Hugh Winig

peering at nature through hands creating a heart shape

By Hugh Winig, M.D.
Dr. Winig is a retired psychiatrist and longtime OLLI @Berkeley member and volunteer.

The term positive psychology means consciously altering one’s mind to experience things through a positive perspective, not in a fixed or negative way. This conscious effort of shifting perspective to the positive is important during these difficult times we are living through. Simply keeping up with the daily news can challenge us to have a strategy to deal with all the negative things that we hear yet cannot control. 

Positive psychology is a “long game." It is not an immediate remedy for problems but if done repeatedly can build emotional strength by tapping the neuroplasticity which empowers us with long term emotional resilience by creating positive alterations in our brain’s neurochemistry.

The key to positive psychology and resultant neuroplasticity lies in controlling one’s mind to feel gratitude rather than despair. Our neurochemistry can even be altered long term if we exert this control regularly over time, and it can also result in an improved mood and reduction in anxiety immediately.

This main strategy is to consciously feel awareness of and gratitude for the life we were gifted, the natural world we live in, and, as an example, the miracle that our heart can beat 100,000 times every 24 hours to keep us alive. As a result, the negative circumstances in today’s world can be viewed as transient happenings that will pass. Taking the time to shift one’s perspective from the negative to the positive can turn a day of feeling despondent and hopeless into one of feeling the joy of being alive. 

An example of this practice might be when one initially feels inconvenienced on a rainy day to shift to appreciating the miracle of rainfall as the phenomenon of undrinkable salty ocean water evaporating into clouds of purified water which then drift over the land to replenish the earth in a way that nourishes our plants and provides the essential drinkable water for all of life to be able to exist. In so doing, one can turn an inconvenience into a blessing worthy of gratitude.

Practicing this process of positive psychology regularly can lead to an ongoing focus on the miracle of life itself. The philosopher, psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl (author of Man’s Search for Meaning) wrote: “life is essentially testing us, and the answer is in how one responds.” Frankl felt that human nature is motivated by the search for living with a sense of purpose. For example, as a coping strategy while he was imprisoned in the Auschwitz death camp, the place where his mother had already been killed and where he potentially faced the same fate, he would focus on setting the table for dinner every day for himself and his co-prisoners. 

If one can consciously celebrate the good fortune of having the one life we are given, as well as practice gratefulness and humility as part of positive psychology, the neuroplasticity of our mind can lead to emotional resilience both immediately and long term. These benefits are well worth the effort. And for seniors, an example of practicing positive psychology would be to keep one’s focus on extending their “health span” by living daily as fully as possible and not focus on the inevitable physical toll that accompanies normal aging.

Hugh Winig, M.D. is a retired psychiatrist, the author of a book of short stories and a book of humanistic aphorisms, and a longtime OLLI @Berkeley member and volunteer. He was a founding Trustee of the Lafayette Library and Learning Center and a past President of the East Bay Psychiatric Association.