Don’t believe that worrying will solve or help anything. It won’t. So, stop it.
– John Alonzo, 83, from the Cornell Legacy Project
I was at a New York City diner recently and overheard two young women talking. One was telling her friend how anxious she was about her classes and her job. She was worried that she wasn’t going to do well in her statistics course, and layoffs at work.
Her friend asked about her new boyfriend, her upcoming vacation, and the beautiful coat she’d received as a birthday present from her parents. Each good thing got a one-sentence response, and then the conversation slid right back into the anxieties about work and school. Each attempt at giving the good things a chance to flourish was met with a return to the topics of worry and concern.
Research has shown that negative emotions tend to be stronger than positive emotions. Although there is controversy about how much stronger they are, negativity is generally believed to be more available to our conscious mind, and hence more difficult to displace. This is often referred to as a “negativity bias” in our thinking.
From an evolutionary perspective, there is good reason for this. Pessimism and negative thoughts were necessary to survive. Ten thousand years ago, we only trusted people in our tribe, worried about what foods could be eaten, and what animals to steer clear of. But times have changed.
This isn’t a call to stop negative thinking. We need it. It is important — you don’t want to be optimistic about getting across a railroad crossing when the gates are coming down. The key is balance. As negative thoughts are more powerful, they are more difficult to change and eclipse our positive feelings. One bad thing happening in a day can overshadow the good things in our life.
One of the leading researchers in the field of positive emotions is Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her work on positivity, and her broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions, has advanced our understanding of how positive emotions increase our awareness and encourage novel thoughts and behaviors.
She explains that if we continue to build skills and develop resources for feeling positive emotions, we create an upward spiral of positivity. In the upward spiral, we begin with contentment and rise to hopefulness, optimism, positive expectations, enthusiasm, passion — then joy, empowerment and love. What is unique to her theory is that it isn’t just about positive thinking, it is about feeling emotions.
This upward spiral of emotion is in direct contrast to the limiting, downward and survival-based thoughts and behaviors associated with negativity. Boredom gives way to pessimism, frustration, disappointment, doubt, worry, blame, discouragement, anger, revenge, rage, revenge, jealousy, insecurity, and eventually powerlessness and depression. Getting caught in a spiral of negative thought is like falling down an open manhole.
To broaden and build means to make an effort at noticing, searching out, and savoring positive experiences. What the research shows is that experiencing positive emotions more often increases our options of responding. Even though the positive emotions are fleeting, they have been found to enhance character traits and social bonds that have an enduring effect.
What can help when we are tumbling down the manhole is a direct effort to break the fall. Watching a funny movie, taking a walk, shifting to a more enjoyable topic are all good ways of slowing down the negative spiral. When we are up against feelings like fear and anger, emotions like joy, gratitude and serenity don’t seem like much — but they are.
Negative emotions have a direct effect on our cardiovascular system. The negative feelings are a direct source of stress. They were designed to help us survive, so they crank us up for immediate action. As a result, our heart rate soars, blood pressure goes up along with our blood sugar, and our immune system takes a hit. When this goes on for too long it can lead to chronic diseases.
Allowing yourself to feel more positive feelings, searching them out, and savoring them can undo these effects. However, it takes work. The more often you can stop from falling, the more options become available to feel positivity.
The specific feelings Fredrickson says we are after are joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe, and the main one — love. Making an effort to have more of these in your life is a way to not only get out of the manhole, but also avoid falling in less often.