Life can quickly change from great to grim at any given moment. These unexpected shifts can startle and frighten us, which in turns makes us feel negative. It could be something as simple as stubbing a toe when getting out of bed that sets the tone for the entire day. If we cultivate more awareness around trying to be positive, however, we have the power to radically change the way we feel.
I know that positive thinking often gets a bad rap. That's because negativity is often mistakenly perceived as powerful and decisive, with an edge of hip cynicism. Positivity, on the other hand, is often wrongly viewed as puny, entreating, and even feeble-minded. But consider that protracted over time, unchecked, accumulated negative feelings such as anger and hostility, can result in health damaging consequences. In his book Love & Survival, Dr. Dean Ornish writes, "In an analysis of over 45 studies, hostility has emerged as one of the most important variables in heart disease. The effects of hostility are equal to or greater in magnitude to the traditional risk factors for heart disease: elevated cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, and so on."
Luckily, contributions from the field of Positive Psychology are now verifying the importance of positivity, not only suggesting that it is far more potent than we think, but that it is a powerful component necessary for optimal health and overall well-being. In her book Positivity, renowned researcher Dr. Barbara Fredrickson writes:
"Positivity includes the positive meanings and optimistic attitudes that trigger positive emotions as well as the open minds, tender hearts, relaxed limbs, and soft faces they usher in. It even includes the long-term impact that positive emotions have on your character, relationships, communities and environment. Although some of this may sound like the vocabulary of greeting cards, the term Positivity points to vital human moments that have now captured the interest of science."
Fredrickson is well known for her "broaden-and-build" theory of positive emotions. This theory suggests that positive emotions expand one's awareness, allowing a person to take in varied and wide-ranging exploratory thoughts and actions. In an article in the journal Cognition and Emotion, Fredrickson explains that employing these broader behaviors effectively builds enduring skills and opens us up to new physical, mental, social and psychological resources. For example, positive emotions that are broadening such as feeling curious, playful and compassionate towards a stranger can result in building a possible life-long friendship.
While positive emotions exhibit this ability to "broaden and build," a corollary hypothesis states that negative emotions conversely shrink this ability. Negative emotions encourage short term, survival oriented behaviors. This occurs when experiencing anger or high anxiety and results in the expression of fight-or-flight responses. When experiencing the stress of negative emotions, we tend to be more susceptible to cardiovascular effects such as increased heart rate and blood pressure, higher blood sugar, and immune suppression. Prolonged exposure to negative emotions can eventually lead to coronary artery disease.
In this study in the Journal of Motivation and Emotion, researchers found that positive emotions can undo the cardiovascular effects of negative emotions, facilitating a return to a more stable physiological state. Test subjects who were feeling anxiety-causing cardiovascular reactivity were alternately shown films that made them feel content, amused, neutral or sad. The results proved that films that made subjects feel amused or content produced faster cardiovascular recovery than the neutral or sad films did.
In light of the compelling research on the power of positive emotions, we would do well to increase our daily levels of positivity. This, of course, would never imply that we should deny, ignore, or suppress negative emotions. All emotions can be valued as e-motion, or energy in motion. We can listen, learn and benefit from both negative and positive emotions because they are the messengers of our perception. It is when we are able to decode, honor and integrate them that we are subsequently able to adapt, grow and flourish. Proactively encouraging positivity in our daily lives will remind us that we can be more than just the emotional bystanders and reactors of life. We can be the architects of our attitudes.
Some Simple Suggestions for Increasing Positivity:
1. During the day, be mindful of wins: a satisfying completion of a project, a kind gesture, a humorous email, or an unexpected compliment.
2. Take a full body stretch every hour. Snag a brisk walk with a coworker on your lunch hour. Enjoy your favorite healthy snacks, and keep hydrated.
3. Ritualize your transition at the close of the workday. Consciously decide what you want to bring home with you. Leave the burdens and upsets of the day behind. Sit in the car for a few minutes and breathe deeply. When you get home, take time to relax and unwind with a guided five-minute "Lying On Back" gentle yoga stretch.
4. Contact and connect with loved ones. Call, text, email, send a love letter or a shared photo of a happy memory. Laugh, dance, share a meal, sit together, hold hands, cuddle.
5. Make an ongoing list of what is NOT broken. Keep a gratitude journal.
Developing a positive attitude greatly enriches our lives as well as that of those around us. Cultivating positivity can alter your body, mind and spirit in formidable ways that will aid you in creating your best life. As Dr. Fredrickson writes, "The treasure of your own positivity is waiting for you."