There are still diehard curmudgeons out there who I meet every day who insist that positivity is just a code word for goofing around and not getting things done. They could not be more wrong. Positive states of mind have been shown to fuel incredible results in our life and work in a number of ways.
A quick primer on emotions. There are countless emotions we can feel. Basically, one set of emotions allow us to pay attention to danger and threats with intense focus. These emotions that fall onto the negative side of the chart also give us more ability to be accurate with detailed or complex matter. They also help us to signal to others if we are displeased with them; sort of a warning that things need to be addressed in the relationship. When we are feeling any number of nuances of anger, fear and sorrow we are said to be in negative affect; affect is a fancy word for a set of emotions and traits – either positive or negative. It’s important to understand that there is a biological reason for negative emotions; they are important to our survival. It would be folly to suggest that anyone ever try to wipe out negative emotions. We need them. But, here is why it’s important to be more deliberate about positive affect. We have a lot more architecture in our brain devoted to danger and threat detection than we do for reward. So, it is more necessary to give positive emotions a fighting chance because of the important boost they give to productivity, effectiveness and overall well-being. We need to be on the lookout for things that give us positive affect more deliberately.
We know that negative emotions narrow our focus and prepare us for fight, flight or freeze states. When we are met with a threatening situation, our brain basically looks for old information to help us protect ourselves from the perceived threat. That is good when bad things are happening quickly. We want to access relied upon neural pathways for the answer to the problem. That’s why we practice things over and over again. Practice helps us access needed skills in the heat of a situation without having to think about what we could do. And finally, we know in general that negative emotions can feel bad.
Positive emotions, on the other hand feel…well…positive and they open our brain for very powerful results. They also give us a sense of reward and safety. And, unlike negative emotions, positive ones allow our thoughts to wander and create. We are in our most innovative and productive space when we are feeling some sense of positivity about what we are doing. Think about how many ideas you can come up with when there is no threat or risk. Also think about how much longer you stick with something when you like the way it feels to do it. Positive emotions also act as a sort of eraser to the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol at high levels in a chronic state can lead to a number of debilitating health issues and can effect memory and cognitive ability. So, we need to give our brain a break from it each day by erasing some of it with positive affect. The negative bias in our brain is huge and to rebalance, all we need is 20-30 seconds a few times a day to do that. It’s not too much to ask for when you consider the benefits of positivity.
Of course, work and life are filled with a variety of situations that require us to do and say things that feel bad. It also makes sense to be more in negative affect when we’re doing a spreadsheet or complex proposal. That helps with accuracy. However, highly successful people take time to actively seek out thoughts and circumstances that put them into a positive state of mind.
Know where you stand. We are born with a “set range” of both positive and negative affect. The more positive affect you have the more likely you will be resilient in the face of setbacks and feel more positive feelings overall. The opposite can be true if you have a higher set range in negative affect. The way to get an idea of your set range is to go to www.authentichappiness.com. It is Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman’s site at the University of Pennsylvania where he offers several tools. You must sign up with email to participate. Go there and take the PANAS or Positive Affect Negative Affect Scale. Answer honestly. You will get two scores; one for positive affect and one for negative. They are scored from 0-50. The higher the score, the higher the affect. If your positive score is higher than your negative, you are more prone to positive affect overall. The opposite is true if you have more negative affect. If you want to increase the positivity in your life, researchers have found that you can do a few things each day that seem so basic as to make you wonder if they work. Sonja Lyubomirsky of Stanford and the University of California researched several ways that can permanently change affect if practiced each day.
Here are 5 tips for achieving more positive affect.
- Take a picture every day on your smartphone of something that brings a sense of lightness, love or makes you laugh. Review your pictures often throughout your week. The bump of positivity you get from it is amazing, plus it forces you to lift your head out of that grilling work project and notice things that give your brain positive neurochemistry.
- Keep a gratitude journal. Plenty of research shows that people who write down a simple statement of something that happened to them that day for which they are grateful, maybe writing before retiring for the night, are more prone to a sense of wellbeing.
- Do one thing each day that positively surprises someone else. Call up an old friend and say hi. Leave a post-it note on a colleagues computer screen saying thanks for the job they did on a project with you. Compliment someone on their traits like their intelligence, talent and how healthy they look.
- Do mindfulness exercises or meditate. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn has scores of meditation resources on Amazon. The point is to bring calm and focus to your mind; and to reset the stressor chemical cortisol. Every day.
- Keep a laughter file. Take all the jokes and videos that friends and family inevitably send and stuff them in a file. Each day, read or watch a few.
- Keep a file for things that warm your heart like YouTube videos or stories of people doing remarkable things. Visit those each day for a few minutes. Go to www.values.com and watch a few of the public service announcements designed to make the world a better place.
Most of the things on this list will seem ridiculous to people deeply invested in being serious and negative. That dourness is fine, so long as it doesn’t come with depression or the inability to bounce back quickly from setbacks. But, for positivity, research has shown that all it takes is one small jolt each day to begin to benefit from the power of positive emotions. Eventually, we find ourselves with new perspectives when bad things happen and we can be more resilient in the face of the danger and threats the world offers up each day.