How often have you heard the “stay positive” advice? If you are like most people, then you have probably been given those words of wisdom more times that you can count! In fact, the repetitiveness of positivity slogans has made them a bit trivial and clichéd, which is why an increasing number of people are starting to view positivity as something better suited to cult-like groups with unrealistic expectations of life, rather than a mindset that can help anyone achieve a happier life. Even though the overexposure of positivity might have given you a somewhat dubious impression of this concept, you should know that there is a lot of scientifically proven truth behind the “stay positive” mantra.
The Basics of Positivity
Before we begin unravelling the real facts behind positivity, we should consider what the term entails. All that stands behind positivity is the tendency of viewing the world, yourself and the events that surround you as positive, rather than negative. However, this certainly does not mean that every single thing that happens in your life should be examined as positive – that is just as unhealthy and unrealistic as constantly staying focused on the direst parts of life. So what would a positive person do when going through a negative event? Acknowledge and respect his or her emotions, allow for time to heal and focus on his or her own capabilities, as well as power to deal with the situation in a healthy manner. It is very important to remember that positivity is not an empty shell – a packaging that allows you to shove sadness or vulnerability into a corner. On the contrary – positivity is all about acknowledging the difficult parts of life, all the while choosing to focus on what is realistically positive.
The Effects of Positivity vs. Negativity
We have all heard that it is good to stay positive and bad to be negative, but why is that? First of all, it is important to focus on the fact that all the processes in your mind influence each other, and gradually build your overall attitudes towards life, yourself and others. Often there are thoughts and emotions you may not realize, because they are part of the subconscious mind, but they still affect the way your think and behave. In that regard, when considering the impact of positivity vs. negativity, we should always keep in mind that these relate to your overall outlook and influence all aspects of your life, from personal wellbeing to career motivation and love.
The relationship between positivity/negativity and happiness can seem like a vicious circle dynamic – the more negative you are, the less you experience happiness but then again, if you are not happy, how can you be positive! The truth is that you can escape this pattern of unhappiness, but before we focus on that, let’s discuss the benefits of optimism. Positive thoughts have been associated with general wellbeing and happiness for centuries, but the physical aspect of it has been examined more recently. A study published in the Annuary of Clinical and Health Psychology, carried out in the University of Madrid, Spain has looked into this relationship. (1) The researchers have found that optimistic people have stronger immune systems because their bodies have better immunocompetence responses. This means that when your immune system is attacked, by something that is as mild as the common flu or even as concerning as cancer, your body will activate more mechanisms to fight off the illness faster and more effectively if you have more positive thoughts. The same study also demonstrates that positive affect leads to a better functioning of the cardiovascular system and, as you know, the cardiovascular system is a large part of healthy functioning.
As we already mentioned, a generally negative outlook on life can prevent you from experiencing as much happiness, as people who tend to view life on the sunny side. But why does that happen? Well, a study from the September 2008 issue of the Journal of Integrative Neuroscience has come up with a conclusive answer (2). The researchers collaborated with a group of 270 healthy volunteers, ages 18-65 and compared two variables – a high positivity bias vs. a high negativity bias. Their results are certainly worth considering – the group of people who viewed life more negatively, reacted to events with more nervousness, hypersensitivity and fear, compared to the group with a more positive outlook. In addition, the negativity bias variable predicted thinking less before reacting to a situation. So how can that relate to your life? Well, as it turns out, if you can become an optimist, you will consider an event more carefully before reacting and will likely have a calm, centered, rational response. Think about who you would prefer to spend time with – someone who reacts to every little thing in panic, or an individual who can take some time to rethink the event and react positively.
Can You Fake It?
Now that you know about all the wonderful effects of positivity, what can you do about it? People often feel as though one is either born with the positive gene or the negative gene and nothing can be done about it. Thankfully, that is not the case. You can rewire you brain and retrain yourself to view the world in a brighter light! Yes, it does take efforts and no, it won’t happen in a day. Transforming your outlook from negative to positive is much like changing your inactive lifestyle to become an athlete. It may be challenging and will probably take some time and effort, but at the end it is all worth it because you will feel happier, healthier and much more attractive.
But what if you are not feeling so great right at this moment and would like to change that? Fake it! Smiling stimulates the brain’s reward system and even though that is mostly true when you are genuinely happy, you can also use this interesting effect to take yourself out of negative moods. Forcing a smile on your face when you are feeling down has the power to reduce negative affect, even if only slightly. In fact, smiling is so rewarding, that a recent UK study by Hewlett Packard found that it can be as stimulating as eating 2,000 chocolate bars or receiving large amounts of cash (3)!
However, do keep in mind that fake smiling is not a good long-term solution. While it can take you out of your negativity for the time being, fake smiling does not actually produce satisfaction and is not attractive to others. As you might remember, we mentioned the Duchenne smile, or a genuine smile, in the article “Social life, interests, passions”. Not only are our brains wired to recognize fake smiles and find them unappealing when seen in others, but as a study by the Michigan State University proves, fake smiling leads to lowered levels of happiness and social withdrawal when you are the one doing it (4). If you are in the habit of slapping a fake smile on your face while at work or a social event, please reconsider – this strategy is actually working against you!
How do I become more positive?
Luckily, if you are motivated, there are many techniques that can help you transform yourself into a charming optimist. Here is a list of the most popular choices:
– Visualization : Picture your happy place, an event you are eagerly expecting, or think about a loved one when you are feeling negative.
– Transform negative thoughts : Whenever you feel like you want to complain, sulk and get lost in negativity, write down your thoughts instead. Then, examine each thought one by one and ask yourself if they are rational. Do you have any proof or are you just being negative? Once you have done that, try writing down more positive and realistic substitutions for those negative thoughts.
– Meditation : The practice of meditation, even for several minutes per day, has been proven to balance out your central nervous system, reduce stress and increase positivity.
– Acknowledgment : Try deliberately focusing on the positive in your life. Challenge yourself to recording at least one thing per day that made you happy and soon you will see the results!
Positivity and negativity can be great forces in your life and while it may sometimes feel like your mood is controlling you, now you know it is quite the opposite – you have the power to build your own positivity from the ground up!
(1) “Psychological well-being and health. Contributions of positive psychology”. Vázquez, C., Hervás, H., Rahona, J., Gómez, D. School of Psychology Complutense University, Madrid, Spain. Clinical and Health Psychology, 5 (2009) 15-27
(2) “An Integrative Neuroscience Platform : Application to Profiles of Negativity and Positivity Bias”. Gordon, E., Barnett, K., Cooper, N., Tran, N., Williams, L. J. Integr. Neurosci. 07, 345 (2008).
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