Have you heard of being a Pollyanna? It is a common way to label someone whose glass is always half full, despite any circumstance. The term came from a film about an irrepressibly optimistic young girl named Pollyanna. I’ve never seen the movie, but I do know that characters like Olaf from Frozen, Phoebe from Friends, or Kimmy Schmidt from The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt all share that Pollyanna brand of positivity. Like Pollyanna, people with high levels of optimism are often judged as immature or uneducated. But what if science supported that positivity is, in fact, the smarter way to be?
There is a strong body of evidence that the right kind of positive thinking can change the world. Let’s look at the biology, psychology, and wisdom in the practice of positivity. First, let’s consider what positivity is and is not.
- Positivity is about making an effort to experience and prolong positive emotions (the ones that feel good). It is also the ability to quickly recognize and move through negative emotions (the ones that feel yucky).
- Positivity is not pushing negative feelings away or pretending not to experience them.
When you spend more time experiencing positive emotions rather than negative ones, you are said to be flourishing—or thriving.
Biology—The Evolutionary Role of Negative Emotion
Emotions and your ability to regulate them is what separates you and other humans from other species. All emotions serve a function. But until recently, researchers spent more time looking at the negative ones.
The oldest part of your brain, sometimes called the reptilian brain, has the job of keeping you safe. This part of your biology is primitive and animalistic, and is responsible for the fight-or-flight-or-freeze response, which is designed to protect you from potential dangers.
For example, we used to live in groups of around 150 people. This helped with our health and physical safety and the sharing of responsibilities. People would know everyone in their tribe. Our strong ability to pick out things that were different in our environment helped us to notice strangers who might carry disease or threaten our safety as well as other predators who posed a real threat. There was an important evolutionary reason for negative emotions.
What has not been as clear to scientists is the role of positive emotions. Your emotional responses are like the gear system in a car. All gears are important, but the last thing you want is to get stuck in a gear that isn’t right for the type of driving you’re doing. When you get stuck in the emotional response loop, you might be making fear-based decisions about things that would not normally be scary. This is like being stuck in high gear while trying to get up a hill. Simply put, you need to be able to shift emotional gears when you need to.
Psychology—What Are Positive Emotions?
Emotions impact your relationships, how you make choices and decisions, what you pay attention to, and your personal identity. Positive emotions help with open-minded thinking; they build your resilience and have the power to undo the impact of negative emotions. Think of how strongly you can connect with someone over an inside joke, or how good you feel when you stand at the edge of a vast forest. Positive emotions have power.
The following list contains many helpful positive emotions from Barbara Fredrickson, a leading expert from UNC-Chapel Hill and author of Positivity:
Examples of unhelpful emotions include the following:
How Wisdom Practices Help
While negative emotions demand attention, positive emotions tend to be more fleeting and subtle. Meditators often experience greater emotional attunement over time. This is good because, in order to keep your emotions working, you need to drive them as opposed to letting them take the wheel. Try these wisdom practices to help you balance out your emotions:
It has been shown that loving-kindness meditations enhance interpersonal relationships and increase compassion. Even Charles Darwin, who is more commonly remembered as the mind behind the survival-of-the-fittest theory, believed that compassion was a key to flourishing communities according to his book Sociability. Meditation helps you to avoid rumination and to transform suffering. In meditation, the practice of present-moment awareness helps put space between emotion and reaction.
Mindfulness is a path to become more aware of how you think. As you practice, you become more attuned to your emotional sensations and more equipped to catch yourself when your negative emotions take over.
Another wisdom practice for building positive emotions is gratitude. Giving thanks for the things and the people who surround you (or maybe who you can’t wait to see) is shown to lift moods and counteract depression and negativity.
How to Become More Positive
If you are considering that Pollyanna may have had it right and that positive emotions might help you to cope or to thrive during this current pandemic, here are a few ways to cultivate optimism.
- Create a positive bedtime ritual. Think of a time where you felt a very strong positive emotion and replay that story in your head as you fall asleep. Think of telling the story to someone who wasn’t there by recreating the physical environment, the physical sensations behind the emotion, and the emotional word you would use to describe the event.
- Look for opportunities to have positive experiences. Even though we cannot go outside, we can look through yearbooks, spend time looking at the stars, or have a call with an old friend. Schedule time in your day to create experiences designed to provoke positive emotions.
- Notice and name the negative. When a negative emotion happens, notice the sensation, name the emotion, then move through it as quickly as possible.
- Keep hope close at hand. Hope is the one emotion that can flip a negative to a positive almost instantly.
In the words of The Stress-Proof Brain author and neuroplasticity expert, Melanie Greenburg, “Positive emotions and mental states may make people more resilient to stress, like sturdy tree branches that bend but don’t break when battered by a storm.”
Optimism and positivity do help, and they have a contagious effect that can spread despite social distancing.