Do you consider yourself to be a positive person?
Being positive doesn’t mean being happy all of the time. And it’s about more than empty mantra’s like Think Positive. Being positive is about thinking in ways that support your goals, focusing on solutions and on what’s going well. A positive person will still experience the full range of emotions, but, and this important, they maintain hope and motivation rather than succumbing to overwhelm.
Maybe it doesn’t seem like the right time to be positive. Covid-19 has turned the world upside down. Our brains are primed to identify threats and we are currently surrounded by them. Fear is a normal response to our current situation, and like any emotion, fear is contagious, we can catch other peoples’ fear. But fear and the emotional stress that comes with it decrease our immune response, meaning fear puts us at risk of getting sick: the very thing we fear.
By adopting a positive mindset, making a conscious effort to notice what’s good, however small, you’ll experience positive emotions like joy, love, contentment, interest and happiness, every day. Those positive emotions create upward spirals, they expand your thinking and help you to develop the physical, mental and social resources you need to thrive. It’s how you counteract the fear, meaning now is exactly the right time to dial up the positivity.
“There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”
Positivity and your brain
There is one simple truth about your brain: your experiences matter. Not just for how they feel in the moment but for the lasting traces they leave in your brain.
Your experiences of happiness, worry, love, anger and anxiety make changes in your neural networks. The things that you pay attention to today influence how you respond in the future. Think of your attention like a spotlight: it highlights what it lights on and imprints that on your brain, for better or worse.
If we accept that the brain takes shape from what it rests on, it follows that if you keep resting your mind on self-criticism, worries, what you haven’t done, hurts and stresses then your brain will be shaped into greater reactivity, vulnerability to anxiety and inclinations towards anger, sadness and guilt.
On the other hand, if you keep resting your mind on good events and experiences, pleasant feelings, physical pleasures, the things you do get done and your good intentions and qualities, then over time your brain will take a different shape: resilience, optimism and a sense of self-worth will be hardwired into it.
Look back over the past week or so.
Where has your mind mostly been resting? Is it time to shift your focus? If yes, make a list of things you want to do differently this week.
The science of positive emotions
Positive emotions are, in comparison to negative emotions, relatively under-researched and as a consequence, not as well understood. Barbara Fredrickson, from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, is the leading positivity researcher. Her research focuses on investigating the nature and purpose of positive emotions: are they just about making us feel good?
It is her work that has shown that negative emotions narrow our focus while positive emotions lead to more expansive and creative thoughts and behaviour. She has called this the broaden and build theory. Fredrickson’s theory suggests that the experience of positive emotion enables us to create additional resources in four categories:
- Intellectual – developing problem solving or rational thinking skills
- Physical – developing physical strength and cardiovascular health
- Social – facilitating the quality and quantity of social connection via friendships, family connections, romantic and professional relationships
- Psychological – developing resilience and optimism
It is her belief that the experience of positive emotion creates an ‘upward spiral’ of thought and action, this is a positive mindset which prepares us for future challenges.
The ‘undoing effect’ of positive emotions
In order to assess the effect of positive emotions on our minds and bodies, Fredrickson has carried out experiments to recreate positive emotions in people under lab conditions. In one study participants were told they had to perform a stressful task. Before completing the task, they were divided into four groups and asked to watch a short film clip. The films provoked emotions such as amusement, contentment, sadness or no feeling at all.
The people who felt amused or contented as a result of watching the film clip, recovered significantly more quickly in response to the news that they would have to complete a stressful task. Their recovery was measured by their blood pressure and heart rate returning to normal. People who had watched the sad or neutral films took longer to recover. As a result of this and other experiments, psychologists believe that positive emotions have an ‘undoing effect’, meaning they can help to counteract feelings of stress and negative emotions.
We can train our feelings
We are not victims of our situation, or indeed of our past (as is sometimes suggested by thinkers like Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, respectively). We can directly address our bad feelings and replace them with positive feelings, building on the happy core that is in each of us, our best self.
If we want to cultivate more positive emotions, we need to bring the same level of attention to it as we would to developing any other skill. For example: if you wanted to be a world class pianist, you’d be willing to practise for thousands of hours, and most likely you would have started to practise when you were quite young, and you wouldn’t expect to go it alone, you’d have a talented teacher by your side. Recognising and embracing the positive is a skill, and just like any other skill, we need to practise and we need the right support.
By learning how to be more positive and optimistic, we can drop our negative and overly critical self perceptions and re-set our goals. This will help us to learn that the glass is, after all, half full and not half empty.