The power of positive psychology: finding happiness in a cold ocean swim

Kay Cahill Allison

Former Editor, Harvard Health

While swimming in the frigid ocean off the coast of Maine a few days ago, I entered what psychologists call a flow state. It felt like a million bucks.

Here’s what happened: On a hot Sunday afternoon, I walked into the Atlantic off Cape Elizabeth. Although the water was painfully cold, it was sparkling and exhilarating. I began to swim. The activity absorbed all my attention. It completely squelched other thoughts and worries. And it made me happy for hours afterward.

Experts in the burgeoning field of positive psychology hold that people usually guess wrong about what will bring them happiness. Money, for example (beyond enough to cover life’s basic needs) doesn’t predict happiness. Instead, according to the new edition of Positive Psychology, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School, researchers are identifying a number of elements they say contribute to a sense of happiness and well-being. One is engaging in flow experiences, a term coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University in California.

To experience flow is to achieve a state of intense absorption in which you lose awareness of time. It occurs when you strike the right balance between challenge and skill. If the task is too challenging for your level of skill, anxiety creeps in. If your skill level exceeds the challenge, boredom sets in. Swimming in the cold surf of Maine posed a challenge for me, but I’m a competent swimmer and had experience in cold water. I swam with a partner for only a short time to avoid hypothermia. It was fun. It made me happy. (You can read more about flow in the online excerpt of the Positive Psychology report.)

The happiness‑health connection

Achieving happiness may be more important to your health than you think. In a 2008 review of studies on happiness and longevity, Dutch sociologist Ruut Veenhoven found that happiness appears to protect against illness. In 19 research projects involving populations chosen independently of their health status, ratings of mood, happiness, and life satisfaction at the beginning of a study had a large and positive impact on the chance a person was alive at the end of the follow-up period. The most satisfied people gained an extra 7.5 to 10 years of life. That life extension is equivalent to giving up cigarettes by age 35.

In Positive Psychology: Harnessing the Power of Happiness, Personal Strength, and Mindfulness, Harvard faculty editor Ronald Siegel and contributing psychologist Steven M. Allison explore both time-tested and modern avenues to happiness. The report describes many paths to happiness (curiously, swimming in a cold ocean isn’t among them), including:

  • Expressing gratitude
  • Living life with meaning
  • Finding and using your inner character strengths
  • Putting mindfulness to use toward well being
  • Savoring pleasure
  • Achieving flow experience
  • Developing self compassion

The report is available at


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  3. Today, while I was at work, my sister stole my iphone and tested to see if it can survive a 40 foot drop, just so she can be a youtube sensation. My iPad is now broken and she has 83 views. I know this is completely off topic but I had to share it with someone!

  4. Happiness

    Happiness is just a state of mind of what you are thinking. If you think positive then you’ll defintely become happy. And lastly happy new year….

  5. Paul

    I enjoyed reading this article.

  6. johh53

    This is a very interesting article. I agree that it’s important to think positive and to be happy. Whatever we think we become.

  7. Heather Smith

    We must always concentrate on the positive outcome to achieve the results we want.Happines is a part of being healthy. Thanks for this positive and wonderful post.

  8. Delpa

    I really like what you’re doing here. Keep posting that way. Take care!

  9. Pamela Ritche

    Hi, provides helpful and accurate consumer health information about the side effects that typically arise from the use of prescription or over the counter medications, natural or health supplements and even certain types of food. [URL removed by moderator]

  10. Anonymous

    These insights really question our foundations. How can we logically make the choice that will make us happy when we are so ground in bad habits?

  11. Self Discovery

    This is a great article.

    One thing I would have wished it indicated is, for which segment of the population would this be an immediate or effective remedy.

    It does not work for all.

    The power of positive thinking has been pushed even before there was any data available to prove it.

    But for most people with deep anxiety issues or anger or depression, the solution is out of reach.

    Self compassion especially is not a simple choice for people who deeply believe that it would be improper to do so. This being reinforced by years of negative feedback from their parents.

    But for relatively normal life, definitely, the collection of methods is very much on track.

  12. Chantal Piscopo

    This is a very interesting article. I agree that it’s important to think positive and to be happy. Whatever we think we become.
    [URL removed by moderator]

  13. Harry

    I found this article very inspiring and gives a good message to keep your head up and stay positive because their is a lot to live for but modern medicine is the only real cure for many of the “deadly” diseases sadly.


