Sometimes the pressure to be positive can get really annoying. The slogans, jeez, the slogans. “Be the change you want to see in the world.” That’s all very noble, but I can barely be the change I want to see in my living room. The propaganda of positivity forever bleating its mantra of happiness until you wish you could cram it into a cannon and fire it into the sun.
But you know what? It works. Just ask yourself, “What’s going well right now?” and I bet you feel a little better. And, no, this isn’t just speculation. Positivity is correlated with success in life across a number of areas.
Researchers did a meta-analysis of almost 300 scientific studies on positivity which collectively surveyed over 275,000 people. The result? Barbara Fredrickson writes, “positivity produces success in life as much as it reflects success in life. Regardless of whether success was measured as a satisfying marriage, a larger salary, or better health, positivity mattered.”
But how much positivity do we need? Here’s where it gets interesting: it’s not an amount; it’s a ratio. 3 to 1. Three positive feelings for every negative one. (This ratio issue seems to be a pattern in human flourishing. Research shows the best work teams have six positive experiences for every negative and happy marriages have a 5 to 1 ratio.)
So 3 to 1 gets you all those benefits. But I’m not saying that’s easy. Only 20% of people consistently hit that ratio. And another 20% are at 1 to 1, which puts you at risk of clinical depression. Most of us (60%) are in the middle.
Since we can’t force it, what are the best ways to actually feel positive and get all those benefits? Well, that’s what we’re gonna learn today…
Barbara Fredrickson is a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and her book is the aptly titled “Positivity.”
Let’s get to it…
Step back from expectations and judgments. Be aware of the world around you and be more accepting of whatever happens, good or bad.
Yeah, easier said than done. But merely being open increases positivity. The two are bidirectional and feed on one another. When we stay open, we find more solutions to problems and get more positive. And Barbara found that the most open-minded people became even more open-minded five weeks later because of that resulting positivity. It creates an upward spiral.
Expectations and judgments imprison us. When we’re open, we can find a way out. Sometimes, the funniest jokes are the ones life plays on us. So laugh at them. Stay open. When things are falling apart, they may actually be falling into place.
But positivity is not just all about you…
Good relationships are the world’s best shock absorbers. But how do we build and maintain them?
Research by Jane Dutton at the University of Michigan points to four methods:
As we grow older, our phones’ contact lists become graveyards of contact info for friends and family that have grown apart from us. Reach out.
And now let’s take that whole “being good to people” thing to another level…
Do more stuff for others. Things that really make a difference in their life. Not things that are necessarily easy for you, but activities that they feel genuinely benefit them. (Yes, you may need to help people move.)
Pro tip: try and do all your kindnesses on one day a week. This is more practical and keeps it fresh vs turning it into a daily “chore.”
We’re all clinging to our screens as if they can save us, only to find that they’re the very things driving us deeper into isolation. It’s like grasping onto a life preserver made of bricks, or trying to hug a cactus for comfort. Spend more time with others and do things for them. When we do good, we feel good.
Now it’s easier to be positive when we’re social. But what should we do when we’re alone?
Often, we worry or ruminate and our brains generate negativity. Or we’re working hard and life feels like a slog. In a world that seems dead set on making us productive little worker bees, distraction is like the cool aunt who slips you an illicit cocktail at the family reunion.
But the key issue here is healthy distractions. Social media? More like positivity’s natural predator. Take Instagram. It’s like peering into a parallel universe where everyone is beautiful, every meal is a champagne brunch in Santorini, and the sun is perpetually setting. It’s like living in an episode of The Twilight Zone directed by Martha Stewart. And we feel like crap by comparison.
So make two lists: healthy distractions and unhealthy distractions. It’s easy to think of the things that go in the latter category. For the former, think of things that fully absorb you without the negative side effects. Passions, hobbies and “flow” activities are great choices. Turn to them when you need a boost.
Now sometimes our thoughts turn negative and we can’t seem to resist the pull of dwelling on them. What do we do then?
If negativity were an ice cream flavor, it would be unflavored gelato with extra gravel. We often think about what it takes to increase the positive but this is where that ratio issue is really relevant. You can increase the ratio by reducing the negative — and often that’s the fastest route.
Note the negativity landmines in your life. What places, people, times and activities really amp up the darkness? Avoid them.
Sometimes we’re just in a bad mood and can’t shake it. It’s the emotional equivalent of a car alarm that won’t stop blaring. The negative thoughts are like a CNN crawl across your brain.
The key here is remembering you don’t need to just accept those thoughts as true. There’s an appeals court. Dispute those negative thoughts. Stress test them with logic and evidence. Are they really true? Really inevitable? Really that bad?
This is the basis of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, the gold standard for addressing mood disorders. Hundreds of studies show it works. And it’s especially wonderful because you’re not suppressing the thoughts or denying them (which rarely works for long), you’re dissolving them with the acid of truth.
Sometimes all the mental jousting won’t cut it and you need to change something. But that can be as simple as stepping outside…
It’s obvious that what we look at and where we put our attention affects us. But we rarely act on that information.
We wake up and immediately look at our phones and it’s basically a barrage of negative information fired at our eyeballs like a T-shirt cannon gone rogue. And there’s no shortage of frustration at the office; we’re cursing the printer with a fervor usually reserved for ancient blood feuds.
