Positive psychology, the scientific study of happiness and human potential, has demonstrated that when we have a positive, optimistic mindset, we’re:
- 31 percent more productive,
- 40 percent more likely to receive a promotion in the coming year, and
- Experience a 23 percent drop in stress-related symptoms, such as headaches, backaches, and fatigue.
So, how can we train our brains to see the world through a more positive lens — especially in these trying times — and boost our well-being?
Michelle Gielan, best-selling author of Broadcasting Happiness: The Science of Igniting and Sustaining Positive Change, executive producer of The Happiness Advantage on PBS, and former anchor of The CBS Morning News, has three favorite tools that are backed by research.
- Embrace the power lead — that is, start meetings and conversations by sharing something positive and meaningful.
“As you jump on Zoom calls, as you see people in the office, as you come home from a long day at work, people are constantly asking you, “Hey, how are you? How’s it going?” If we start off with something negative, there are only two directions the conversation can go. Either people meet you with compassion, “Oh, I’m so sorry you’re experiencing that.” Or, people play misery poker, “You think your commute was bad? Let me tell you about mine.” But either way, the conversation heads in that negative direction.
Meanwhile, if you offer up something positive and meaningful, what you’re doing is not only training your brain to keep seeing all those good things, but you’re also encouraging other people to match in kind because we’re socialized to reciprocate. So, if you say something good, the other person is most likely going to scan their world for something good to match with yours.
Now, of course, if something’s bothering you can go to a friend or someone you trust and say, “I’ve got to talk to you about this.” But more generally, think about whether you are broadcasting good things that help build connections with other people, or are you putting other kinds of stuff out there?
- Fact-check the story you’re telling about things that are stressing you out. It will calm your brain down!
Fact-checking is done in three steps. The first two are really straightforward. First, you want to isolate the negative or stressful thoughts and get really clear about what you’re stressing about. And then, for step number two, you want to list the known facts of why you’re stressing about this.
Step number three is the stretch. You want to list the fueling facts that together illuminate a new story. Fueling facts are resources, successes, wins, skills, behaviors, relationships, all the good stuff in your life that’s simultaneously happening, that’s equally true, that’s grounded in reality, that helps us calm our brain down and then pick an action step and move forward.
Here’s a very universal example, “I’m never going to finish this project in time. I’m exhausted. I’m swamped. My colleagues can’t help me.” We’ve all been there at some point.
How can we find those fueling facts, resources, successes, wins, skills, behaviors, and relationships? We can think:
- If I were to be fair, you know what? I’ve been at this company for four years. I’ve never needed a deadline extension before.
- And you know what? I can’t ask those three people, but there are two other people on my team that I could ask; they might have just a little bit of time to write small pieces of this proposal.
- Oh, you know what? Speaking of proposals, I actually handed in a proposal about six months ago, and it was really well received. I could use that as a template, a jumping-off point for this project.
- And if I were to add up the number of hours between nine and six, between now and the deadline, I do actually have more than 20 hours I could devote to this project.
This list is so much better, right? Equally true facts. So it’s not like you’re taking that first list and you’re fighting with yourself and disputing all of those facts. You’re just helping expand your mind to see those other equally true facts, which hopefully, if we focus on those, they’ll help calm the brain down and move it forward.
- Write notes of gratitude to seven people over the next seven days. And do it first thing — before reading anyone else’s emails that ask something of you.
Write up your list of those seven people, and then first thing in the morning, take just a couple of minutes, hit compose, and write that nice note, praising someone and telling them why they’ve been meaningful to you in your life and how they’ve brightened your experience on this planet and send it off. You will reap the benefits for the rest of the day. It’ll help buffer your brain against any stresses or challenges that you experience because you started on such a positive note.
The reason we do it, from a scientific perspective, is social connection is the greatest predictor of long-term levels of happiness. So, the more that you meaningfully activate your social support network through these notes, the more you’re reminding your brain of all these people that love you, that care about you, that have invested in your success, and that are bright points in your day. And that helps your brain reap the benefits both now and in the long run.
Michelle Gilean spoke at the 2021 Pennsylvania Conference for Women. This article is based on her talk.