The Power of Positivity for Teen Mental Health

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Has anyone ever told you that all you need to do is “stay positive” and everything will work out? Optimism is a wonderful quality, but creating positivity requires more than hoping for the best. Rather, it’s an ongoing practice of cultivating positive emotions in every aspect of life.

According to Barbara Fredrickson, a leading researcher in the field of positive psychology, we need a steady diet of good experiences and happy feelings to flourish. She uses the phrase “micro-moments of positive emotion” to describe the everyday habits and attitudes that make us happier and support our mental health.

For kids, who are still learning how to regulate their teen emotions, it’s especially important to start building new ways of thinking and acting that can stay with them for the long term. Furthermore, positive routines and relationships can protect teens from mental health disorders like anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. In addition, it can help them restore their mental health if they are in recovery.

The “Broaden and Build” Theory of Positive Emotions

When we do things that we enjoy, especially things that are good for us, we feel happier. But it also works the other way around: Feeling happy makes us want to do things that are good for us and that we enjoy. Fredrickson calls this the “broaden and build” theory of positive emotions. Essentially, it is a positive feedback loop. Here’s how it works:

  1. Positive emotions (such as love, joy, and contentment) result in a broader range of thoughts and actions. When we feel positive emotions, we have a stronger desire to explore our world, be playful, and savor our experiences.
  2. New thoughts and actions lead to positive discoveries. For example, when we explore, we unearth new ideas; when we play more, we strengthen our social bonds.
  3. These discoveries, over time, help develop our physical, psychological, and social resources. For example, we might build better problem-solving skills or healthier relationships.
  4. Personal growth in these areas produces more positive emotions, continuing the cycle of well-being.

“Transformation that lasts is based on love and connection.”

Michel Mennesson, Psychiatrist at Newport Academy

Newport Academy Teen Mental Health Resources Positivity Love

The most significant of all positive emotions, Fredrickson says, is love. Therefore, surrounding ourselves with people who truly see us and support us is an essential key to happiness. Furthermore, for teens, that means friends who encourage them rather than competing with them. In addition, it means family members who offer unconditional love and mentors who guide them in wise and appropriate ways.

But we can also experience positive connections with people we don’t know well, or don’t know at all. For example, when you offer your barista a heartfelt thank-you, or let the person behind you in line at the grocery store go ahead of you because they only have two items. Fredrickson says that positive exchanges like these actually enhance our overall well-being.

“Love is our supreme emotion that makes us come most fully alive and feel most fully human. It is perhaps the most essential emotional experience for thriving and health.”

—Barbara Fredrickson, Love 2.0

Newport Academy Teen Mental Health Resources Positivity Gratitude

Gratitude and Mental Health

Another powerful positive emotion is gratitude. Research by Fredrickson found that people who cultivated gratitude in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks showed more resilience against depression. Thus, for those recovering from mental health challenges or substance use disorders, an “attitude of gratitude” can help them move forward. Teens don’t naturally gravitate to gratitude, so they need to find ways to bring this positive emotion to the forefront.

“Gratitude can serve as a huge catalyst for maintaining resilience and well-being. When an individual is able to identify areas of their life they are grateful for, this creates a domino effect of hope and courage, giving them motivation to keep doing the difficult work they are doing.” Chelsea Reeves, Director of Alumni Services at Newport Academy, and a certified empowerment coach and alcohol and drug counselor

Here are a few ways that gratitude is woven into the Newport Academy approach, from the moment teens wake up until they go to bed at night:

  • Setting positive intentions at the breakfast table each morning
  • Collaborating with peers in a music therapy or adventure therapy session
  • Feeling the animal-human connection in an equine therapy session
  • Appreciating their body’s strength and ability in a yoga class
  • Making a gratitude list as a reminder of what went well that day.

Teen Positivity and Finding Our Strengths

It’s important for teens to push past their fear in order to experience new things. However, it’s just as important for them to know where their natural strengths and abilities lie. Understanding and using our strengths builds self-esteem and a sense of accomplishment that can be applied to almost any situation in life.

“At Newport Academy, I learned to develop my passions—like drawing. When I put pen to paper, I feel like I have a purpose. I feel less tense, and I’m able to get out all these feelings I can’t express with words. I feel like I’m creating something beautiful.” —Dallas, Newport Academy alumna

Along with innate talents and abilities, we all have inner strengths that express themselves in different ways. Positive psychologist Martin Seligman, clinical psychologist Neal Mayerson, and scientist Christopher Peterson extensively studied the impact of character strengths on happiness and well-being. Their work is the foundation of the VIA Institute on Character and the VIA Classification of Character Strengths, which lists 24 character strengths that we all have in less or greater amounts.

Find out your top character strengths: Take the VIA Institute’s free survey.

Knowing our character strengths can help us manage our problems, enhance our health and well-being, and improve our relationships on a day-to-day basis. Research shows that harnessing our strengths can buffer us from vulnerabilities that lead to depression and anxiety, and also assist in recovery from depression. Introducing character strengths early in life has been shown to be beneficial: In a study of 319 students ages 12 to 14, scientists found that adolescents who participated in exercises based on character strengths experienced significantly increased life satisfaction compared to adolescents who did not participate in the exercises.

Creating New, Positive Habits

According to positive psychologists, we don’t usually create long-term happiness and well-being by making one big, life-changing decision. Instead, happiness is the result of making many small, positive changes in our daily life. Therefore, in order to bolster mental health, teens need to establish new, healthy habits to replace negative coping mechanisms like substance abuse or self-harming behaviors. Simultaneously, they need to address the roots of these negative behaviors.

The latest research indicates that it takes 66 days to build a habit. It’s all in the repetition. Doing something over and over again builds a habit. Consequently, teens can create good habits by committing to doing something every day, and sticking to it.

The 5 Rs of Breaking Bad Habits and Building Healthy Ones: Tips for Teens

  • Recognize what triggers you to fall into a routine that’s not good for you. Is there a particular situation or relationship that sets you off? Parents can help by gently helping teens notice their behavior patterns.
  • Replace a bad habit with a good one. If you’re trying to break a habit, make sure you find a healthier routine or hobby as a substitute. For example, teens who have a habit of eating sugary foods in the morning or after school can substitute a smoothie or another healthy snack. Parents can help by making sure teens have lots of healthy options to choose from.
  • Remind yourself why you want to create the new habit. Make a list of all the reasons why you want to maintain this new routine, and why it will make you happy. Look back at the list when you need encouragement to follow through.
  • Reward yourself in healthy ways with your new habit. In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg looks at MIT research revealing that every habit has a reward—what we get out of the routine. Make sure your new routine offers a reward that enhances well-being.
  • Reach out to a friend, family member, or even an acquaintance who wants to make or break the same habit. Research on building new exercise habits shows that having a buddy increases your chance of success. Parents and siblings can serve as a support system for teens when everyone does the new activity together.

Watch Gina share her experience with positivity and gratitude as an outlet to positive mental health.

Photos courtesy of Unsplash