The holidays can be stressful. For me personally, I consume more candy, cookies, wine, and rich food over the two weeks surrounding Christmas than I do the entire rest of the year combined. I also exercise less, since I am frantically trying to keep up with real life while I also plan, shop, decorate, wrap presents, cook, and deal with the sensory overload of too many people in not enough space. Even if they are all people I love, which is not always the case, it gets emotionally tiring to be cheerful when you would prefer to sneak out of the house.
This rush of demands and activity is complicated by constant images of what holidays, families, and life are supposed to be like that fill every media channel. It’s a very human habit to hold up our own life against other, often unreasonable, standards that we see every day. From Father Knows Best and “Happy Days” to It’s a Wonderful Life, we see families helping and supporting each other in ways that we all would like. We see ’s ideal Christmas dinner, Brad and Angelina’s twins in their $60 million French chateau, Oprah’s , and doing his holiday shopping. It’s pretty easy to fixate on what’s not right in our lives by comparison and feel, frankly, a little (or a lot) depressed.
Research shows that thoughts and feelings like these matter to how we feel. Cognitive psychology shows that they are, however, reciprocal, not unidirectional (i.e. Being down causes bad thoughts, but bad thoughts can cause feeling down, too.) Positive psychology focuses on using that cycle to turn things around by focusing on the positive and has been shown empirically to improve how we feel. Some good resources that talk about this phenomenon and techniques to help overcome negative moods include Christine Padesky’s Mind Over Mood, Martin Seligman’s Authentic Happiness, David Burns The Feeling Good Handbook and my friend Darlene Mininni’s The Emotional Toolkit.
Described simplistically, the goal is to recognize your negative thought patterns and habits and to refocus on the positive. Since the media contributes to many of the standards by which we measure ourselves, it is great when media can be used in positive ways to counteract some of the all-too-human tendency to judge harshly.
Cinematherapy is a a popular use of media for therapeutic ends. Therapists sometimes advise clients to watch movies to experience emotion and to see models of successful relationships and behaviors. More often, however, we “prescribe” our own treatment by watching a favorite movie to lift our spirits or provide solace. One of my personal favorites is the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice. (Read this article on Positive Psychology at the Movies that describes positive psychology in detail and provides a list of movies that target particular strengths.)
Video games, unlike movies, are interactive. Interactivity demands that we engage and emotionally invest, thereby increasing the potential for learning. One great example is a game called Mind Habits that was developed to improve self-confidence and reduce stress by strengthening optimism and positive thinking. It is available for purchase online and through Amazon but you can try a MindHabits Demo for free.
This game is based on scientifically-tested techniques based on cognitive and positive psychologies and learning theory. It promotes optimistic thinking by reinforcing your positive aspects. The games also increase sensitivity to the positive elements in your environment rather than the negative, reinforced by repetition. The effect is cumulative, so the game experience teaches your brain to become more optimistic and less stressed. I played the games through the fall and again before the holidays. My personal favorite, The Matrix, shows you a series of faces and has you identify the smiling ones.
Mind Habits reminded me how easy it is to key into negative rather than positive imagery. We are learning from biology and neuroscience research that humans have higher sensitivity to negative images. Historically identifying lions and tigers was much more important to our daily survival than identifying flowers on the Savannah. It is sobering to realize how much our survival skills can contribute to keeping our focus on the “glass half-empty” rather than “half-full.” I also like that Mind Habits provides ways to monitor your progress. The website also has links to research, if you’re nerdy like me and enjoy that stuff.
Human evolution does not keep up with the speed of technological development. In today’s world, we are most effective when we are able to focus on positive and optimistic events in the world around us and are not preoccupied or incapacitated with anxiety and stress. The ability to be optimistic allows us to recognize opportunities, innovate, and risk. Optimism leads to increases in our physical and emotional health, our productivity at work and play, and our sense of well-being. Give Mind Habits a try and let me know if you think this media application works!