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Exercise for Emotional Fitness

written by Diana Boufford 28 March 2013

Diana Boufford BSW, RSW, is a social worker employed in private practice and through a hospital in Windsor Ontario Canada. She has been working in psycho-geriatrics for nearly 15 years. She is now working in the hospital's Problem Gambling Service. This gives her opportunities to employ her clinical skills and interests in positive psychology in the course of individual, familial, and residential counselling around addictions. Diana's articles for PositivePsychologyNews.com are here.

Editor’s note: This is the fourth in the series by Diana Boufford on the well-being of the elder community. She first introduced the Comprehensive Geriatric Fitness model, then discussed Spiritual Fitness, then Family Fitness. Watch this space for future articles on Physical Fitness and Social Fitness.

When I was first exposed to Dr. Seligman’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness model described in his book, Flourish, I became very excited by the possibility that it could be applied to the geriatric and caregiver populations. I thought it could be called Comprehensive Geriatric Fitness (CGF).

I asked myself, “How can a CGF program be created to serve older persons transitioning from stage to stage in their elder years? Moving from independent living to nursing home living? How might they thrive in the process and throughout their lives? How could this apply to the professional and family caregivers?” These are questions that I am exploring in this series of articles.

Here I share with you perspectives on cultivating emotional fitness with stories showing the concepts in action.

What is Emotional Fitness?

In my view, emotional fitness is built upon the premise that even though we all have varying degrees of resilience, resilience can be increased through the development of certain habits and the practice of various exercises. With greater resilience, we will be able to navigate the inevitable challenges of life as they arrive. One such habit is cultivating positivity by making feeling good a priority and not allowing negativity to dominate.

However, we must be mindful to be authentic in our emotional experience as opposed to slapping on a happy face and denying the negative emotions we do feel. In her book, Positivity, Dr. Barbara Fredrickson defines the Positivity Ratio of flourishing as the rule of 3:1: for every negative emotion we experience, such as fear, anger, or frustration, she recommends cultivating a full expression of at least three positive emotions, such as peace, joy, gratitude, or contentment, to undo its effects. She advises us to “Lightly create the mindset of positive emotions and from this positive emotion will follow.” She further advises one to “Be open. Be appreciative. Be Curious. Be kind. Be Real.” I could not agree more. I highly recommend her explanation of the positive ratio on Youtube.

Positive Emotion in Action

I spoke to my friend Sharon Martin of Windsor, Ontario, who works as a personal support worker about emotional fitness. She finds maintaining a positive quality of mind vital to the quality of her work life, her well-being, and the well-being of the people she cares for.

“I came to recognize those of us with positive personal lives, positive attitudes, positive affirmations daily were able to give that positive energy to our clients and not be triggered by our clients’ limitations. Those of us with primarily negatives in our personal lives were very negative to our clients, and it showed in our clients’ behaviors. This became highly evident in the nursing homes that had revolving teams. Those months that a negative team took over from a positive team, I could frequently see the clients grow increasingly unhappy and negative about their daily routines. Equally when a positive team took over from a negative team, clients who were very unhappy and negative at the beginning of their three months with the new team slowly became much happier in their daily routines over the next three months of more positive energy and care.” ~Sharon Martin

The Undo Hypothesis

Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build theory of positive emotions suggests that overall functioning and growth capacities are enhanced by frequent positive emotions. According to this theory, positive emotions can broaden the scope of our though-action repertoire, including our attention, our cognitions, and our actions. Positive emotions also help us build durable physical, intellectual, and social resources. Fredrickson and Levenson also describe an Undo hypothesis that further posits that positive emotions correct or undo the negative effects of negative emotions. My friend Sharon shares another experience illustrating the Undo hypothesis.

