I knew I had been in a rut for a while and needed to take action to get out of it. Often my solution is to look for something to read that will give me practical advice. But when you look at a book about positivity and have a reaction that is somewhere on the continuum between skeptical and sarcastic, then you know it’s especially important that you read it.
I knew I wanted to choose carefully what I read because there are different approaches to positive thinking. Some seem to encourage you to ignore your negative circumstances rather than deal with them directly, and others like to place blame, telling you that everything bad that ever happens to you is a result of your negative thinking.
But when I found Positivity by Barbara Frederickson I felt it was a very balanced book. She acknowledges that there will always be negative elements in our lives, and in fact negativity has a stronger impact on us than positivity. It is for this reason that her research has centered on trying to find what is needed to counteract the effect of negativity.
She found that a ratio of 3:1 of positive to negative emotions is the tipping point at which people will consider themselves happy and content. To achieve this one must both seek out as well as take note of positive events, big or small, so that they don’t get buried under the weight of negativity. It’s as if negativity is stickier in your brain whereas positivity tends to slide right out.
Another aspect to Frederickson’s research is cultivating connections between people. These encounters do not always have to be in the form of deep conversations between old friends as I would have assumed. Rather, she says that even a mini-moment with a stranger can have the result of increased positivity because it acknowledges our common humanity.
I must admit that when I read her book I wasn’t quite ready for it. The exercises seemed a bit overwhelming and the assessment questionnaires only reinforced for me the difference between my current emotional state and where I wanted to be. Clearly I needed more positivity and human connection but I had to find a way to work toward that goal without feeling like a failure right out of the gate. Maybe I needed to set the bar a bit lower.
Then I found this book on gratitude (Thanks! by Robert Emmons). One of the suggestions was to keep a gratitude journal. This appeals to me because I love making lists. I find that once I start coming up with things for which I am thankful then many others spring to mind. I feel like this gives me an immediate result and therefore I can feel I have made some progress.
One theme of the book is that when we view the good things in our lives as gifts then we are even more appreciative of them. This also helps guard against an entitlement mentality and derive even more benefits from our thankfulness. The participants of a gratitude study reported less stress and better sleep; their friends and family noticed an increase in altruistic behavior.
Appreciating what you already have would also help protect against consumerism. Modern marketing is designed to make you dissatisfied with your current situation in the hopes of convincing you that you must buy something bigger, newer, or more expensive. But if you feel that what you own is adequate for your needs then you will have an immunity to this advertising tactic.
I’ve noticed that I have been expressing my gratitude toward others more frequently; I see the effect this has on others, and I can vouch for how it makes me feel when people tell me they appreciate what I’ve done. Even little things make a difference—my apartment complex recently replaced all the doormats with big new ones and I made a point of emailing the manager to thank her for a nice surprise. I have friends tell me how much they enjoy getting the short notes that I often drop in the mail.
Positivity and gratitude are two elements that go against the grain of our modern Western culture. It will take effort to develop these traits but like muscles, the more you use them the stronger they get. If you start small and do a little bit every day then over time you will reap the benefits of your efforts and see a change in your life as well as in those around you.