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Why it’s a bright idea to look on the bright side
  1. Penny Barker

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Penny Barker is a vet, a coach, and a trainer at VDS Training

‘Always look on the bright side of life’. Those of a certain generation may now have a particular tune running through their heads and a temptation to whistle under their breath.

But what does this famous lyric from Monty Python’s Life of Brian have to teach us about wellbeing?

While ‘looking on the bright side of life’ may seem like somewhat of a cliché, having a positive outlook can benefit both our medium- and long-term physical and mental health. It can also make us feel better in the moment.

This section is supported by the VDS and is aimed at improving the efficiency and wellbeing of vets. Encouraging you to have a more balanced life outside of work.

Research published in a range of academic journals has shown that positive emotions can lower blood pressure, increase vagal tone and decrease our susceptibility to infection.

Such emotions also activate reward pathways deep within the ventral striatum of the brain which in turn sustains those feelings of wellbeing; the longer the activation, the higher the levels of wellbeing and the lower the levels of cortisol.

What the research also clearly shows is that there are tools we can all use to improve our mental wellbeing and increase our resilience. As Richard J. Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry and founder of the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Center for Healthy Minds, puts it: ‘Wellbeing can be considered as a life skill. If you practise, you can actually get better at it.’

How much better could you feel if you put some purposeful practice into emotional mastery? To be clear: harnessing the power of positive thinking doesn’t involve banishing negative emotions from life completely. That is unrealistic and unnecessary as negative emotions can keep us safe and remind us of what’s important in life.

But as a 2009 paper in the journal Emotion showed, simply focusing on the small moments of happiness is enough to bolster resilience and wellbeing. The key is being present in the moment to notice those moments. By opening ourselves up to positive emotions, it helps us develop mental flexibility and build resources that help us deal better with adversity and stress and to continue to grow.

Taking time to appreciate birdsong on a walk, savouring a cup of coffee, laughing with a colleague or feeling grateful for a loved one are all little things that can create bigger ripples in our wellbeing.

Too often happiness is something we are waiting for – the weekend, a holiday – or striving for (‘I’ll be happy when I do x or have y’).

Rather than ruminating on the past or rushing forwards to the future, press pause and be purposeful. Take time to be here and tap into what’s good right now and bring the power of positive to yourself and those around you. You should find your wellbeing – and that of others – increases as a result.

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