“A senior felt very unhappy and very negative in her experience in the nursing home. She felt unlistened to, uncared for, and was increasingly shrill in her frequent requests for her needs to be met. The activities manager knew of her plight and was able to see both sides of the problem accurately. She assigned a student to spend extra time with her, doing things the senior loved to do, such as doing crosswords together, reading, and going for walks. This senior became more confident in her ability to speak up, her requests seemed less like NAGGING, and she began to compliment her caregivers.” ~Sharon Martin

Positive Emotions Push Out Negative Ones

According to Baron’s principle of Incompatible Responses, key components of positive emotions are incompatible with negative emotions. Taken together, the Broaden-and-Build, Undo, and Incompatible Responses theories can help people change their mental and physical responses to challenges that they may be experiencing in the moment.

Sharon tells the story of a very positive, happy, and enthusiastic woman who was complimentary to her caregivers. When she was asked about and complimented on her looks, clothes, hair, and jewelry she would share many stories associated with cherished possessions. Although she was in a wheelchair and very limited in her physical capabilities, she was able to maintain a regular bathroom routine. Then the 3-month team change took place. The new team was less positive and less responsive and engaging. When the positive team came back after 3 more months, she no longer wanted to chat and no longer toileted regularly. She said things like “WHAT’S THE USE?” when asked which jewelry she wanted to wear and “ANY OLD THING,“ when asked what she wanted to wear. At first, the staff defined her rapid downturn as a decrease in her mental and physical capabilities, not seeing that it might be negative caregiving that was affecting her demeanor. However the staff agreed to keep her in the care of the positive team for 6 months rather than change her team at the usual time. After 5 months she began to toilet again and became more positive in manner. She began eating regularly and engaging with her fellow seniors and lunch mates, chatting and asking questions. Although she was hesitant, there was a definite improvement.


Emotional fitness research has very significant implications for the geriatric population and the people who serve them, both professionals and families. Sharon describes her experience as a professional support worker:

“I was reminded of how hard it is to see seniors losing their mental, emotional, and physical abilities. It is definitely a hugely negative impact on the caregivers. We who do our best in a nursing home setting to give them as much positive energy and thoughts as we can…being responsible for 15 to 18 seniors in one 8 hour shift is very challenging. Taking on negatives at work through our clients, and perhaps negative at home, we would need to replace all that negative with lots of positive.” ~Sharon Martin

How to create a positive outlook

So how does one go about creating this positive outlook, this positive life style? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Cultivate gratitude. Find beauty and appreciation every day and allow the appreciation of that beauty to well up within your heart. Compliment others. Point out the beauty to others.
    One of the most important aspects of maintaining positive well-being is an old Alcoholics Anonymous saying, “Adopt an attitude of gratitude.” This means is training our minds to recognize the positive, beautiful things in everyday life. This is not just a cognitive exercise. When engaged in appreciating something, it works best to fully engage senses and allow the emotional experience of appreciation, awe, wonder, and joy to well up in you. This can be so powerful an experience, that it can carry us through a whole day.
  2. Find and maintain purpose and meaning. Having something to look forward to each day, something that is meaningful to you and/or to others, fulfills our human need to make a meaningful contribution to our own lives and the lives of others. It could be as simple as expressing appreciation of others with a smile, a touch or a compliment, or making something for the volunteer gift shop, or calling someone to say hello.
  3. Build your own personal resiliency. Push yourself a little out of your comfort zone each day, do something new, or consciously refrain from reacting negatively to situations.
  4. Use the Positivity Ratio. For every negative emotion, cultivate three, genuine, heartfelt positive emotions.
  5. Pray. Speak with God.
  6. Meditate. Listen to God or your own inner voices.

In closing and to further illustrate this most important practice, I encourage you to see a You Tube video of a woman, Alice Herz-Sommer, the oldest WWII holocaust survivor, who is 109 years old.

For more from Alice Herz-Sommer, click here.

References and recommended readings

Baron, R. A. (1976) The reduction of human aggression: A field study of the influence of incompatible reactions. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 6 (3), 260–274. Abstract.

Bonanno, G. A. & Keltner, D. (1997). Facial expressions of emotion and the curse of conjugal bereavement. J. Abnormal Psychol. 106, 126-37.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2000). Cultivating positive emotions to optimize health and well-being. Prevention and Treatment, 3.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions American Psychologist, 56, 218-226.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2004) Gratitude, like other positive emotions broadens and builds. In R. A. Emmons & M. E. McCullough (Eds.), The Psychology of Gratitude (pp. 145-166). New York: Oxford University press.

