Think Positive

Learning emotional skills may confer better health outcomes

by Rob Zukowski

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Not long ago I was seeking out new and interesting options for continuing education to add to my existing practice. In my travels, I discovered something called Positive Psychology. My interest was piqued. I had never heard of this practice before. When I did a search for the term I came across nearly 7 million results. Of course, you will find varied definitions of what Positive Psychology is, but in summary, it is the scientific study of what makes life most worth living. It focuses on psychological science and practice to look not only at the problems we face or supposed weaknesses, but to be equally concerned with our strengths and on building those strengths. When we seek out conventional, traditional therapy, it tends to be to address specific problems in life. In that situation, the focus of our sessions is often fixing what may be “broken,” for lack of a better term. What I find most interesting about Positive Psychology is that it seeks to build upon the best things in our lives in addition to repairing the worst.

Now, I have written many times before about the clear and undeniable negative effects of stress and anxiety from a physiological point of view. I have discussed the negative impact of stress hormones on the body. We have also covered the positive effects of combating stress and how the body can return to a normal and healing state of being when we achieve stress management. There are numerous ways to combat stress. One, in particular, that we may want to consider is learning the skills that could produce positive emotions; hence, Positive Psychology.

A recent Northwestern Medicine study looked at the impact of teaching skills for positive emotions on people living with HIV/AIDS. The paper was published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. According to the study, conducted in San Francisco with participants recently diagnosed with HIV, being taught and coached to practice skills to help assist them with experiencing positive emotions, resulted in the participants showing less HIV in their blood and a decrease in the use of antidepressants.

This is believed to be the first test of a positive emotion intervention in people newly diagnosed with HIV. Based on the study results, the intervention is said to be promising for people in the initial stages of adjustment to any serious chronic illness.

Being newly diagnosed with HIV can be a very difficult experience, but the lead author of the paper, Judith Moskowitz, PhD, a professor of medical social sciences and director of research at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, said that coaching people to feel happy, calm and satisfied—what they call “positive affect”—appears to influence important health outcomes.

The study was conducted pertaining to a variety of different illnesses. The HIV-specific study had eighty, primarily male participants. The participants were taught a set of eight skills over five weekly sessions to help them experience more positive emotions. Another seventy-nine participants were in the control group. It was reported that fifteen months after the interventions, ninety-one percent of the intervention group had a suppressed viral load compared to seventy-six percent of the control group. Obviously, there is a potential benefit in a reduced viral load to the infected individual, but in addition, a reduced viral load may help decrease transmission of the virus to others.

The question is, how do you teach positivity? What skills can be used to produce positive emotions? According to the study, some of the skills that were taught were recognizing a positive event each day, savoring that positive event and logging it in a journal or telling someone about it. Starting a daily gratitude journal was another skill, one, in fact, that I do, not daily, but regularly. Other skills included listing a personal strength each day and noting how you used this strength recently and setting an attainable goal each day and noting your progress. Certainly, recognizing your progress is important.

Still more skills included reporting a relatively minor stressor each day, then listing ways in which the event can be positively reappraised. It was also noted that understanding small acts of kindness can have a big impact on positive emotion, as can practicing a small act of kindness each day. The study also noted the practice of mindfulness with a daily ten minute breathing exercise, and we have talked about breath work in previous columns.

Being “happy” or in a positive state of mind may seem simplistic, but I would venture to say that many of us chase happiness. Perhaps learning some helpful skills is the key for a shorter chase.


After a lengthy career in the arts and LGBT activism, Robert Zukowski pursued his goal of a career in complementary and alternative healthcare. He is a New York State licensed Massage Therapist, a Certified Medical Massage Therapist and is certified by the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork. In addition to his hands-on work, he is a writer and lecturer in the field of therapeutic massage therapy.