The Proof’s in the Positive Thinking
When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us. –Helen Keller
While Dr. Martin Seligman is considered the founding father of positive psychology, Barbara Fredrickson might be considered the founding mother. She has determined a ration for determining what it will take to turn around our negative thinking. I never thought of myself as a negative thinker, but maybe I need to get a second opinion.
My best friend, Joel, is both a psychologist and photographer. He is warm, sensitive and caring. He is a professor at the local college and is thoughtful and caring with his students. He and I are cyclists and have ridden perhaps thousands of miles together. So why does he occasionally bother me? What character flaw of his gets under my skin?
He is too damn nice.
I mean it. He is way beyond my limited way of being in this world. It was Joel who introduced me to positive psychology and dragged me, kicking and screaming to the first international positive psychology conference. Geesh, how low can a guy go?
Why is he is so aggravating? Here is an example: We are doing a sponsored 50-mile bike ride, which means there are several dozen people doing the ride as well. We are raising money for charity. It is a beautiful day. We are tooling along around the 30-mile mark, feeling fine. Some poor schnook has broken down by the side of the road with a flat tire. He doesn’t have a bike as nice as ours, and is making a halfhearted attempt to inspect his rear wheel. Joel stops and asks if the guy needs any help.
“I don’t have a tube to replace the flat,” says the guy.
Joel opens his tool bag and takes out his one and only tire tube and hands it to the guy.
“Here, this is the same size as yours,” says Joel.
The guy is so appreciative and thankful, he offers to buy it from Joel, which you know Joel refuses. I am dumbfounded. We mount our bikes and ride away to the ever-grateful chant of the guy with the flat tire. I am livid.
“How could you do that?” I say to Joel as we ride away. How could you give the guy your only tire tube? What if you get a flat?”
“You have a tube that is the same size as mine, and what are the chances that both you and I would get flats?”
I hate when he uses logic that I understand. Of course ,he was right, but what kind of guy gives up his only tire tube on a 50-mile ride? The kind of guy who thinks way more positively than I do. I never would have offered the guy my tube—you see, it is mine, and I might need it, and if I don’t need it now, I will need it in the future, so the poor guy that blew his tire should, of course, be left on his own to suffer.
I am comfortable with being a curmudgeon, and being a bit stingy. All of this being positive stuff takes a toll on me. It is hard to get my brain around it, but Joel seems to be in a good place, and happy damn near all the time, so I figure it is worth checking out.
He drags me to the International Positive Psychology conference. I am skeptical, but willing to learn. The conference is stellar, the research is compelling and the presentations are engaging. The city of Philadelphia is magnificent and we stroll each night of the conference to different restaurants and sights. There are beggars and homeless on several street corners. It is June, and it is warm. I pass them and their pleas for change with a cultivated indifference. Joel stops and puts a dollar or some change in each one. What the hell is he doing? Now he is really aggravating me. He is walking along feeling great, and I am complaining about the homeless, and why I should not give them my money, and, and, and…
Finally Joel suggests I try an experiment (he knows how to appeal to my scientist mind): Give some money to the next person who is asking and see how it feels.
I pluck out a quarter from my pocket (I just couldn’t bear to give a dollar) and give it to the next person asking for a handout. The man says “God bless you,” and oddly enough my heart warms up, and I am filled with a sense of gratitude for the life I have, and a sense of doing something to help. I am smiling as I walk. Joel just laughs. He knows I have a long way to go to turn around my thinking.
How long is that road, you ask?
One person has a way of actually measuring it.
Researcher Barbara Fredrickson has been whether negative thoughts are stronger than positive thoughts. The amazing, but not surprising, answer is yes. But the real question is how much stronger?
Fredrickson has actually come up with an exact ratio: 3 to 1. To undo the devastating effect of negative thinking, we need three times as many positive thoughts to make the shift. The tipping point, as it were, is not easy to achieve, as her book Positivity will attest. But once you are developing the positive thoughts and perspectives needed to nudge you forward, you broaden and build on them. In fact, that is the name given to the concept underlying her work with positivity: Broaden and build. The goal here is to become more resilient to the slings and arrows of life, and to move toward uncovering the positive possibilities that exist around us. The work centers around training yourself to become aware of, appreciate, and enhance the positive experiences in your life. This is referred to in positive psychology as savoring. How does one begin to savor? By doing three things:
- Be present. Not to get all Californian on you, but be in the moment. Bringing your full attention into the present moment is a precondition for savoring. In other words, as the popular 1960s phrase goes, “be here now.” Focus your attention in the moment. For strategies on mindfulness and happiness, check out the related blog here at Psych Central.
- Set aside quiet time to allow the savoring to take place. With our endless to-do lists, carving out a few minutes to allow positive thoughts a home in our thoughts is no small matter. How much time do we need? Ten minutes is better than five, and 20 better than ten.
- Consciously focus and mindfully attend to, think about, and identify a positive experience. Being able to dwell on the positive factors of your life is the essence of moving toward the tipping point in the positivity ratio. Real events or memories of awe, joy, warmth, inspiration, happiness, gratefulness, contentment, connectedness, anything good in your life needs to be given focused attention. Doing so shifts our mindset toward finding and savoring the good things in our life which, in turn, allows for a genuine resilience in our spirit, mind, and body.Take a moment now to be peaceful and quiet, and allow yourself to think of a recent experience, large or small, that made you happy. Something may have made you laugh or smile, or a nice surprise may have come your way. Whatever it is, give yourself a moment to think about it. Feel the feeling you had when it happened. Find it in your body, notice the change in you as you allow yourself to think about it, then savor it. Let yourself deeply appreciate all the components of this feeling. Hold on to it; allow yourself to smile. The chances are you are you will feel better than you did just minutes ago.
Let me encourage you to practice this a few times a day. Simply let yourself think about what has been good and dwell on it. From the research it appears that good things happen to those who think good things.
My friend Joel has already reached the tipping point. He is virtually homesteading in the “Happy Camper” state park. To find out where you fall on the positivity ratio scale, take Dr. Fredrickson’s free online quiz. Results are confidential and you can take it as often as you like to note your progress.
My current ratio is 2 to 1, so I have my work cut out for me. But right now I am about to savor the fact that I have just finished writing this article. Ahhhhh, that feels good. I have a smile on my face and a little bit of peace in my heart. That does feel good. Very good indeed. Now I’m wondering if there is anyone out in the street who could use some spare change.
Tomasulo, D. (2010). The Proof’s in the Positive Thinking. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 4, 2016, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2010/03/07/the-proofs-in-the-positive-thinking/