  14. Lourie

    An fascinating discussion is value comment. I believe that you need to write extra on this topic, it might not be a taboo topic but typically individuals are not sufficient to talk on such topics. To the next. Cheers

  15. CB Doctor

    Positive feelings yes can cure a lot of diseases but not them all. I found this article very inspiring and gives a good message to keep your head up and stay positive because their is a lot to live for but modern medicine is the only real cure for many of the “deadly” diseases sadly. I loved reading this because it makes you understand that you need to appreciate life and stay positive in the worst of situations.

  16. AskMDx

    I totally agree. So many diseases will be cured by our body if we develop positive feelings and live happily.

    [URL removed by moderator]

  17. Anonymous

    Health and Longevity are intimately tied into mind state.

  18. thestats

    faith and belief in Jesus definitely helps for me – that floods me with JOY, its a very nicely done article,Thanks

  19. MP Sidhu

    An inspiring article. I think to be positive or negative is partly determined by your genes. The ‘flow’experience is a common one which many of us must have gone through one time or the other.Many years back,one day I was working on my thesis and so engrossed I was that I didn’t notice our part time maid’s coming and leaving after finishing her work.

    However perusing such articles periodically keeps you on the right track in life.

  20. Jeremiah Johnson

    Very interesting and well written post. I have seen the correlation between overall happiness and overall good health in my travels. It is only reasonable that people would thrive in good health and good state of mind when they are happy. People, often with very little monetary worth live long and
    happy lives because of their state of mind. Thanks for the informative article.

  21. Jael

    Great post ! I truly agree.We must always concentrate on the positive outcome to achieve the results we want.The longer we focus on negativity, the longer it will take to manifest your desires. Start focussing on the brighter side now!

  22. Narin Dul

    Dear all of doctor,

    Thank you very very much for your best skill on this website.

    I need know more on how to change mind from Negative to Positive thinking?

    ALL THE BEST Wishes,

  23. newport

    nice post..

    Kaynaz Nasseri’s psycho-therapy practice is built on a broad range of training and knowledge that allows her to address a wide variety of issues, some of which include relationships, mood, school concerns, life transitions, and other psychology issues. Her approach to psychotherapy and psychological assessment is warmly interactive, providing support, insight and useful feedback to help one resolve difficulties and achieve one’s goals.

  24. Stephen Ryan

    I would like to know more about Prof. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, cited in the article, but I want to make sure that I look up the right man. Does he have a middle name?

  25. Rich

    Happiness and laughter are key. It is amazing how powerful of a role each play in our mental health, which in turn affects our physical health. I have started a project of my own called Project: I Wanna Live again (, aimed at reducing anxiety and stress through knowledge, the senses and laughter. I am in the process of gathering successful positive experiences and would love for you to share yours! It’s all about spreading the word. Have an excellent day


  26. Tom Abbott

    Under “Contact Us” below, the “Change address” link does NOT work!!!!!!!!!!!! This is VERY irritating, and I am on the brink of just unsubscribing altogether. Would someone PLEASE fix this? (I am emailing Tech Support in the meantime to get help with my change of email address)

    • P.J. Skerrett

      Tom — Thanks for bringing the broken “Change Address” link to our attention. It’s been fixed.

      Pat Skerrett
      Harvard Health Publishing

  27. Vassiliki

    Wonderful article, thank you! Moreover, music can potentially make people feel things, that they would not feel otherwise.
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  28. ARL

    Did the study discover that healthier people were happier, or that happier people were healthier?

    I know I’m cranky when I’m sick. And I rather expect that people who are under stress are both less happy and less healthy.

    Not a magical positive-thinking result; a completely to-be-expected correlation.

  29. evans

    God intends happiness for human life by giving us much and the impectus to create what we even desire. But me my HR Manager is frustrating my life. I leave it to GOD.

  30. xekeno

    I agree, happiness is a very important part of our lives, it’s a part of being healthy and performing at optimal levels. Being happy not only helps you but it helps others as well. People enjoy being around people that are happy! People who are negative and sad all the time will drain your energy!

  31. Excellent article! I liked the description of ‘experience flow’ as a special state contributing to a form of exhileration.

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