Blog Short #71: How to Use Positivity the Right Way
Welcome to Monday Blog Shorts – ideas to make even Monday a good day! Every Monday, I share a short article with you about a strategy you can use, or new facts or info that informs you, or a new idea that inspires you. My wish is to give you something to think about in the week ahead. Let’s dig in!
Photo by gremlin, Courtesy of iStockPhoto
Let’s start today with a quote I recently ran across while reading Focus by Daniel Goleman. It comes from Richard Boyatzis, a distinguished psychologist at Case Western Reserve University. He says:
You need the negative focus to survive, but a positive one to thrive. You need both, but in the right ratio.
I love this quote because it’s realistic. When you have a positive outlook, you can see possibilities and opportunities for growth, and you pursue them. Yet, you still keep an eye on obstacles as they arise and attend to them, so they don’t sabotage you.
Today we’re going to delve into what it means to have a positive approach and how negative thoughts and events fit in.
Let’s start with an overview.
What is the “Positive Approach?”
In general, the positive approach is seeing life as a process of personal development that includes:
- Focus on well-being
- Emphasis on strengths
- Making enduring connections
Martin Seligman defines it in terms of the five tenets of Positive Psychology known as PERMA. Let’s go through them.
1) Positive Emotions
Positive emotions are sticky, expansive, and energizing.
Based on research, it’s been found that positive-leaning people can sustain positive feelings longer than someone who’s depressed. We know this because of what happens in the brain when you’re in a good mood. The left side of the prefrontal cortex, which is the side of the brain associated with positive emotions, is activated and remains active.
When you consistently feel and express positive emotions, your outlook tends to remain that way which affects both your perceptions and activity level.
There’s more. When you’re feeling upbeat, the left prefrontal cortex sends messages to an area in the mid-brain called the nucleus accumbens. This part of the brain is associated with motivation and reward due to its richness in dopamine.
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter associated with reward, motivation, attention, and pleasure. So when you think positively, dopamine is released, and you have an easier time striving toward goals and maintaining your attention to them.
Your brain also releases its own opiates during this process, which adds to the feelings of reward. The dopamine fuels drive and persistence, while the opiates add feelings of pleasure.
As long as you stay positive, these brain circuits stay active and help you sustain your efforts despite obstacles or setbacks. Positive emotions also keep you energized. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle.
Because positive emotions keep your juices running, they help you stay engaged in purposeful activity for more extended periods.
Persistent negative emotions and a pessimistic outlook de-energize you and close you down.
That’s because your emotional energy is tied up. Emotions supply the drive to do something, so when your emotional energy is soaked up with pessimistic thoughts, you don’t have the drive to pursue anything. You feel deflated.
Positive emotions do the opposite. They activate, invigorate, and release your energy to pursue what you want to do.
You can do it with greater depth and focus and get in a state of what’s called “flow.” When you’re in “flow,” you feel completely absorbed in what you’re doing so that the sense of effort disappears. This happens when you’re laser-focused on something, and the work almost seems to happen without your input. You feel calm while being highly active. It makes work pleasurable and heightens creativity.
Engaging in healthy connections with others is the third aspect of the positive approach.
We’re wired to connect, and being involved in satisfying relationships allows us to experience love, feel seen, be understood, and thrive.
The positive approach fosters kindness, genuine emotions, and social intelligence. When you get into good relationships, you increase your awareness of both your and others’ motives and feelings. You have greater empathy and compassion.
Chronic negativity creates a sense of isolation, even if you regularly commiserate with others who are negative. The outlook is one of doom and is destructive to close ties.
The question “Why am I here?” is at the heart of the next aspect of the positive approach. You’re focused on finding meaning and purpose you can wrap your mind and heart around to guide your goals, activities, and pursuits. You explore with hope and faith, and you’re receptive to answers when they come.
True joy comes from engaging your whole self in something bigger than you. It’s an anchor for your life’s work.
This last aspect of the positive approach is putting your purpose into motion. You use your signature strengths and virtues (Seligman) to engage in activities that fulfill your purpose and provide meaning. You actualize your purpose through your accomplishments and achievements.
How does negativity fit in?
The positive approach does not include ignoring or excluding negative emotions.
Sounding an alert.
As noted in the quote at the beginning of this article, “You need the negative focus to survive.”
What that means is that you need to see what is. If you smell smoke coming from the kitchen when you’re in the back of the house, you don’t ignore it. You rush out to the kitchen to take the smoking pot off the burner before a fire starts.
Negative feelings can act the same way. They send off alarms that there’s a problem you need to attend to, and if you don’t, there are consequences to pay. We need those alarms.
Alarms can come in many forms. Sometimes they’re wake-up calls like when the boss calls you in for a meeting to discuss being late too often, or you get the cold shoulder from a friend you’ve blown off too many times. Or maybe your doctor informs you that your blood sugar is climbing because you’re eating too much junk food.
When you have negative experiences or feelings like these, pay attention. They’re alerts you need to heed.
Negative emotions are necessary and normal.
There are many instances in life that bring on negative emotions or reactions:
A loss of someone you love, severe financial stress, being laid off from your job, receiving a dressing down by your boss in front of other staff, finding out your car repair is going to cost $2000 . . .
All of these naturally bring on a period of distress, sadness, anxiety, or all of these.
It’s not good to suppress negative emotions that arise due to circumstances, even those from previous trauma. When using the positive approach, you allow the emotions to arise, feel them, and when enough time has passed, take steps to gain insights from your experience or learn something you can use.
Feeling negative emotions and having a negative approach are not the same.
Feeling negative emotions is not a problem. Hanging on to them longer than needed and feeding them is a problem.
People who have a negative approach jump first to the most negative interpretation of any situation. They move from one negative thought to another and, when presented with a positive solution, find reasons why it can’t work. As Goleman says,
“It’s not just a focus on the could, but the conviction that there are even darker ones lurking behind.”
If you aren’t naturally optimistic, you can make a shift with practice. It’s okay to keep a healthy skepticism when taking in information.
Being positive doesn’t mean being blind or having only positive thoughts.
The goal is to keep a positive attitude, even in the face of negative circumstances, while addressing obstacles that get in the way.
That’s all for today. Have a great week!
All my best,
Davidson, R. J. & Begley, S. (2012) The emotional life of your brain. Hudson Street Press.
Fowler J.H. & Christakis, N. A. (2008) Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: Longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study. BMJ, 337:a2338. doi:10.1136/bmj.a2338
Goleman, D. (2013). Focus: The hidden driver of excellence. Harper.
Lee M-A & Kawachi I. (2019). The keys to happiness: Associations between personal values regarding core life domains and happiness in South Korea. PLoS ONE, 14(1):e0209821. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0209821
Scorsolini-Comin, F., Fontaine, A. M., Koller, S. H., & Santos, M. (2012). From happiness to well-being: The flourishing of positive psychology. Psciologia: Reflexaso e Critica, 26(4), 663-670. doi:10.1590/S0102-79722013000400006
Seligman, M. (2002). Authentic happiness. Free Press.