Positive psychology researchers as referenced in The Happiness Advantage performed a meta-analysis of nearly every scientific happiness study available. After reviewing over 200 studies on 275,000 people worldwide, they found that happiness led to success in nearly every domain of life including work, health, friendship, sociability, creativity and energy. Their specific findings included astonishing examples of doctors making accurate diagnoses 19% faster when put in a positive mood beforehand and optimistic salespeople outselling their pessimistic counterparts by 56%. The data collected showed that the average brain is 31% more productive and intelligence levels, creativity, and energy all rise when attention is given to positive thoughts. In fact, 75% of job successes can be predicted based on optimism levels along with social support and one’s ability to view stress as a challenge instead of as a threat (Achor, 2010). These findings make it clear that the best way to create a successful, happy future is to focus your attention on positive thoughts such as gratitude for your life just as it is right now and optimism about your future circumstances.
Disappointments, tragedies, and traumatic events are a part of life and we will all continue to experience these negative events along with positive ones. If negative events are longer lasting and provide more intense consequences than positive ones, does this mean that we are doomed to a life of viewing the world through negatively tinted glasses? Not necessarily. We do have another positive inclination that helps to balance our outlook. Social researcher John Cacioppo has assembled evidence showing that, when there is no clear threat looming, people typically see their surroundings as positive. This suggests that while everyone will experience negative events, there might be more opportunity to observe more positive events than negative ones.
We also have something else working to our advantage: a somewhat recent finding called “brain plasticity” which shows that our brain changes structurally with each new thought and experience. This means that we can actually take steps to rewire our brains to focus on positive thoughts, even when we have spent years dwelling in fear-based thought patterns. Neurons in the brain make connections, communicating through synapses. When you learn something, or have a new experience, you change those neural connections. Every time you reactivate a circuit, efficiency increases, and connections become more durable and easier to reactivate. Whenever you repeat tasks over and over again, they take up less and less of your brain power over time. This suggests we have the ability to “rewire” our brain to make positive patterns more automatic. When we practice looking for and being more aware of the positive aspects or moments of life, we counter the brain’s natural tendency to scan for and spot the negative. This practice can help us bring ourselves into balance and experience more moments of our brain at a positive level. Shawn Achor, in his TED talk based on The Happiness Advantage, states that “We can retrain the brain to scan for the good things in life-to help us see more possibility, to feel more energy, and to succeed at higher levels.”
Here are some of the top ways to rewire your brain for positivity:
- Scan for the 3 daily positives. At the end of each day, make a list of three specific good things that happened that day and reflect on what caused them to happen. The good things could be anything from running into an old friend, a positive comment from someone at work, watching a beautiful sunset, or spending quality time with a loved one. Celebrating small victories has a proven effect of powering motivation and igniting joy. As you replay your good things daily, you will experience more positive emotions as you relive those activities. You will also help to rewire your brain to notice more positive events as they occur, instead of passing right by them.
- Reach out and praise someone daily. Take a minute each day to say thanks or recognize someone for their efforts. This could be a friend, family member or someone from work. It can be as simple as an email thanking someone for their efforts. The person on the receiving end of your gratitude will not be the only one that profits. Expressing gratitude has many benefits ranging from better physical health to improved mental alertness. People who express gratitude also are more likely to offer emotional support to others. (Emmons, 2007)
- Do something nice. Acts of kindness have been proven to boost happiness levels. Something as small and simple as making someone smile will pay back happiness dividends. Do something nice that is small and concrete like buying someone a coffee. It has been suggested that variety, frequency and motivation can play a role in the effectiveness of the boost. Performing a variety of kind acts seems to give a larger boost than performing the same acts over and over. (Lyubomirsky, 2008) Variety is the spice of life!
- Be mindful. Mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment without judgment. Opening our awareness to the fullness of life beyond the narrow view of a negative bias brings balance and clarity to our perspective. The regular practice of mindfulness meditation has also been shown to affect the brain's plasticity, increasing gray matter in the hippocampus, an area of the brain important for learning, memory, and emotion, and reducing gray matter in the amygdala, an area of the brain associated with stress and anxiety. (Britta K. Holzel, 2011)
Implications for coaching
As coaches, we encounter clients whose decks are already stacked towards a negative perspective. Most of our clients will have a tendency to focus more on negative events, weaknesses, and things that are not going their way, than on their wins, strengths and success. One of our roles will be to support them in celebrating their successes and highlighting the victories, however small, to offset the negativity bias that is part of their default setting. We can use the exercises described earlier to help our clients open up their awareness of positive events and encourage them to take the time to fully appreciate and assimilate those events into their experience.
As coaches, we can also find ways to use the negativity bias to our clients’ advantage. We all tend to be more motivated to avoid negative consequences or pain, than to seek pleasure. We can use this principle in goal setting when reinforcing motivation for a goal. Asking a client to consider what they will lose out on, or what it will cost they are not successful can help the client maximize their odds of success.
In each of our lives, negative events have a stronger and more lasting effect on us than comparable positive events. Relationships are more deeply affected by destructive actions than by constructive ones. Negative items receive more attention and more cognitive processing than positive things. Negative feedback has a stronger effect than positive feedback. But we are not powerless to this bias. We have the ability to overcome the negativity bias and rewire our brains to scan our lives for positive events and appreciate each one of them as they occur. As coaches, we have the ability to shed new light on this subject and provide the tools for our clients to live their best life and enjoy the journey to reaching their full potential.
Achor, S. (2010). The Happiness Advantage. Crown Business.
Bratslavsky, R. F. (2001). Bad Is Stronger Than Good. Review of General Psychology, 323-370.
Britta K. Holzel, J. C. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 36-43.
Emmons, R. (2007). Thanks!: How the New Science of Grattitude Can Make You Happier. Houghton Miffin Harcourt.
Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The How of Happiness. Penguin Books.
Rime, C. F. (1998). Socially shared emotional experiences vs emotional experiences kept secret. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 295-318.
Tversky, D. K. (1984). Choices, values and frames. American Psychologist, 341-350.