The Happiness Diet: The Power of Positivity for Weight Loss

Today’s article is by Professor Timothy Sharp, the Chief Happiness Officer of The Happiness Institute, in Sydney, Australia, devoted to enhancing happiness in individuals, families and organizations. His work was recently featured on an Australian reality television series entitled, “House of Food Obsessives.” 

mm mm pie by Loving Earth

Having spent many years working with people trying to find happiness (and achieve various forms of success) I’ve discovered that one of the main obstacles to happiness is what I’ve come to call “the tyranny of when”.

”The tyranny of when” is the phenomenon we’ve all experienced at some time or another when we say to ourselves (or to others,) “I’ll be happy when…when I have more money, when I have a bigger house, etc.”  Or the biggest one I’m hearing in the era of global obesity–“I’ll be happy when I lose weight.”

The problem for many people is that (for a variety of reasons) they never get there; and even if they do, they then think of something else that they “need” before they can really feel happy. Bigger houses, bigger mortgages, snazzier cars, the bigger, better super duper slice of pizza drowned in four different cheeses.

Psychologists refer to this as the ”hedonic treadmill”  to show how we’re constantly running, as though on a treadmill chasing that carrot, and never actually getting anywhere! As a result, we don’t every really get to experience as much joy or satisfaction as we’d like. And in fact we just feel left frustrated, disappointed and downright miserable.

There is no other aspect of our lives where the “hedonic treadmill” is more evident than in our modern day eating behaviours. We can supersize our movie meals for just 50 cents more. McDonald’s and their “Golden Arches” are now officially more widely recognized as a cultural icon than the Christian cross. These days, we’re served up pasta on gigantic plates – enough not only to give us the Dolmio grin, but the double (and triple) chins to go with it. And compared to the standard family bottle of soft drink of the 1960’s, which was a mere 750mls, today we’re consuming super duper 3 litre ones.

Of course to combat the growing problem, most popular diet interventions include a lot of pill popping, restrictive eating, punishing exercise routines, and negativity.  Our approaches to weight loss are often punitive and even insulting. Accordingly, many people feel depressed, hopeless and helpless when they’re blamed for being overweight or labelled as lazy, ill-disciplined failures!

So how is my approach different?

Whereas most diets propose that if you lose weight then you’ll be happy; The Happiness Diet proposes that if you get happy first then you’ll lose weight.    

And the good news is this isn’t something I just made up, it’s based on a growing groundswell of scientific literature which supports the “positivity” approach to weight loss (see, for example, Barbara Fredrickson’s research on the “Broaden and Build” theory of positive emotions.  

Traditionally, psychologists have focused on negative emotions and as a result we know quite a bit about how they affect us. In short, when we experience negative emotions (such as fear or anxiety) we close up. We tend to withdraw physically and psychologically and as a result, we tend not to cope as well.

In contrast, the more modern psychological science of positivity shows that positive emotions lead to improved performance, coping and resilience via the broadening of our minds and the increased capacity to build on previous experiences.

What this means for your weight loss is that positive emotions are not just nice; but they can reprogram the automatic negative food messages your brain gives your body about food. In other words, when those chocolate biscuits say “eat me . . . eat me” – you’ll be able to talk right back to them!

The findings on positivity are profound – not just for weight loss, but for all areas of life.

Positivity means that now, rather than succumbing to the tyranny of when, we can utilise “the power of then”. We can leverage off the idea that if we can create happiness first THEN we can achieve more of our goals.

How great would that be? We get to enjoy the wonders of positive emotions both before and after succeeding in our efforts? We also get to achieve optimum nutritional health; and to get the body we’ve always dreamed of.

So there it is; don’t wait until you succeed before you find happiness…find ways to make yourself happy first and then discover real weight loss success!

You can learn more about Dr. Timothy Sharp and The Happiness Diet at his website:  www.thehappinessdiet.com.au

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12 Responses to The Happiness Diet: The Power of Positivity for Weight Loss

  1. Lisa Sansom January 14, 2011 at 11:11 am #

    Although this isn’t my area at all, I have a little story to share from my own coaching practice. I had a woman client who was miserable. She was not happy in her marriage, she was not happy in her work and she was not feeling supported from friends or family. Through coaching, we determined that she needed to be a bit more selfish and she set out to do a few things that put her first – she got into some activities that she used to love and had let fall by the wayside, she read books that she enjoyed, she went out dancing, and so on. She still kept up with all of her family and work duties, but she felt more energized to do them as a result of putting herself first. Most surprisingly, she lost over 20lbs without trying. Just being happy and energized made her somehow naturally take better care of herself. (As a side story, her husband saw how happy she had become – and healthier – and admonished her for having an affair. She has since left him… and become even happier!)
    Intriguing post!
    Lisa

  2. Marie-Josee Shaar January 14, 2011 at 11:42 am #

    Really love how you’ve changed the “power of when” into the “power of then”! And I couldn’t agree with you more!