So get outside. Change the scenery to something natural and relaxed. The average American spends 93% of their time indoors. This seems like a Very Bad Idea to me. There’s a reason your soul feels like a clenched muscle. Go outdoors. It helps.
And what activities boost positivity? That depends on you. It’s idiosyncratic…
The world is so focused on accomplishment. Achievement. 24-7. Look, we’re not all destined to be world-class athletes, Nobel Prize-winning physicists, or even particularly competent human beings. Some of us are just here to eat Doritos, make ill-advised online purchases, and provide a cautionary example for others to learn from.
Seriously though, if you want to feel more positive think a little less about the outcome and a little more about the process. Spend more time doing things you’re good at. This has been shown to be one of the best happiness boosters out there.
Don’t know what you’re really good at? Thinking about it a bit can help, but a more effective way to get an answer is to ask your friends. They know. Trust me. And if you want a more scientific answer and like taking quizzes, go here. Under “Questionnaires”, select “Brief Strengths Test.” See? Not that hard.
Okay, you knew this one was coming. You hear about it a lot, but it does work…
Ever just wish you could mute your brain? Like, just hit the pause button when it starts spewing out that Greatest Hits collection of “You’re Not Good Enough!” tracks?
Meditation increases positivity. And the benefits extend to when you’re not meditating because it teaches you to take your more annoying thoughts less seriously and to let them go.
Sure, sounds great on paper, but when you try it, it can feel like you’re trying to plug a volcano with a cork. You need to practice. Here are dead simple instructions on how to meditate.
Yes, it’s hard at first. You’re trying to focus on the breath and your thoughts are like that kid in the back of the class always raising his hand and shouting, “I’m here! I’m here!” No one cares, Timmy. Sit down.
But keep at it. The positive effects increase with practice. Over the course of a nine-week intervention people saw their positivity triple.
Okay, we covered meditation. Now for the other “old reliable”…
The internet’s flooded with lists of “Things to be Grateful For”. They read like the inventory of an especially boring estate sale. If you think I’m going to write a thank you note to the universe every time I find a parking spot close to the supermarket entrance, you’re out of your mind…
But I do it anyway. Because it works. Seriously, it’s powerful to appreciate the things we have, even if that’s just a roof over our heads or a functioning spleen. You can start with the easy stuff: “I’m grateful for stretchy pants that forgive my love affair with carbs.”
Listing three good things that happened every day can really help. But the more important part is building the habit of noticing the positive in your life. That’s where the real magic happens. Gratitude is like the software update your brain didn’t know it needed. Start noticing all the good in life and suddenly you’re seeing in 4K Ultra HD Positivity.
The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook and where to put your attention.
And what should we do when we’re in the midst of something wonderful?
If there was an Olympic gold medal awarded for taking things for granted there’d be a lot of competition. Our minds learn to tune out the good leading to a suburbanization of the soul.
Savor those good moments. Really drink in the good. Savoring is the emotional equivalent of using a highlighter pen on your day. (Here are tips on how to best do it.)
When something good happens, just feel it. We dispute negative feelings because getting your “thinky” brain on the case helps squelch emotions. So with savoring, we want to do the reverse. Don’t think. Just let the warmth flow over you. Just feel it.
Savoring is all about the present. But what about the future?
Your past self is often the cringiest person you know. And sometimes the future feels less like a promise and more like a threat.
So look to the days ahead and visualize the best. I know, sounds like the love child of a VR headset and a wishful thinking seminar. But it works.
Barbara says: “Imagine yourself ten years from now, after everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of the life goals you set for yourself. Visualize where and how you’d be if all your current dreams came true.”
Do this every day for a week. Write down what you see. Now look at those dreams and find what they have in common, what underlies them. In there is a purpose, a goal, a life mission. How can you start pursuing it today to reach that dream?
There is no excuse for not doing this. You get to fantasize about an awesome future. What’s more pleasurable than that? It’s Netflix for people on a budget.
Okay, time to round it all up – and learn the trick that can make sure you follow through with the above.
This is how to increase positivity:
No, you do not have to do all of these every day. Try ’em out, see what works best and build a habit.
But how do you make sure you’ll follow through? A physical reminder can help. A totem, if you will. James Pawelski, of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, recommends a “positivity portfolio.” Assemble reminders of positive things. You can use a scrapbook, a box, or a folder on your computer. I think a good way is to take photos on your phone.
Take a picture anytime you feel good, when something made you laugh or smile. Take a picture of that thing you feel grateful for. Feeling proud or accomplish something? Snap another picture of it. Feeling loved or close to others? Take a picture with them. And when you need a boost, scroll through the photos.
Keep refreshing your reel with new stuff. Rotate the old photos with the new so they don’t lose their pizzazz. I don’t think I need to convince you of the positive effect this can have.
We don’t need to delete all the negatives from life. Remember: it’s 3 to 1, not 3 to 0. We learn from the negative and feel good because of the positive. We just have to keep the balance.
The real trick is to keep noticing all the good that is already around us. That’s where the photos come in.
Take a picture. It’ll last longer.