Earlier this month, I had a bad case of the Negative Nellies. Everything was hard, everyone was out to get me, and nothing was going my way. It didn’t take long for my bad attitude to rub off on the rest of my family. There were squabbles over chores, dramatic eye rolling, and little criticisms sprinkled throughout our conversations. A simple “How was your day?” was answered with a long litany of complaints. Within a week, we were a grumpy, snarling mess.
Part of the reason for our rapid decline is that it is so easy to zero in on the dark side of life. Psychologists believe that our brains are hard-wired to be negative, an evolutionary holdover from our ancestors who needed to focus on potential danger (such as attacks from animals or natural disasters) for their survival. But as we all know, negativity isn’t conducive to happiness, and a gloomy outlook can increase stress levels, weaken our immune systems, and make us bummers to be around. The good news is that psychologists also believe that we can learn how to override negativity by amplifying the positive.
Sick of our collective bad attitude, over breakfast one morning I suggested that we engage in a family-wide Positivity Campaign. While flipping pancakes, I explained the research findings of psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, author of the book Positivity. Her studies found that on an average, we needed at least three positive comments or experiences to offset every one negative. If you maintain this 3:1 ratio in favor of positivity, you will be happier, healthier, and more productive. As Fredrickson puts it, you will “flourish.”
Almost immediately, the campaign was launched. As my oldest daughter poured syrup on her pancakes, she complained about getting poked in the eye the previous evening while playing outside. Before she could go into greater details about the eye injury, we pointed out that she now needed to give us five positive experiences from the night before. (Note: I figured that if a ratio of 3:1 was good, five positives to each negative would be even better. For our Positivity Campaign we practiced a 5:1 ratio.) Emma sighed, but complied, telling us five fun details about the neighborhood game of hide and seek. Details we wouldn’t have heard if she’d only focused on the accidental eye poke.
Of course, Emma wasn’t the only one who was tested right away. Later that morning, our plumber told me that our water pressure tank was shot and that we would need another one. And, he regretted to inform me, they weren’t cheap.
I emailed my husband. I gave him the bad news, and then I came up with a list of positives: We still had some water usage, a new tank could be installed the next day (hopefully), the plumber was very nice, and a new tank would cut our electric bill since the old one wasn’t efficient. I also reminded him that a hockey game was on that night.
He responded almost immediately. “Are you trying to be positive?”
“Yes,” I wrote back. “Is it working? Are you flourishing?”
“Almost,” he wrote.
In the early days of our Positivity Campaign, it was interesting to note the number of little negative remarks that slip in and out of my conversations, and how much of my mental self-talk was critical and worse-case scenario. Says Psychologist Mihaly Csikzsentmihalyi, “. . .with nothing to do, the mind is unable to prevent negative thoughts from elbowing their way to center stage. Worries about one’s love life, health, investments, family, and job are always hovering at the periphery of attention, waiting until there is nothing pressing that demands concentration. As soon as the mind is ready to relax, zap! The potential problems that were waiting in the wings take over.”
If nothing else, the Positivity Campaign kept our minds so occupied that the negativity didn’t have room to expand. I noticed this phenomenon one morning while unloading the dishwasher. My girls were supposed to put the dishes away, but they were running late, so the task had fallen to me. Again. I made a comment to that effect.
“You have to tell us five positives now,” my family shrieked gleefully.
“I was just stating a fact,” I protested.
My husband countered that my “tone” was negative. Sighing, I began listing my positives. I told them about a nice walk I’d had with a friend, mentioned how much I was looking forward to writing that day, commented that our sunny spring weather made me happy, noted that I loved the book I was currently reading, and gave thanks that we still had running water.
And it worked. Instead of dropping into a negative spin–focusing on how put upon I was and how my children should pitch in more–I felt happy, light, and positive.
Which is good because later that day, when the water cut out again after the new pressure tank had been installed, my positivity ratio took a hit. And then another when the water system expert informed me that “most likely” we would need to drill a new well. Meaning: no water for a while and a hefty ticket price.
I called my husband and then ran to the store for a pizza to throw in the oven since our water was off. Actually, I drove right past the corner market where I shop because I was so distracted thinking about our well issue. By the time I got myself turned around and pulled into the market parking lot, I was harried and had completely dumped any efforts to be positive.
As I sat in my car, searching for my list, out of the corner of my eye I noticed a slow-moving object outside my window. It was a woman, about ten years younger than me walking with some effort and obvious discomfort while leaning on a cane. As I watched, she made her way slowly to her car, deposited her groceries, and then recrossed the parking lot to hand some money to the homeless man sitting on the bench by the entrance.
The whole while, she was smiling.
Sometimes positivity looks a whole lot like gratitude, and suddenly it wasn’t hard to come up with a long list of positives to offset my negative skid. It was just a faulty well, and it was a situation that could be fixed. It was not something that was life-changing.
Critics of the Positive Psychology movement state that focusing on the positive causes people to live with blinders on, sets up false and unrealistic expectations, and turns you into a wimpy, wishy-washy Pollyanna. I’ll admit that in the past, I’ve seen their point, and at times, have led the battle cry against always looking on the bright side. But then I watched the movie-version of Pollyanna with my kids, and discovered that I actually liked the young girl’s sunny disposition. I loved the story of how she turned around a whole village of grumpy, quarreling, nasty people, who, before her arrival, had been mired in their unhappiness. Her one-person Positivity Campaign taught them how to flourish.
Sure, being positive didn’t affect the outcome of our well situation (we didn’t need a new well after all!), but when I made an effort to be positive, everything did feel much less stressful. As the Positivity Campaign demonstrated to us over and over again, it wasn’t the facts that matter, it was how we thought and felt about the facts.
Hundreds of years ago, Buddha summed up the positive psychology movement in this simple statement: “You are what you think.”
I think I’ll be positive.
(If you are interested in learning more about the 3:1 positivity ratio, check out Barbara Fredrickson’s website at www.positivityratio.com. You can even take a Positivity Self Test to determine your current positivity ratio.)