As much as I have no doubt most people wish to be happy 24 hours a day, this simply isn’t achievable. It wouldn’t be natural either in my opinion. Imagine being around people who constantly smile, even through the worst tragedies in life – I wouldn’t trust it. Frankly, I would be worried. It doesn’t connect to reality. That said I wouldn’t want to spend too much time with someone who’s constantly negative either.
According to the American Psychology Professor, Barbara Fredrickson (known for her extensive work within positive psychology), living by a positivity ratio of 3:1 is ideal. Basically this means that in order to properly thrive we need to have three heartfelt positive emotional experiences for every devastating negative one. Newer research suggests the ratio to be more along the lines of 7:1, but regardless of which you choose to go with, the bottom line is that you can’t have one without the other.
Personally I believe that going through negative emotions makes us enjoy the positive emotions much more, which I guess would be another way of putting it. What’s important though is, that the positives outnumber the negatives.
During my late teens and early 20’s I was all about the negative. I had lots of fun, but emotionally I saw the glass as half empty and focused on the impossible instead of the possible. The most impressive part of this picture is, that I wasn’t even aware of it – this was simply my perception of life. Sure, I knew I was unhappy (I even told everyone about it too), but I honestly never thought I could feel otherwise. I hoped I could and dreamt about the happy Hollywood ending, but I never truly believed this could happen to me.
It turns out I was far from alone on this one. Shawn Achor, American Happiness Researcher, has found through thorough research that humans are always striving for something better. ‘When I get my dream job I’ll be happy’, ‘As soon as school is finished, I’ll make the money I need, meet the partner of my dreams and life will be a bliss’. However, once we reach these goals, we’ve usually set new ones and we never fully enjoy the process. Focusing on the negative has been and continues to be a challenge in society – we’re simply used to focusing on the negative and are programmed to believe that we need to work hard at it (sometimes for years) in order to achieve any sort of happiness. Apparently as late as 1998 the entire field of psychology focused almost only on the negative. This means that the negative and how to get rid of it has been the dominating approach within the industry till less than 20 years ago! Then came along the President of the American Psychological Association and claimed it was time to shift the traditional approach. It was time to look at what works (i.e. positive psychology) – not just what doesn’t. Maybe we should do the same in our everyday lives?
People who are close to me will confirm that my outlook on life has changed dramatically. I still have bad days like any other, but I will always try to find the positive in why something has happened the way it has. Finding the positives can take a while, but so far I have managed and I sincerely believe that I will keep finding them no matter what happens to me.
I believe that everything happens for a reason and that nothing is so bad that it isn’t good for something else. However, this doesn’t mean I walk around with my head in a pink cloud. We need to react when the less positive parts of life show up. We need to go through the motions and process the hurt. Simply ignoring heartache and pain will only make matters worse and one day your body will scream what it has been trying to whisper to you for years. Been there, tried that – it wasn’t pleasant.
The challenge with negativity, I find, is that it tends to be such a natural part of the human mind that most of the time people don’t realise how negative their thoughts are. Let’s test it: When was the last time you thought ‘I hate my job!’ or ‘I wish my relationship was more like my neighbour’s – my partner is such a bore!’. Chances are, you don’t even notice these thoughts any longer. They have become a natural part of your daily routine. The danger here is, that what our minds are full of tend to grow stronger.
So, you find you are in a dull relationship? Focus on it and it will get even worse. Your workplace didn’t turn out to be what you had hoped for? Focus on it and you’ll probably end up having no responsibility what so ever resulting in the fact that your colleagues won’t even notice you’re there.
Now try turning the table. Next time you get to the office, notice the fresh flowers on the table at the reception desk. Who do you think put them there? Why do you think he / she did this? My guess would be the receptionist did it and that this person placed the flowers there in the hope that it would brighten your day (amongst others). I bet if you tell the receptionist you noticed it, you will brighten his / her day right back. And let’s say you really don’t like the job you’re in – maybe it’s time you look for a new one? One where you can make the most of all your passion and talent. One where you’ll wake up daily with a smile on your face because you know your day is full of fantastic, rewarding challenges. I appreciate switching jobs isn’t always as straightforward as it can sound. So you are a banker dreaming of joining the circus? Maybe start by finding an evening or weekend course where you can work on those juggling skills and make sure this is the right switch for you before you go for it full time.
Instead of focusing on your neighbours amazing love life, how about taking matters into your own hands when you come home tonight. Stop your partner in doing whatever he / she is doing, have a hug and seal it with ‘you look great / beautiful’. Who knows, maybe this tiny action will trigger a great story about what happened today or a suggestion that the two of you go out tonight (dressed up and all) – just like you used to.
Changing a thought pattern takes time. Once negativity has become a habit you need to make a conscious effort to change it. Anyone who has ever tried to get rid of a bad habit will know that it takes devotion and you need to be quite stubborn about it. Start by noticing your thoughts in the first place – on the tube, in the shower, while cooking, in the car, on the bike – what are they like? Maybe change one thought a day to begin with. Turn what was negative into a positive and try to notice how your body relaxes when you do so. Sometimes finding the positive can be a challenge, but I’m certain it can be done.
Stuck in the tube with thousands of others? Instead of criticising your fellow commuters in your mind, try this little game: Who’s got the best hair today? Prettiest face? Funky style?
As Shawn Achor’s TEDx talk below will vouch for, if you can train your mind consciously to focus on the positives in life, only more positive will come. Give it a go – what have you got to lose?