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Sushama Kirtikar



"A leaner, more competitive company" screeched the headlines on July 10, 2009, about General Motors' future. An ordinary statement in itself seemed remarkable as it came on the heels of GM's bankruptcy restructuring. It is a classic design (pun intended) of positive attitude in the face of negative reality.

Positive attitude is the elixir of a long, happy life. Not only does it reflect our attitude towards life in general but toward ourselves as well. It allows us to develop interest, curiosity and exploratory behaviors, psychologists say. These are affirming words one would welcome. Have you been around people who make you smile because of their contagious joy? Negative attitude, on the other hand, feeds cynicism, boredom and avoidance. These are disclaiming words one would reject. Have you been around people who make you uncomfortable because of their complaining refrain or negative gossip?

Beyond the obvious 'feel-good' state of a positive attitude, there also is empirical evidence that proves the numerous advantages to one's overall mental and physical health. "Positive affect also produces future health and well-being," according to Dr Barbara Fredrickson, Department of Psychology, University of Michigan, in 'American Psychologist,' 2005. "The effects of positive affect accumulate and compound over time….transform individuals for the better, making them healthier, more socially integrated, knowledgeable, effective and resilient."

A positive outlook broadens our own repertoire of behaviors. In addition (get this) it expands nerve connections or neural pathways in our brain. If we think negatively most of the time, the unhealthy neural pathways in the brain can become hardened and set just like a well-worn trail in the forest that is traveled upon often. Instead, if we learn to think positively and change our perspective, we actually create new neural connections in the brain. If we walk along these new trails more often, the old ones will become faint and slowly disappear. Imagine that! We have the power to change our brain pathways. We become more creative, flexible and strong. We grow.

Michael J. Fox, actor and patient advocate for Parkinson's disease, also is known for his eternal optimism. He did a TV program that aired on May 7, 2009, which addressed "the enduring strength of incurable hope." He says, "Optimists are open to alternatives in the face of adversity and deal with reality head on." For all of you naysayers out there, I highly recommend the program. Often, it is the people tempered by misfortune who teach us how to be happy. Lance Armstrong, cycling champion and cancer survivor, is an example of one who insists that he is "a better athlete after the disease."

Now tighten your seat belts for this one: the Bhutanese government examines GNH (Gross National Happiness), promoting social networks at the family, neighborhood, community and national levels. "Joy is part of citizenship…..the end result of development should be happiness." Have you ever tried to put the two together? Perhaps, our technologically advanced countries in the mad race to outdo the other can pause for a moment. Simply being busy and running amok to get nowhere does not bode well for happiness. Perhaps, we can take a leaf or two out of Bhutan's governmental policies.

There is a stark difference between just surviving and languishing, i.e., leading a hollow and minimal life, versus, truly flourishing and thriving i.e., leading a full and optimal life. Naturally, we want the latter, more vibrant way of living. The Mayo Clinic has put out a list of benefits of positive attitude that include a healthier life style, resistance to the common cold, speedier recovery from illness or surgery, increased life span and better coping skills for dealing with stress and hardships.

Cut out the negative chatter in the head and stay positive by doing a daily self check of your thoughts, smile and laugh often, surround yourself with positive people and be gentle and encouraging to yourself. As French psychiatrist Christopher Andre declared, "Optimism is an ingredient for happiness. It is the human capacity to anticipate. In the end, it is about making an investment in your self." That has got to be a risk-free investment with guaranteed gains unlike your run of the mill speculation in, let's say, an auto industry stock.

Sushama Kirtikar, a licensed mental health counselor in private practice, can be reached at (813) 264-7114 or e-mail at

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