Research on happiness often distinguishes between two types: affective happiness and evaluative happiness. Affective happiness is how you’re feeling now and in the recent past. It’s fairly volatile and can rise or fall quickly. Evaluative happiness measures how happy you are with your life. It tends to be more stable.
Both types of happiness fit into a broader category generally known as the hedonic theory of happiness. This is essentially the pleasure principle – we seek pleasure and avoid pain. It’s fairly straightforward and is often considered the ultimate goal in theories of positive thinking.
But let’s think critically about this. Is pleasure really all there is to happiness? When you overcome obstacles in life, doesn’t that make you happy, even if the process is painful? Can you be happy simply by thinking positively and banishing negative thoughts? Indeed, can you truly banish negative thoughts and emotions?
These questions lead to a different theory of happiness that’s often known as the eudaemonic perspective. In Western thought, the concept originated with Aristotle. The basic idea is that we should lead an actively engaged life, colored by virtue and excellent character. It’s often compared to what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow – when you’re completely immersed in what you’re doing. You harness your emotions toward a task and become completely absorbed by it.
When you’re fully engaged, negative thoughts may arise just as easily as positive thoughts. Rather than trying to suppress negative thoughts, you simply let them flow by. They’re part of who we are. In fact, they probably have some survival value. They can spur you to take action against an obstacle, do something unpleasant but necessary, or even just take your medicine.
Indeed, it may well be the case that trying to suppress negative thoughts causes us to have more of them rather than fewer. As Tori Rodriguez reports, a phenomenon called dream rebound may come into play. Researchers at the University of New South Wales divided participants into two groups. One group was asked to suppress a negative thought just before falling asleep. The other group did not try to suppress their thoughts. Those who tried to suppress their negative thoughts reported dreaming about it more frequently than those who didn’t. (Though it’s a different realm, this is similar to Jevon’s paradox).
In my experience, negative thinking produces a second-order effect. First, we have a negative thought. Second, we get wound up about having negative thoughts. OMG, am I a negative person? Why do I have such negativity?
In my opinion, the second-order effect is more damaging than the first. Of course we’re going to have negative thoughts. We can’t avoid them. In fact, they probably help us survive. The trick is to let them pass. As the Tibetans say, thinking is like writing on water. It goes away. Allowing negative thoughts to flow may not lead us to hedonic happiness but may very well stimulate eudaemonic happiness.
Does the mind influence the body or vice-versa? It seems that it happens both ways and the vagus nerve plays a key role in keeping you both happy and healthy (and creative).
Also known as the tenth cranial nerve, the vagus nerve links the brain with the lungs, digestive system, and heart. Among many other things, the vagus nerve sends the signals that help you calm down after you’ve been startled or frightened. It helps you return to a “normal” state. A healthy vagus nerve promotes resilience — the ability to recover from stress. (The vagus nerve is not in the spinal cord, meaning that people with spinal cord injuries can still sense much of their system).
The vagus also helps control your heartbeat. To use oxygen efficiently, your heart should beat a bit faster when you breathe in and a bit slower when you breathe out. The ratio of your breathing-in heartbeat to your breathing-out heartbeat is known as the vagal tone.
Physiologists have long known that a higher vagal tone is generally associated with better physical and mental health. Most researchers assumed, however, that we can’t improve our vagal tone. Some lucky people have a higher vagal tone; some unlucky people have a lower one. It’s determined by factors beyond our control.
Then Barbara Fredrickson and Bethany Kok decided to see if that was really true. Their research – published in Psychological Science – suggests that we can improve our vagal tone. By doing so, we can create a virtuous circle: improving our mental outlook can improve vagal tone which, in turn, can make it easier to improve our mental outlook. (For two non-technical articles on this research, click here and here).
In their experiment, Fredrickson and Kok randomly divided volunteers into two groups. One group was taught a form of meditation (loving kindness meditation) that engenders “feelings of goodwill”. Both groups were also asked to keep track of their positive and negative emotions.
The results were fairly straightforward: “All the volunteers … showed an increase in positive emotions and feelings of social connectedness – and the more pronounced this effect, the more their vagal tone had increased ….” Additionally, those who meditated improved their vagal tone much more than those who didn’t.
The virtuous circle seems to be associated with social connectedness, which Fredrickson refers to as a “potent wellness behavior”. The loving kindness meditation promotes a sense of social connectedness. That, in turn, improves vagal tone. That, in turn, promotes a sense of social connectedness. Bottom line: it pays to think positive thoughts about yourself and others.