About a decade and a half ago, I lost 50 pounds over the course of two years. People frequently asked me how I’d done it and were uniformly dismayed to hear that I hadn’t tried to. They wanted calorie-reducing tips, yoga-class recommendations and diet endorsements. Some of them probably wanted to hear how I suffered, sacrificing dinners out and desserts for early-morning marathon training sessions. But I didn’t do any of those things. And at first, I really didn’t know why I was slowly but surely slimming down. But the real reason behind my weight loss became increasingly clear: I was getting happy.
At the time, in my early to mid-20s, I had good friends and an incredible family, and I was living out my dream of working in magazines in New York City. But I was also caught in a self-destructive cycle of overeating, social hibernating and general self-loathing since high school. With each year on (what I would learn was) that depression-fueled hamster wheel, I gained more weight. My attempts to lose it were all failures, and my blues and social anxiety worsened.
Finally I made a therapist appointment. On my editorial assistant salary, I found a teaching psychiatric clinic that allowed patients to pay on a sliding scale. For me, the road out of that deep rut was a combination of an SSRI—a common medication for depression—and talk therapy. My negative cycle became a positive one: I was more motivated to go out with friends, which meant I wasn’t home with takeout Chinese food and popcorn. After losing a few pounds, exercising felt more fun. I naturally started making healthier choices, which led to even more. I was lightening up, emotionally and physically.
Yes, diet and exercise are the basics behind losing body fat, but now experts are saying that optimism and happiness should be given equal… er… weight in America’s efforts to battle the bulge and get healthy. The Positive Health research initiative, a project from the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania and led by Martin Seligman, Ph.D., is proving that my experience wasn’t—and shouldn’t be—uncommon. Seligman and his team are finding that your emotional well-being can have just as much to do with your weight and health as what you eat. Are you looking for a new approach?
Standard strategy: Examine your diet and exercise habits.
New approach: Examine your mental health.
Depression doesn’t necessarily lead to weight gain (in fact, depression can cause weight loss, which is equally concerning), and weight gain doesn’t necessarily lead to depression, although a 2010 meta-analysis of 15 studies found that obesity is a major risk factor for depression and vice versa. The hypothalamus, a part of the brain located just above the brainstem, plays a large role in both mood regulation and appetite, which makes it a tough trick to separate the two. Trying to control your eating habits may prove difficult without first getting a hold on your emotional state. Talk to family, friends and health professionals about getting the help you need.
It’s not just about depression, though. Elevating your well-being, even if you’re already doing OK, can make a difference, says Darwin Labarthe, M.D., Ph.D., a Positive Health team member and professor of preventive medicine at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. It can’t be a coincidence that four of the top-10 least obese states (Colorado, Hawaii, Montana and Minnesota), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also make the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index top-10 list of happiest states.
Standard strategy: Embark on an all-encompassing diet and exercise regimen.
New approach: Let it snowball.
Positive psychologists often talk about “upward spirals,” in which one positive change leads to another. Your first step doesn’t have to be signing up for an intense diet or hiring a personal trainer. Start with a small behavioral change like writing in a gratitude journal once or twice a week (see below) or going for a walk one morning, and allow time for more healthy behaviors to follow. The feel-good endorphins released during your walk, for example, might encourage you to take the stairs or work in your garden later. Tooling around in your garden, in turn, may work to reduce your stress, which has been shown to increase weight gain, particularly around the abdomen. Once you lose a pound or two, you may be motivated to go for more.
Standard strategy: Be scared of what will happen if you don’t lose weight.
New approach: Get excited about what will happen if you do.
“In the future, we won’t just talk about calories, exercise and medications [when it comes to healthy weight],” Labarthe says. “We’ll talk about optimism.” Optimism has been linked with multiple measures of good health, not the least of which is a longer life span. When the Harvard School of Public Health studied nearly 1,000 middle-aged men and women, researchers found that participants who scored high on self-reports of optimism ate more healthfully and maintained healthier body mass indexes (BMIs) than those with less sunny attitudes. They also had better lipid profiles, with higher HDL levels (the “good” cholesterol) and lower triglycerides.
Half of all Americans want to lose weight, according to a Gallup Well-Being survey, but only a quarter of us are actually trying to do so. Perhaps the missing motivator is optimism? After all, to lose weight, you have to believe that you can.
Standard strategy: Count calories.
New approach: Count your blessings.
In a study published in the journal Current Cardiovascular Risk Reports, researchers found that those with higher levels of what they called positive psychology well-being (PPWB, or the positive thoughts, feelings and expectations a person has about her or his life) were more likely to engage in healthy behaviors such as exercising and eating a balanced diet. One of the most promising “interventions” for promoting PPWB and subsequent healthy behavior, according to the authors? Expressing gratitude. Jotting down a few things you’re grateful for—your dog, your new sneakers, the hug from your child before he left for school—helps you focus on all that’s great about your life. And that positive focus is a big part of optimism.
Standard strategy: Feel bad about fat.
New approach: Feel good about fitness.
One of the first major findings to come from the Positive Health research project: “Fitness is far more important than fatness as a contributor to overall health,” states its 2010 white paper. Work on increasing your level of physical activity—taking the stairs, walking instead of driving when you can, going for a family bike ride instead of watching TV—with a focus on being fit, not losing weight. If the weight comes off as a side effect… well, that’s something to note in your gratitude journal, isn’t it?