Accentuate The Positive

‘The power of positive thinking’ has become a mantra of the modern age.

We’ve all seen the Facebook posts willing us to overcome our obstacles by looking on the bright side, or been given the advice that we are limiting our options with our own mindset.

Conversely, we’ve also been bombarded with blogs and articles decrying the dismissiveness and ‘over simplicity’ of such a statement — you can’t pay the bills with positive thoughts, nor can you make things appear by willing them to be so.

So where does the truth lie? Are we really just too pessimistic for our own good if we aren’t enjoying the success we believe we might? Or is positivity just another new age answer to a complicated problem?

The truth is a little bit of both.

Positivity and its effect on every aspect of our lives has been studied, tested and analyzed hundreds of times in recent history and has in fact been linked to more creative thinking, long term financial gain, larger social networks, increase in knowledge and skill and better health outcomes. But because of the breadth of these studies, we also know this is a lot more than just a “believe it, and it will come” answer.

The key term here is “positive affect”. While positive thinking — by way of focusing on the best case scenario, or answering negative thoughts with positive ones — is a part of that, it is consistent positive feelings and sense of purpose that are the consistent links between positivity and success.

Because our brains are designed to protect us and keep us safe, when we are faced with negative emotions our focus narrows in order to deal with the problem at hand. For example when we are afraid, our brain zeros in on ways to escape. These reactions are more than just “negative thoughts” — we have a physiological response as our bodies prepare for the possibility that we might need to run or fight or protect ourselves.

While the chances of us coming across life or death situations in our every day lives are pretty slim, our brains have retained these reactionary tendencies and applied them to our more modern situations; if you’re in an unhappy relationship or surrounded by people you don’t get along with, your brain remains in a state that leaves you ready for confrontations or arguments. If you hate your job, are worried about your financial stability or putting off making a big decision, you keep your brain in a state of fear. And while your brain is in a reactionary state, your focus is narrowed to get you through that day, or that interaction, the task at hand.

A positive emotional state, by contrast, broadens your mind and leaves you open to situations as they present themselves. It allows your mind the freedom to consider more options, to come up with more creative solutions, and to relate better to those around you.

We gain new skills by being open to new experiences, and widen our social support networks through new interactions and generally being more approachable. This positive state of being also brings with it financial success as we see more possibilities open to us, and find more creative approaches.

By extension, it allows us to maintain our positive state of being by allowing us to view the ‘big picture’ and analyze situations more thoroughly and effectively.

This is where the idea that negativity creates negativity, while positivity creates more positivity comes from.

While this might sound like bad news to anyone who is stuck in a less than ideal situation — it seems much easier to think a happy thought! — There is a way to overcome your reactionary brain.

One study found that showing people a scary or sad film induced all of the physiological reactions associated with fear, anger and sadness. Once the movie ended, and the negative influence was no longer impacting on their mental state, the subjects returned to normal over time.

This seems like common knowledge, and is why the widespread response to negative situations is “quit your job if you hate it so much!” or “just leave them if they make you unhappy!” — removing yourself from the situation allows your brain to return to a neutral state. Although, we all know it isn’t always that simple; as we’ve already learned, being in a negative state stops us from being able to see the big picture, and we often can’t see a solution or a practical way out.

The good news is that there is another way.

After being shown the same scary or emotional film, if the subjects were then shown a comedy or emotionally fulfilling film, it actually sped up their return to a normal physiological state.

Other studies conducted on the effectiveness of inducing positive states by writing about past positive experiences, or simply thinking about a past positive experience, showed that these had the same effect of increasing creativity, positive feelings and improving performance.

Writing or talking about a past positive experience allows you to embody the thoughts and feelings you had during that experience, creating that state of mind once again. In much the same way as viewing a film leads your brain to a certain state through visual and dialogue cues, so do your thoughts and memories.

Rather than trying to will yourself out of a negative situation by repeating positive phrases, the answer lies in creating a positive feeling. When people tell you that you have to really believe it, they are actually right.

In short, the ‘power of positivity’ is most certainly much more than a new age catch-cry; we do, in fact, have the power to influence our state of being through positive thinking. But it isn’t as simple as ignoring our problems in favor of rainbows and sunshine, and more a way of giving ourselves the mindset to overcome our problems with better, more long term solutions.

So the next time you see an article touting the power of positive thinking, let it be a reminder rather than a dismissive trigger. And the next time you see someone tearing down it’s simplicity, you’ll be able to think of a creative way to point them in the right direction.