conduct a welfare check to ensure the person is okay, (very important if the person is phoning you), and have trained crisis intervention personnel who will 'shake them and take them'. They will come and talk to the person, remove them from harm, and get them professionally assessed.

By doing all of these things, you are helping the person by listening and offering support and you are also saying that I may not be the right person who can help you. You are also indirectly saying that I don't like it when you tell me these things over and over so I will also be telling you the same thing over and over.

There is no right or wrong answer as to whether someone is crying wolf or what to do about. The main question that should be foremost in our minds - 'What happens if I push them away and they go through with their threat'.

Yes, it is their choice, well sort of. However, you don't want to be left with feelings of guilt and regret and end in the same position as the person who spoke with you.

Let's talk!

Stop Daydreaming, Start Imagining!

Studies have shown that if we allow our brains to wander without any control on our part, such as daydreaming, there is a high likelihood that it will end in a negative thought and make us feel bad. Dreams can turn into nightmares, imaginary friends into monsters, and hallucinations into bad trips.

American psychologist, Dan Gilbert, conducted a worldwide study on the physical states of happiness using an app to ask three questions at random times across each day - "What are you doing?", "What are you thinking about?" and "How are you feeling?"

This study confirmed that happiness depends not simply on what we are doing at the time, it depends more on what we are 'thinking' about at the time that we are doing it. It is not the fact that we are doing what we enjoy that makes us happy, it has more to do with what we are thinking. You could be doing something that you enjoy but be thinking about work, as an example.

Essentially, we are controlling our state of mind dependent upon whether we are controlling our lucidity.

As an aside, the things that make us most happy are; having sex, talking with friends, engaged in sports, and playing or listening to music, in that order. What makes us the least happy, again in order are; work, being at home on the computer, or travelling on public transport. (For those who may be thinking that perhaps we could have sex on public transport to make it a much happier experience, NO. Try talking with someone or listening to music when you are next on public transport).

Our degree of happiness really does depend on controlling our thoughts, we are far less happy when we allow our brains to wander freely.

But, what if we believe that we enjoy daydreaming? The question to ask yourself is, are you daydreaming or are you imagining? The latter is the case and it can be good for us. Imagining, controlling your daydream towards an outcome, excites our brain, allows it to switch on our creativity, and motivates us.

Rather than randomly daydream, 'visualise' your goals, 'think' about ways to improve your life, 'escape' into your brain by imagining yourself achieving great things. Imagination has led to many great breakthroughs in our history.

Imagining works in a similar way to mindfulness, meditation, and the myriad of other mind control techniques with the exception that we don't want to calm our brain, we want to fully engage it.

Imagine it, don't dream it, it might just happen. And, you will be much happier no matter what the outcome.

Let's talk!