Do you have an Optimism strength?
I do. What does that mean you ask? Well, I would define that as a way of looking at the world which energises me and keeps me feeling productive and useful and which enables to me to see the glass as being half full, looking for the learning in disaster, believing that things will work out for the best and that the future will be even better than the past.
People have told me that I am optimistic (sometimes over optimistic) and that mostly they see this as a positive quality which helps them to see the good in themselves and in the situations and challenges they’re facing.
So whether like me you have Optimism strength (by the way, you can check out www.strengthscope.com to find out if you do or not), or if you definitely see the world as a cup half empty kind of place, or if you’re somewhere in the middle, keep reading if you want to find out some ways you can stay positive.
What’s the negativity bias?
From the moment we’re born, we’re pre-conditioned to notice risk and danger. It’s an evolutionary survival mechanism that has been around for millions of years. But what that can lead to is an inherent negativity bias in all that we humans think and do because we’re pre-wired and taught that we need to focus first on avoiding danger and that only once disaster is averted, can we think about more positive things like happiness, flourishing and wellbeing. As a result, we can get easily triggered by the negative. In fact, research shows that it takes five positive experiences to balance out one negative experience, at least as far as our brains are concerned. And that’s a concern if we ever want to get to a place where we can feel fulfilled and truly enjoy life.
Why is getting into a positive mental state a good thing?
There are good reasons to stay positive – being in a positive state has been scientifically shown to deliver a whole range of desirable outcomes, including, amongst many other things, getting and keeping jobs, being more productive, being more resilient and being less likely to burn out.
The reason for this is that when we experience positive emotions, like optimism or hope or trust, this opens up various centres of the brain that are less accessible or even entirely inaccessible when we are experiencing so-called ‘negative’ emotions.
‘Negative’ emotions tend to lead to a narrowing of our thinking and to a diversion of our brain centres towards dealing with the perceived threat. But ‘positive’ emotions do the opposite and with that, our brain becomes open to learning, open to experience and is able to grow and develop much more easily.
Can being in a positive mental state ever be a bad thing?
‘Negative’ emotions of course have their place and if we’re going to experience the world in full colour and in full tonal range then we need to get familiar and comfortable with being uncomfortable, with negative emotions as these aspects of life also serve a range of vital functions. In fact, if you move too quickly away from experiencing more challenging emotions or even actively suppress them, that can lead to negative outcomes. So it’s important to stay emotion-inclusive and balanced.
Four top tips for bringing in more positivity
For now, let’s get back to the positive. Science gives us some good evidence on how best to go about doing this. I am drawing in part from Shaun Achor’s TED Talk on the happy secret to better work and in part from other places but do check that TED Talk if you haven’t seen it before. He’s good.
My Top 4 tips for staying positive are: Find things to be grateful for, Record and recall one positive thing that happens every day, meditate and lastly, be kind. Why? Because science tells us these things work!
- Find things to be grateful for
The research I’m referring to in this case showed that capturing three NEW things each day that we’re grateful for, for three weeks, was sufficient to get the brain to start retaining a pattern of scanning the environment for positive things. As I’ve already said, our brains are naturally wired more towards scanning the environment for the negative, for threats and problems because, we’re told, if we find and fix those, we’ll survive. Well, we might survive but will we thrive? Not necessarily because positive and negative emotions work differently in the brain.
So writing down things to be grateful for allows us to get better at seeing and experiencing positives in the world when they comes along, which means more full colour living, more of the time.
- Record one positive thing that happens every day
By writing down for two minutes all the details you can remember of that experience. Actually, going over the experience again in your head for two minutes with your eyes closed, should have the same effect, as this visualisation enables you to relive this positive meaningful event. And the brain finds it hard to tell the difference between a real event and a visualised event if it’s re-experienced in enough detail, so you get access to the same emotions that way.
Again, with our inbuilt negativity bias, we tend to spend longer ruminating on negative events than savouring positive ones, so this activity is training our brains to redress the balance and to more easily access positive emotions by having easier access to a rich library of positive experiences that we have stored up. And we all want those playlists right?
Meditating, for as little as two minutes per day, but quite frankly the more the better, helps greatly with focus. And this enables us to better regulate our emotional state, which in turn helps us to access more positive emotional states by making more conscious choices in the moment about how we respond to the things that happen to us during an average day.
We also know that by focusing on our breath, a practice that sits at the centre of most meditation practices, we become better at being ‘present’, more in the now rather than having our minds race off to unhelpful places all the time. This greater focus and groundedenss in the moment also helps us to appreciate positive experiences and identify things to be grateful for. Plus meditation improves sleep and decreases stress. So it’s well worth it.
- Be kind
The final idea is to be kind to people. In general. Show compassion, show interest. This invokes at least two positive systems for us: first, humans have an inbuilt need for relatedness and by showing kindness to others, we are more likely to feel a closer relationship with the person or people we have shown kindness to… so we feel part of something bigger than us, socially-speaking.
BTW, if we show appreciation and gratitude towards people in our social network, this can create even more positive outcomes for us emotionally because it helps us feel more socially supported and that has a major impact on wellbeing and positive mental health.
Secondly, by being kind, we’re more likely to like ourselves more (probably because kind people are generally more highly regarded in most societies… being kind is a good thing to be), so we get a self-esteem boost from engaging in this kind of activity.
In summary – how to stay positive…for the long-term
For all of these ideas, the key is to do it, and do it again and again. Create habits with any of the activities I’ve mentioned and it’s easier to stay positive more of the time. And as I’ve said, staying positive has some major performance and wellbeing benefits.
Having got this far, what one thing are you going to pick to make a habit of? What one new habit are you going to build by repeating it for the next month or so? Just pick one and give yourself the best chance of staying positive more of the time, forever.
Dr Paul Brewerton, Doctor of Psychology, Founder and Chair of Strengthscope, Host of The Strengths Guy podcast