“Positivity” is a hot topic being written about in articles and books over and over again. Often, the suggested formula requires following a bright and shiny yellow brick road directly leading to happiness. We all remember how Dorothy’s trip down that yellow brick road led to all kinds of obstacles that forced her to change her path. It is those changes that led her home. I like to think of the journey to happiness is much like Dorothy’s journey: embracing change is key. The change in terms of being more positive and in turn, living a happier life, is a commitment to adding and practicing happiness habits. These new habits can literally reprogram our brain to seek out and highlight the positive in life. The more we’re able to see the positive in life, the happier we are, and the greater our overall quality of life becomes.
Our biggest obstacle to happiness? Our biology. We are designed to scan the environment for threats, thanks to a highly attuned nervous system ready to shift into self-protection mode whenever faced with danger. Yes, this focus on identifying threats was indeed helpful at a time in history when running away from predators (think lions and tigers and bears) was commonplace; but today this feature of our bodies may do more harm than good. Rather than approaching any given situations with an open mind, happiness, or excitement, our first inclination is to find the danger or the negative. In addition, negativity studies show that our brain holds onto negative experiences and feelings longer than positive ones. The work of John Cacioppo, Ph.D., shows greater electrical activity in our brain’s cerebral cortex when exposed to stimuli that we deem negative. This heightened activity heavily influences our moods. The good news is, our natural negative bias—a term coined by psychologist to refer to our tendencies to notice, store, and recall negative stimuli and events—may make positivity more challenging, but not at all impossible.
First we need to teach the brain to see and experience a more positive reality. I liken this shift to building the strength of a muscle. If you consistently activate core muscles in just the right way, with the best possible exercises, you can have a transformed body. Your fitness level may heighten, making the exercises progressively easier, but continuing the exercise is necessary to maintain this level. Likewise, practicing happiness habits like identifying daily inspirations, giving thanks, and practicing acts of kindness, builds up the emotional fitness of the brain and shifts perspective to a positive one. By breaking the synaptic connections in our brain that automatically scan for negativity, we can program new connections that allow the brain to scan for positivity.
The research of Shawn Anchor, a leading expert on the connection between happiness and success, found that adding new habits focused on positivity leads to a change in mindset that exponentially improves intelligence, productivity, quality of life, and education and business outcomes. Fight your natural disposition toward negativity and bring yourself into better balance by practicing any one of these happiness habits, and reap the rewards of positivity!
- Identify beauty and inspiration. Every day notate in a journal or take a photograph of three things that inspire you, make you smile, or make you happy. By seeking out and finding positivity in simple things, you’re slowly overriding your brain’s tendency to seek out negative stimuli. Over time, your brain will continue to seek positive stimuli even when you’ve stopped looking.
- Be thankful. Every day, write down three specific things for which you are thankful. Think less big picture like “I am thankful for my health” and more specific like “I am thankful I was home for dinner tonight to spend time with my family.” Anchor explains it is important to be specific and to find new things every day for which you are thankful, for the best success in retraining the brain for positivity.
- Share positivity. Every day, send a friend, loved one, or colleague an inspiring, thought-provoking, or funny quote, article, photograph, or video. Your brain’s negative bias naturally keeps you focused on the negative articles in the papers and on the Internet. By actively seeking positive, you are retraining your brain to seek out good over bad. Plus, sending these e-mails promotes your connection to others. Studies reveal social connection to be a lead factor in happiness.