You have more control over your happiness than you might think. In fact, the happiest people don’t leave their life satisfaction to chance, they do the work necessary to make their happiness a priority. While there is no happiness switch that you can simply turn on, focusing your attention on positive thoughts and actions through mindfulness will most certainly lead you toward a more enjoyable and meaningful life.
Research shows that if you are willing to mindfully assess your current practices and thought patterns, and integrate some key choices into your life, you too can work your way up the happiness scale and experience the full spectrum of positivity that life has to offer.
What Is Positivity?
Positivity is more than just an optimistic and positive attitude. It consists of the full range of positive emotions—those that feel good in your body, mind, and heart. Positivity takes many forms and can be sparked by just about anything; however, it is not the same as happiness. Happiness is a result while positivity is a choice. While it is not really possible to just be happier, it is always possible to choose positivity over negativity.
Barbara Frederickson, the world-renowned researcher and positive psychologist, identifies 10 forms of positivity that show up most often in people’s lives (while there are certainly other positive emotions in the emotional lexicon, these 10 have been the subject of the most research by positive psychologists):
When was the last time you felt each of these emotions? In her book, Positivity, Frederickson says that “getting in tune with your own positivity means going beyond one-size-fits-all terms like happy and good in favor of more precisely named emotional states.” Simply identifying the full range of possibilities brings them into closer reach. Positivity is everywhere, and appears in all shapes and sizes.
Why Should It Matter?
There’s good reason to make your positivity a priority. At its most basic level, feeling good feels good, and is usually a sign that life-threatening diseases, illnesses, and circumstances are not consuming your energy. However, the latest research shows that not only is positivity a result of health, success, and well-being, it is a cause of these states too.
Barbara Frederickson’s famous Broaden and Build Theory states that positive thoughts and emotions broaden people’s perspectives, and open their hearts and their minds. The more open they are to the gamut of possibilities, the greater joy they feel. And the more broad life feels, the more people can build upon their resources and their ability to handle whatever life throws their way. While negativity constrains your experience of the world, positivity expands it—literally! Evidence shows that positivity increases life span by up to 10 years.
Check out these nine ways to adjust your focus toward positivity.
1. Take Inventory of Your Thoughts
It all starts with your thoughts. How much positivity you experience is a direct result of how you choose to interpret the experiences in your life, so get real about your habits of thought. If you take time to see the good in any situation, you will feel more positive feelings as a result. So take responsibility for how your thoughts affect your emotional state, and decide whether your current habits benefit or hinder your enjoyment of life. Here are some ways to take inventory:
- See challenges as opportunities. A good way to check in with your current thought patterns is to notice how your mind responds (or reacts) when things go well or poorly.
For example, if your best work friend gets a promotion, is your first thought one of support and excitement for that friend, or one of jealousy, resentment, and frustration? Or if you run out of gas on your way to pick up your kids from school, are you able to stay calm and centered, or do you see it as yet another way you are being punished by some almighty power? People with a positive outlook see obstacles as opportunities for growth and are able to experience empathetic joy for others’ good fortune.
- Meditate, meditate, meditate. You can learn everything there is to know about your mental tendencies by having a regular sitting practice. Think of your meditations as your time to get to know yourself and witness your thoughts more clearly. By learning to separate from your thoughts, rather than identify with them, you will be able to make more mindful choices to your benefit.
2. Tip the Scales to Achieve the Positivity Ratio
Barbara Frederickson’s work on positivity has revealed another useful theory called the Positivity Ratio. It says that there is a “tipping point” between languishing and flourishing that is three positive experiences for every negative one. By tipping the scales to maintain a 3:1 ratio, Frederickson says people will enter an upward spiral of positive growth and well-being.
What happens if your ratio looks more like 2:1 or below? Negativity trumps positivity with regard to impact, meaning you are more likely to focus on the one scowling face in a sea of 100 audience members at your talk than the 99 receptive faces in crowd. The Positivity Ratio suggests that your positive experiences can get swallowed up by your negative experiences if the scales are tipped in the wrong direction. If this is the case, both increasing your positivity and decreasing your negativity will help.
3. Decrease Negativity in Your Life
It sounds obvious, but simply decreasing negativity in your life makes room for the natural flow of positivity to come forth. Of course, some forms of negativity are inevitable (e.g., mourning the loss of a loved one), but what about the gratuitous negativity that creeps in and corrupts your ability to function at your best?
