By Astrid Pujari, M.D.
Special to The Seattle Times
You’ve probably heard the quote, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” And when it comes to physical health, I think most doctors would agree. This is why primary-care providers spend so much time talking about things like exercising and quitting smoking. On the other hand, prevention is a radical new idea when it comes to our emotional and mental health. In conventional medicine, we seem to focus on “mental health” only when there is a problem — depression, anxiety and addiction, for example. But we spend precious little time talking to people about emotional wellness. The irony is that, in the end, most of us want to be happy, and I think medicine has made the assumption that if you aren’t depressed, you must be happy — or at least “fine,” whatever that is.
But the road to happiness is very different than the road to “not depressed.” On the road to “not depressed,” you can afford to coast, perhaps, as long as you don’t hit a major crisis or change in terrain. But the road to happiness takes hard work. Contrary to what many people would tell you, people don’t just randomly “become happy.” They work at it. They practice. They take care of their emotional health with the same attention others would give to their cholesterol or weight. This is not to say that depression and other issues are necessarily the result of poor emotional care. I believe they are real illnesses, with real biology, and even the best-laid plans can go awry. On the other hand, if we are really interested in comprehensive and holistic prevention, it is essential that we pay attention not just to our physical health, but our emotional and mental health as well.
The good news is that medicine is changing. One proof is the emerging field of “positive psychology,” the study of what brings us happiness, satisfaction and meaning in life. I read a wonderful article some time ago by Dr. Paul Hershberger, in which he describes a few simple techniques that have been shown to promote positive emotions, including happiness. Let me share a few of them with you here. (To read the article online, go to www.stfm.org/fmhub/fm2005/October/Paul630.pdf.)
Every night, write down three good things that happened during the day, and then write why you think they happened. Gratitude is a powerful way to help people move from focusing on the negative to the positive. In one small study, doing this daily for one week helped people feel less depressed up to three months later.
Share good news, as often as possible. Encourage others when they tell you good news. One researcher found that every time we share good news, we reinforce those feelings in ourselves and in others. Our relationships also tend to be stronger and more positive.
Focus on cultivating, one of the five following qualities: love, hope, gratitude, curiosity or vitality. The field of positive psychology lists 24 qualities described as character strengths. These five were found in one study to have the closest link to life satisfaction.
Don’t go for best, go for satisfactory. Instead of thinking that we need to get the latest and greatest new dishwasher — or whatever the item is — decide what the basic criteria are that you want to meet, and get the first option that meets those criteria. This approach saves emotional energy, time and “buyer’s remorse.”
Dr. Astrid Pujari is a Seattle M.D. with an additional degree as a medical herbalist; she practices at the Pujari Center and teaches as part of the residency programs at Virginia Mason and Swedish/Cherry Hill hospitals. Her column is a weekly feature in Sunday Northwest Life. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org for possible use in future columns. All information is intended for education and not a substitute for medical advice. Consult your doctor before following any suggestions given here.