Using positive psychology to cope with chronic illness

Is it possible to use positivity as a drug?

When someone has a more positive outlook on life, their brain is more engaged, motivated and productive – ultimately improving their health.

Shawn Achor, a Harvard researcher and author of The Happiness Advantage, spoke with Dr. Manny Alvarez, senior managing health editor of, about the science behind positive psychology, a method to help people cope with chronic illnesses.

“It’s the joy we feel striving towards our potential,” Achor said of his method.  “The reason we love this definition is because part of what it does is takes away from the momentary pleasures we can feel.  You can feel ups and downs in your life based on work or based upon a chronic illness, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re happy.”

Achor is the head psychologist at Everday Matters, a program developed by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and the biotechnology company Genzyme, which chronicles the journeys of five people living with MS as they overcome their health challenges through positive psychology.

“They want to make positive psychology – the tools we’ve been learning about, how we can raise people’s levels of happiness – we want to find ways to make them more practical,” Achor said.

Multiple sclerosis is a disabling disease of the central nervous system, which interrupts the flow of information within the brain and between the brain and the rest of the body.  Symptoms range from numbness and tingling to blindness and even paralysis.  More than 400,000 people in the U.S. are currently living with MS, with more than twice as many women as men being diagnosed.

Michelle Clos, another life coach at Everday Matters, has been living with MS for 21 years and has benefited from utilizing positive psychology.  She realized she needed to change her way of thinking after she let the fear of not be able to walk to consume her thoughts.

“I decided I’m not going to take an inventory every day when I get up to see what’s wrong,” Clos said.  “I’m going to take an inventory to be grateful that I can walk.  And then I’m going to learn how to run, and I’m going to focus on the positive.”

Clos felt this way of thinking significantly helped her social well-being along with her physical well-being.  She hopes to use her experience to help others get through their struggles.

Achor has developed numerous tips and exercises for people looking to incorporate positive psychology into their lives:

- 3 Gratitudes: Every day for three weeks, write down three things that you are grateful for.  According to Achor, this exercise ‘rewires the brain for optimism.’

- The Doubler:  Every day for three weeks, spend two minutes writing down a very detailed description of something positive that has happened to you within the past 24 hours. Since brains do not often distinguish between visualization and actual experience, this exercise doubles that meaningful moment.

- The Fun Fifteen: Spend 15 minutes a day doing a fun, mindful activity such as gardening or going for a walk.  According to Achor, performing such pastimes is the equivalent of taking an antidepressant with 30 percent relapse over two years.

Click for more about positive psychology and Everyday Matters.