The first thing to point out when talking about positivity, is that we are not encouraging people to pretend to be happy when they don’t feel it. You’ll find plenty of people on the internet and in self-help books extolling the virtues of a kind of fake-it-till-you-make-it happiness. There is a word for that; toxic positivity. Research and clinical experience points very clearly to the fact that our difficult feelings need to be accepted and processed in order for us to move on from them. Like Dr Marsha always says, you have to feel it to heal it. So we are absolutely not suggesting that you plaster a big smile over your face and keep on telling yourself everything is fine. If you are feeling anxious or angry or low, then sit with those feelings, and work through them. They’re there to tell you that you need to give that part of yourself some time and attention. Unprocessed feelings won’t go away if we avoid them, they’ll simply pop back up somewhere else in our lives and cause us problems, often when we least expect them. It’s a bit of a cliché but it’s a very important one, it’s ok to not be ok.
That said, a positive mindset is one of the most powerful tools we can develop in our quest for improved levels of day-to-day happiness.
As we noted before, the fact that people who have a positive, optimistic view of the world tend to feel happier than those whose worldview tends towards the negative might not come as a massive surprise. When you’re busy being optimistic, and hopeful, you’re far less likely to be dragged down by the kind of negative thinking which can lead to sadness and depression, and there’s a lot of truth to the old song, “When you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you”. But positive thinking has been shown to have a positive impact in several less blindingly obvious areas of our lives as well. For starters, it is good for our health. Positive thinking has been shown to have benefits for our immune system, help us recover quicker from illness, and even make us better at learning, all of which will tip the happiness meter in the right direction.
So if positivity and optimism is so good for us, what stops us from feeling this way as a matter of course all the time. To explain this we need to go back in time. Many of the behaviours and thought patterns which come naturally to us as humans, which we perform without so much as a second’s thought, are the result of thousands of years of natural selection. The people who were strongly affected by negative experiences and saw sabre-tooth tigers everywhere they looked, tended to be the ones who lived long enough to pass on their genes while their more relaxed cave-chums got gobbled up. Essentially, it’s an evolutionary benefit to look for the bad stuff in situations, and for the bad stuff that does happen to us, or to those around us to have a disproportionately large effect on us. Scientists call this effect negativity bias and it is so strong that it means in our daily lives we need three positive experiences to counteract every negative one.
Seeing as sabre-toothed tigers and other life-threatening dangers are gratifyingly thin on the ground nowadays, the negativity bias which worked so well to keep our ancestors alive has, to a large extent, become redundant, and now serves mainly as an impediment to our happiness. Luckily for us, there’s another effect which can help us to push back against negativity bias; the Tetris Effect. When researchers have studied what happens in the brain when people play Tetris, they’ve found that by repeating the same thought patterns over and over again, they become less taxing for the brain to carry out, and more automatic. Studies showed actual changes in grey matter over the course of the experiment. So if Tetris can change your brain and make certain tasks easier and more automatic, imagine what repeating positivity-boosting exercises could do for you..
One of the best ways of practicing positivity is through gratitude practice. Sitting down once a day and simply writing down all the things you can think of which you have to be grateful for actually rewires your brain to notice more good things to be happy about in the future. And if you struggle at first to come up with things to feel thankful about, don’t worry. The mere act of trying to come up with something to be happy about, just like shifting those little blocks around on screen in tetris, changes your brain to make this sort of thing come more naturally.
The secret to making it work is the repetition. So getting into the habit of journaling is a real help if you want to practice gratitude, but it’s not the only way. I use a little game to practise gratitude with my partner and kids every evening at the dinner table (they don’t know that’s why we do it!). We take it in turns to name three things which have made us happy that day and with the exception of my two year old whose answer is invariably “poo poo”, it has become easier and more automatic for all of us the more we play.
Another great gratitude hack is to do a daily shout-out. Make it a habit to send one message of thanks per day to someone who has done right by you. It doesn’t have to be a big deal, If you want to send a card and a present, then don't let us stop you, but just a little text to say thanks will do the job nicely, and make you, and whoever you send it to, feel all warm and shiny inside.
Can you remember the last time you helped out a stranger. Remember that feeling of wellbeing you noticed in your chest as you walked away having been thanked from the heart and smiled at? Did it give you the sense that life’s pretty nice after all all, and people on the whole tend to be alright? Want to feel that more often? Then say yes to more random acts of kindness. They’re proven to make you feel more positive. One thing though, the latest evidence suggests that if you do this sort of thing too regularly, it starts to become a routine and loses its emotional punch. Once a week is plenty.
Alongside gratitude, another great skill that promotes positivity is learning to reframe setbacks and negative situations in your life as opportunities to learn and grow. Look for the silver lining, and always ask yourself, “how can I use this situation to become a better version of myself?”.
Finally, affirmations have been shown be extremely effective in changing negative thought patterns into positive ones. It might seem a little like wishful thinking, simply repeating positive affirmations about ourselves over and over again until we believe them, but the evidence is there that they do actually work. You need to have a healthy dose of self-esteem for affirmations to have the desired effect though. Scientists studying affirmations in people with low self esteem actually found they had the opposite effect. Essentially affirmations only work if you believe them. Which takes us back to our point at the beginning.
Positivity is a mental superpower, and well worthy of its place as one of our Seven Pillars of Happiness, but it needs to be based on strong foundations. Filling yourself with false positive thoughts when inside you’re not feeling that way at all is going to have the opposite effect.
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