    My own work is entirely based on how good (i.e., sound, pleasant, sustainable) sleep, food, mood and exercise habits are all mutually reinforcing – and how looking at the whole rather than the parts helps us be healthier, happier and more productive.

    You mentioned the empirical evidence behind your power of when, and it’s certainly very important. There is also a lot of interesting physiological evidence supporting your model (ex: being happy increases serotonin production, which in turn reduces cravings).

    Very good post!

    MarieJ

  3. Prof. Tim Sharp January 14, 2011 at 4:24 pm #

    Thanks for sharing that fascinating story, Lisa, and thanks Marie-Josee for the positive feedback.

  4. Louisa Jewell January 15, 2011 at 10:38 pm #

    Hi Jeremy,
    So many people are waiting to be happy. You are so right. I have learned that setting goals is not helpful for me – instead I set goals around changing habits, as Marie Josee mentions. If I force myself to practice my self regulation muscle and get up every morning and exercise, I feel great all day. But when I’m feeling depressed, it’s so hard to get out of bed. Instead, when I’m happy, I’m energized! Often we think energy to do things comes from food and sleep – but psychological energy is also required – and happiness can be the fuel.
    Louisa

  5. Jeremy McCarthy January 17, 2011 at 4:15 pm #

    Hi Lisa, great story and example. I think what Tim does is prevent or even reverse the downward spiral that people get into of feeling unhappy about their weight and the unhappiness causes them to lose energy and motivation which makes them gain more weight, which makes them unhappier, etc. Your story sounds like it describes an upward spiral that allowed someone to move in the right direction in all aspects.

  6. Jeremy McCarthy January 17, 2011 at 4:16 pm #

    Louisa, I hope you are going to join us on the Mind-Body SIG call this week because Marie-Josee will be speaking about exactly that kind of energy and how to manage it. Also, want to make sure you realize this article was not written by me but by Dr. Timothy Sharp whom I’m sure you have heard of or from in Positive Psychology circles.

  7. Jeremy McCarthy January 17, 2011 at 4:22 pm #

    Hi Marie-Josee, your comment reminds me of the Wellbeing book by Rath (which I wrote about here: http://psychologyofwellbeing.com/201010/the-5-elements-of-wellbeing.html) and a follow up article on “Diversification of Wellbeing” here: http://psychologyofwellbeing.com/201011/diversification-of-wellbeing.html. One of the things Rath said is that true wellbeing comes into play when we see increases in all areas of our lives. I actually see more and more fitness/wellness groups moving towards something that looks like your model so I really think you are ahead of your time the way you look at your clients’ entire lifestyle and how they all interact. A lot of people want to provide simple solutions that don’t always take into account the complexity of the human animal!

  8. Marie-Josee Shaar January 17, 2011 at 4:44 pm #

    Thanks for your feedback, J!

    I agree that people try to avoid complexity, but I think it’s when we look at things in isolation that it gets complicated! For example, if exercise is a problem for you, then looking at it to find a solution won’t come easy. It’s real tough to find a solution in an area of weakness; it’s much easier to make progress when we can count on other areas of life to help us progress. My approach requires a little bit more knowledge prior to use, but at least the user doesn’t end up banging his head against the wall!

    Cheers!
    MarieJ

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  11. used cars in colorado March 5, 2011 at 11:15 am #

    I to had this same problem of “When”. Growing up as a little boy I was always skinny. At 14 years of age I was 6’5″ tall and weighed 165 pounds. People nicknamed my JJ from Goodtimes, the TV show. I was unhappy with my weight. Now as as grown man I am 6’5″ tall and 240 pounds, all muscle and still not happy with my size until recent. I am finally convinced that my size is good hence I am happy.
    This is a very good article.

  12. I like your blog very much March 10, 2011 at 1:25 pm #

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