Fredrickson, B.L. & Branigan, C. (2005). Positive emotions broaden the scope of attention and thought-action repertoires. Cognition and Emotion, 19Positive emotions trigger upward spirals toward emotional well-being. Psychological Science, 13, 172-175.

Fredrickson, B. L. & Levenson, R. W. (1998) Positive emotions speed recovery from the cardiovascular sequelae of negative emotions. Cognition and Emotion, 12, 191-220.

Fredrickson, B. L., Mancuso, R. A., Branigan, C., & Tugade, M. M. (2000). The undoing effect of positive emotions. Motivation and Emotion, 24, 237-258.

Tugade, M. M., Fredrickson, B. L., & Feldman-Barrett, L. (2004). Psychological resilience and positive emotional granularity: Examining the benefits of positive emotions on coping and health. Journal of Personality, 72, 1161-1190.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: Penguin Books.

Maymin, S. & Britton, K. (2009). Resilience: How to Navigate Life’s Curves. Positive Psychology News.

Britton, K. & Maymin, S. (Eds.) (2010). Gratitude: How to Appreciate Life’s Gifts. Positive Psychology News.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. New York: Free Press.

Vaillant, G. (2003). Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development. New York: Little Brown.

Photo Credits: from Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
elderly sweethearts courtesy of adwriter
Smiling Seniors courtesy of Ward
Relaxing together courtesy of Bosquet
Grateful that I can still walk courtesy of SalFalko

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Manuella 28 March 2013 - 2:41 pm

See ‘Happiness Action Pack’

Judy Krings 29 March 2013 - 11:51 am

Jaw-dropping amazing. The video made me smile and watch it twice. Tony Robbins interviewing a Holocost victim at 108 years old and she is STILL practicing her piano 3 hours a day. It brings to mind the brain research that dancing and playing a musical instrument ward off dementia. This kind, wise, and brilliantly upbeat woman is the poster lady for gerontological success and thriving. Wow! She has been broadening and building her whole life. Terrific!

Christine Duvivier 29 March 2013 - 1:44 pm

Diana, thank you for a lovely, well-written article that is applicable to all of us, not just the elderly.


Katherine Gordy Levine 30 March 2013 - 6:57 am

Fantastic information. Will be pointing people to this on both my blog and my Emotional Fitness Pinterest Board. My newest book 12 Easy Exercises to Tame Mad, Bad, and Sad feelings was released this March on my 76 birthday. If you would like to review it, I will gladly send you an eBook edition. You can look at my Pinterest boards to get a feel for my programs.

The exercises that form the basis of Emotional Fitness Training Programs were planted during my childhood. I lived with and a slightly crazy mother in a slightly dysfunctional but loving family. Then came the years as a dysgraphic student. I survived college and graduate school, and became a social worker. Marrying and becoming a mother added to the mix. However, life as a foster parent caring for teens in trouble with the law was the official birth of my programs when my two print books were published. “When Good Kids Do Bad Things” and “Parents are People Too, An Emotional Fitness Program for Parents.” Directing mental health mobile crisis teams in the South Bronx, and teaching human behavior as an adjunct professor at Columbia University moved this child of mine into adulthood added polish to EFT. Retirement means being able to share my knowledge, hopefully most of it before my brain totally leaks away.

Marielaina Perrone DDS 31 March 2013 - 8:02 pm

Excellent well written post. Positive thinking goes a long way to leading us down a good path in life.

Michelle Jackson 1 April 2013 - 10:44 am

Diana your article was both insightful and uplifting. I plan to share it with others as a teaching and motivational reminder to all of us. Your awesome!

Latasha Mcknight 27 April 2013 - 10:01 am

The expanded cognitive flexibility evident during positive emotional states results in resource building that becomes useful over time. Even though a positive emotional state is only momentary, the benefits last in the form of traits, social bonds, and abilities that endure into the future. The implication of this work is that positive emotions have inherent value to human growth and development and cultivation of these emotions will help people lead fuller lives.


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