Ask yourself: what do I spend most of my time doing, and who do I spend most of my time with? If your media consumption is depressing you, take a break. If your friends have become toxic and gossipy, resist the urge to fit in by being negative yourself. If work tasks are frustrating you, determine what responsibilities you might be able to delegate to someone else.
And what about the negativity you have noticed within yourself? How hard are you on yourself when you miss a deadline at work? Or when you accidentally have broccoli in your teeth at Back-to-School Night? Challenge yourself to avoid negative self-talk—life is hard enough without piling self-critical, negative thoughts on yourself. As best as you can, minimize your ruminations on challenging situations, and practice identifying them as soon as they show up. A simple deep breath can be all that is needed to witness a negative thought dissipate.
4. Employ Gratitude as Your Full-Time Employee
It is no surprise that is one of the surest ways toward a happier life. The more you appreciate your body, circumstances, and relationships, the more you will flourish and your happiness will grow. Once you have become aware of the presence of negativity in your life (or the lack of positivity), you can start to inject more grateful observations into your experiences. Remember, positivity is impacted by the way you choose to interpret what goes on in your life. By identifying something you can be thankful for in any given moment, you trigger upward growth in your well-being and quality of life.
5. Savor the Good Times
Do you find yourself rushing through life? In a world where technology is teaching you that faster is better, it is important to remember the value of slowing down and savoring the good times. A wine connoisseur would never chug a glass of wine; he or she engages his or her senses to fully enjoy one sip at a time.
The next time you sit down to a delicious meal of food, eat slowly and savor each bite. When you have a conversation with your child or elderly relative, rather than hurrying them up, notice the sparkle in their eye and the cadence of their speech. Pay attention to the details as if you wanted to commit them to memory. Joy lives in the moments that are all too often passed by with laser-like focus toward some imagined finish line.
6. Visualize Your Journey to Future Success
While some people tend to dwell on the past, others get hung up on the future. Worrying about the future is the definition of anxiety, but visualizing positive future experiences is a recipe for positivity.
Studies show that creative visualization of the steps needed to achieve a future task lead to more successful outcomes than no visualization at all, or of merely visualizing the positive outcome itself. Picturing with vivid clarity all the things you need to do in order to pass your bar exam, for example (i.e., study at the library five days a week), will help you to pass your test more effectively than simply picturing being told that you passed. So it is not just seeing the good in your present that matters, but practicing seeing things going well in the future as well.
7. Consider Your Relationships
Simply spending time with other people will increase positivity in your life. Countless studies have shown that being together with others is a crucial part of the good life. So get out and engage with other people every day, no matter what. And appreciate them!
Ask yourself: Do I appreciate the people most important to me? Do they know how grateful I am for them? Don’t wait until someone is out of your life to relish in his or her goodness. Relationships are the number one indicator of happy lives, and therefore deserve your regular attention and gratitude.
And as for the people you don’t care for so much? Try to offer them compassion, understanding, and the benefit of the doubt. Great leaders see the best in other people and focus on their potential rather than their limitations.
8. Get Outdoors
Researchers agree on a strong correlation between being in nature and happiness. Because the reality of most people’s modern lives keeps them indoors, just going outside more often has the ability to boost positivity. What do you do when you get outside? Tune in to your senses. See the colors, textures, and shapes that appear naturally all around you. Smell the scents of your neighborhood’s flora and fauna. Feel the cool breeze or warm sunshine on your skin. Broaden your awareness of your surroundings, and you will expand the possibilities of your life.
9. Keep Expanding, Growing, and Learning
Finally, remember these words from Irish poet William Butler Yeats: “Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing nor that, but simply growth. We are happy when we are growing.”
It is human nature to want to expand and grow over time, so do what you can do to be sure you’re always in an atmosphere of growth. Make it a habit to remind yourself that it is natural to outgrow jobs, people, and situations if they leave you feeling stagnant. Your willingness to learn something new, broaden your range of interests, and improve your God-given talents will give you a positive mindset and have you feeling more positive and resourceful in all areas of your life.
But Take It Easy … Over Analysis Kills Positivity
As you experiment with positivity, try to be light with it. As Frederickson points out, one of the great paradoxes of research on positivity is that over analysis stops it right in its tracks. Consider your journey in this life as an assignment from the universe on how to live well. Wriggling free from the grip of negativity toward the light of positivity might be some of the most important work of your life. But you must see it to believe it.
So the question stands: What small steps can you take today toward living a happier, fuller life?
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