Have you ever wondered how some people maintain a positive attitude in the face of challenges while others get stuck in negativity, fear or frustration? Over 10 years ago, when I went through my executive coaching program, I took a positive psychology class. How to notice and amplify the positive — to focus on what is working, rather than what isn’t — really intrigued me.
Since then, I have proactively integrated the key principles of positive psychology into my work and have seen the powerful impact on my clients.
So, when the opportunity came up to attend a workshop with Dr. Barbara Frederickson, I jumped at the chance. Her eye-opening research on the science of emotion shows how positive emotions and connection to purpose can give you disproportionate strength and why. I know I can’t do her work justice in this short article, but I want to highlight some important takeaways (check out her books, Positivity and Love 2.0).
We Are Wired to Notice the Negative More Than the Positive
Like me, you might be surprised that, by definition, emotions are very brief. They exist to address the situation at hand, with negative emotions helping us deal with current threats and positive emotions helping us access our resourcefulness. Dr. Frederickson explained that because of how we are hard-wired, “Negative emotions can hit us like a sledgehammer while positive emotions are more like a whisper.” Over time they may create “lingering lenses.” On the negative side, this might look like someone having a tendency to blame others or see the worst in most situations.
Positive Emotions Are Powerful
On the positive side, there are a whole host of striking benefits because positive emotions are tightly linked to how long people live and how healthy they are. The data are clear and show a direct correlation between positive emotions and heart health, immune health and resilience. Positive emotions can even increase an individual’s sense of purpose. In other words, positive emotions can help you find more meaning and even see your job more as a calling.
You Can’t Just Flip a Switch
To feel more positive emotion, you can't just go straight to the end goal. Although you may hear others say things like this, it isn’t quite as simple as saying, “Be happy. Feel positive!” My tongue-in-cheek response to comments like those is, “Hmm. OK. Let me just stuff my feelings, go forth and conquer.”
Choose Intentional Strategies Over Willpower to Create Lasting Change
Sheer willpower doesn’t work in the long run. To notice the positive, you may need some intentional strategies.
A great example is when someone decides they want to immediately start working out five days a week when they currently don’t work out at all and may not have in months. I used to jokingly say that step one is to just get your workout clothes on, because you’ll feel silly wearing them and not doing something active. But after sitting in Dr. Frederickson’s workshop, I realized that there’s more to it:
First, notice how often you actually think about the activity – in this case, exercising (once or multiple times a day, weekly, never?).
Second, identify what percentage of your thoughts about the activity is positive or negative. When I think about working out, I typically think about how it will give me energy and get me outside in the sun. For others, they may think more about the difficulty and the obstacles: “I don’t have time. I’m so out of shape. This is going to be torture.”
Third, think about how positive your experience is while you are engaging in the activity
I remember when I used to go to spinning classes regularly with friends, I loved it—even when I was too tired to do it. I enjoyed catching up with my friends, listening to the upbeat music and picking a person in the class to secretly “compete” with. If I had only been focused on the outcome, to get through the one-hour class, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it nearly as much. In other words, make some tweaks to the experience so that it becomes more enjoyable, rather than just focusing on the accomplishment.
Once you have greater awareness about your thoughts about an activity, you can actually take some simple steps to “program” your spontaneous thoughts to be more positive. She suggested using an “If (this), then (that)” approach. Continuing with our example of exercise, here’s what it would look like in practice:
If I am too tired to exercise after work, then I will remind myself how good I will feel once I start exercising.
If it is a nice day outside, then I will go for a walk in my favorite park or trail.
These simple strategies will help you develop effective ways to counteract some of the challenges and negative thoughts you may be facing. I have been trying them myself and am surprised at how quickly they start to work. I have barely scraped the surface in sharing Dr. Frederickson’s research and its far-reaching impact. My goal right now is to challenge you to just get started. Energy is contagious, so as you begin to feel more positive emotions it will affect others around you, too. And remember that small steps can lead to big results.