We’ve all heard about how possessing a positive attitude is beneficial in many ways. Maybe one of the most important aspects of having a positive attitude is that it resonates to others, and we like to hang around people who are positive. I believe that most of us would prefer to be positive rather than negative. Sometimes, “positive thinking” can be viewed as a weak term that is easy to dismiss. In the business world, it rarely carries the same weight as words like “work ethic” or “persistence.”
Hopefully those views continue to change, and get pushed to the back of the bus! Research is beginning to reveal that positive thinking is about much more than just being happy or displaying an upbeat attitude. Positive thoughts can actually create real value in your life and help you build skills that last much longer than a smile.
The impact of positive thinking in your work, your health, and your life has been studied extensively by people who are much smarter than me. Good people in medicine and science done the research and conducted studies that have a scientific foundation of how positive thinking can literally change things in your life for the better.
One of these people is Barbara Fredrickson, and she is a positive psychology researcher at the University of North Carolina. She published a landmark paper that provides surprising insights about positive thinking and its impact on your skills at work. Her work is among the most referenced and cited in her field and it is surprisingly useful in everyday life.
Let’s talk about Fredrickson’s discovery and what it means for you, me, and the workforce that makes up our companies.
What Negative Thoughts Do to Your Brain
Let’s say that you’re walking down a dark alley and suddenly a guy with a gun steps into your path and points the gun at you demanding money. Your brain immediately registers a negative emotion — in this case, fear.
Researchers have known for a long time that negative emotions program your brain to do a specific action. When that criminal crosses your path, for example, your brain tells you to run. Nothing else in this world matters at that moment. You are focused entirely on the criminal with a gun, the fear it creates, and how you can get away from it.
What happens is that negative emotions narrow your mind and focus your thoughts. At that same moment, you might have the option to jump behind a garbage can, pick up an object or grab a stick — but your brain ignores all of those options because they seem irrelevant when a criminal is standing in front of you – with a gun.
This is a useful instinct if you’re trying to save your life, but in our modern society we don’t usually have to worry about confronting criminals with guns in a dark alley because we probably wouldn’t go down the alley in the first place. The problem is that your brain is still programmed to respond to negative emotions in the same way — by shutting off the outside world and limiting the options you see around you.
For example, when you’re in a fight with someone, your anger and emotion might consume you to the point where you can’t think about anything else.
Or, when you are stressed out about everything you have to get done today, you may find it hard to actually start anything because you’re paralyzed by how long your “to–do” list has become. Or, if you feel bad about not exercising or not eating healthy, all you think about is how little willpower you have, how you’re lazy, and how you don’t have any motivation.
In each case, your brain closes off from the outside world and focuses on the negative emotions of fear, anger, and stress — just like it did with the criminal with a gun. Negative emotions prevent your brain from seeing the other options and choices that surround you. It’s your survival instinct.
Now, let’s compare this to what positive emotions do to your brain. This is where Barbara Fredrickson returns to the story.
What Positive Thoughts Do to Your Brain
Fredrickson tested the impact of positive emotions on the brain by setting up a little experiment. During this experiment, she divided her research subjects into 5 groups and showed each group different film clips.
- The first two groups were shown clips that created positive emotions. Group 1 saw images that created feelings of joy.
- Group 2 saw images that created feelings of contentment.
- Group 3 was the control group. They saw images that were neutral and produced no significant emotion.
- The last two groups were shown clips that created negative emotions. Group 4 saw images that created feelings of fear.
- Group 5 saw images that created feelings of anger.
After the testing was complete, each participant was asked to imagine themselves in a situation where similar feelings would arise and to write down what they would do, or how they might respond. Each participant was handed a piece of paper with 20 blank lines that started with the phrase, “I would like to…”
Participants who saw images of fear and anger wrote down the fewest responses. Meanwhile, the participants who saw images of joy and contentment, wrote down a significantly higher number of actions that they would take, even when compared to the neutral group.
In other words, when you are experiencing positive emotions like joy, contentment, and love, you will see more possibilities in your life.
These findings were among the first that proved that positive emotions broaden your sense of possibility and open your mind up to more options. But that was just the beginning.
The really interesting impact of positive thinking happens later…and I will share that with you in the next post…stay tuned, and make it a great day! Brian
(This post is from my latest book Healthy Habits of Highly Productive Employees. If you want to check out the book, you can visit my site: https://www.brianhazelgren.com/books.html)