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How Positive Thinking Builds Skills, Boosts Health, and Improves Work

How Positive Thinking Builds Skills, Boosts Health, and Improves Work

Positive thinking sounds useful on the surface. (Most of us would prefer to be positive rather than negative.) But, “positive thinking” is also a soft and fluffy term that is easy to dismiss. In the real world, it rarely carries the same weight as words like “work ethic” or “persistence.” But those views may be changing.

Research is beginning to reveal that positive thinking is about much more than just being happy or displaying an upbeat attitude. Positive thoughts can actually create real value in your life and help you build skills that last much longer than a smile.

The impact of positive thinking on your work, your health, and your life is being studied by people who are much smarter than me. One of these people is Barbara Fredrickson. Fredrickson is a positive psychology researcher at the University of North Carolina and she published a landmark paper that provides surprising insights about positive thinking and it’s impact on your skills. Her work is among the most referenced and cited in her field and it is surprisingly useful in everyday life.

Let’s talk about Fredrickson’s discovery and what it means for you…

What Negative Thoughts Do to Your Brain

Play along with me for a moment.

Let’s say that you’re walking through the forest and suddenly a tiger steps onto the path ahead of you. When this happens, your brain registers a negative emotion — in this case, fear. Researchers have long known that negative emotions program your brain to do a specific action. When that tiger crosses your path, for example, you run. The rest of the world doesn’t matter. You are focused entirely on the tiger, the fear it creates, and how you can get away from it.

In other words, negative emotions narrow your mind and focus your thoughts. At that same moment, you might have the option to climb a tree, pick up a leaf, or grab a stick — but your brain ignores all of those options because they seem irrelevant when a tiger is standing in front of you.

This is a useful instinct if you’re trying to save life and limb, but in our modern society we don’t have to worry about stumbling across tigers in the wilderness. The problem is that your brain is still programmed to respond to negative emotions in the same way — by shutting off the outside world and limiting the options you see around you.

For example, when you’re in a fight with someone, your anger and emotion might consume you to the point where you can’t think about anything else. Or, when you are stressed out about everything you have to get done today, you may find it hard to actual start anything because you’re paralyzed by how long your to–do list has become.

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In each case, your brain closes off from the outside world and focuses on the negative emotions of fear, anger, and stress — just like it did with the tiger. Negative emotions prevent your brain from seeing the other options and choices that surround you. It’s your survival instinct.

Now, let’s compare this to what positive emotions do to your brain. This is where Barbara Fredrickson returns to the story.

What Positive Thoughts Do to Your Brain

Fredrickson tested the impact of positive emotions on the brain by setting up a little experiment. During this experiment, she divided her research subjects into 5 groups and showed each group different film clips.

The first two groups were shown clips that created positive emotions. Group 1 saw images that created feelings of joy. Group 2 saw images that created feelings of contentment. Group 3 was the control group. They saw images that were neutral and produced no significant emotion. The last two groups were shown clips that created negative emotions. Group 4 saw images that created feelings of fear. Group 5 saw images that created feelings of anger.

Afterward, each participant was asked to imagine themselves in a situation where similar feelings would arise and to write down what they would do. Each participant was handed a piece of paper with 20 blank lines that started with the phrase, “I would like to…”

Participants who saw images of fear and anger wrote down the fewest responses. Meanwhile, the participants who saw images of joy and contentment, wrote down a significantly higher number of actions that they would take, even when compared to the neutral group.

In other words, when you are experiencing positive emotions like joy, contentment, and love, you will see more possibilities in your life. These findings were among the first that proved that positive emotions broaden your sense of possibility and open your mind up to more options.

But that was just the beginning. The really interesting impact of positive thinking happens later…

How Positive Thinking Builds Your Skill Set

The benefits of positive emotions don’t stop after a few minutes of good feelings subside. In fact, the biggest benefit that positive emotions provide is an enhanced ability to build skills and develop resources for use later in life.

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Let’s consider a real–world example.

A child who runs around outside, swinging on branches and playing with friends, develops the ability to move athletically (physical skills), the ability to play with others and communicate with a team (social skills), and the ability to explore and examine the world around them (creative skills). In this way, the positive emotions of play and joy prompt the child to build skills that are useful and valuable in everyday life.

These skills last much longer than the emotions that initiated them. Years later, that foundation of athletic movement might develop into a scholarship as a college athlete or the communication skills may blossom into a job offer as a business manager. The happiness that promoted the exploration and creation of new skills has long since ended, but the skills themselves live on.

Fredrickson refers to this as the “broaden and build” theory because positive emotions broaden your sense of possibilities and open your mind, which in turn allows you to build new skills and resources that can provide value in other areas of your life.

As we discussed earlier, negative emotions do the opposite. Why? Because building skills for future use is irrelevant when there is immediate threat or danger (like the tiger on the path).

All of this research begs the most important question of all: if positive thinking is so useful for developing valuable skills and appreciating the Big Picture of life, how do you actually get yourself to be positive?

How to Increase Positive Thinking in Your Life

What you can do to increase positive emotions and take advantage of the “broaden and build” theory in your life? Well, anything that sparks feelings of joy, contentment, and love will do the trick. You probably know what things work well for you. Maybe it’s playing the guitar. Maybe it’s spending time with a certain person. Maybe it’s carving tiny wooden lawn gnomes.

That said, here are three ideas for you to consider…

1. Meditation — Recent research by Fredrickson and her colleagues has revealed that people who meditate daily display more positive emotions that those who do not. As expected, people who meditated also built valuable long–term skills. For example, three months after the experiment was over, the people who meditated daily continued to display increased mindfulness, purpose in life, social support, and decreased illness symptoms.

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Note: If you’re looking for an easy way to start meditation, here is a 10–minute guided meditation that was recently sent to me. Just close your eyes, breathe, and follow along.

2. Writing — this study, published in the Journal of Research in Personality, examined a group of 90 undergraduate students who were split into two groups. The first group wrote about an intensely positive experience each day for three consecutive days. The second group wrote about a control topic.

Three months later, the students who wrote about positive experiences had better mood levels, fewer visits to the health center, and experienced fewer illnesses. (This blew me away. Better health after just three days of writing about positive things!)

Note: I used to be very erratic with my writing, but now I publish a new article every Monday. I’ve written about my writing process and how you can stick to any goal in a more consistent manner in the articles herehere and here.

3. Play — schedule time to play into your life. We schedule meetings, conference calls, weekly events, and other responsibilities into our daily calendars … why not schedule time to play?

When was the last time you blocked out an hour on your calendar just to explore and experiment? When was the last time you intentionally carved out time to have fun? You can’t tell me that being happy is less important than your Wednesday meeting, and yet, we act like it is because we never give it a time and space to live on our calendars.

Give yourself permission to smile and enjoy the benefits of positive emotion. Schedule time for play and adventure so that you can experience contentment and joy, and explore and build new skills.

Happiness vs. Success (Which Comes First?)

There’s no doubt that happiness is the result of achievement. Winning a championship, landing a better job, finding someone you love — these things will bring joy and contentment to your life. But so often, we wrongly assume that this means happiness always follows success.

How often have you thought, “If I just get ___, then I’ll be set.” Or, “Once I achieve ___, I’ll be satisfied.” I know I’m guilty of putting off happiness until I achieve some arbitrary goal. But as Fredrickson’s “broaden and build” theory proves, happiness is essential to building the skills that allow for success.

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In other words, happiness is both the precursor to success and the result of it. In fact, researchers have often noticed a compounding effect or an “upward spiral” that occurs with happy people. They are happy, so they develop new skills, those skills lead to new success, which results in more happiness, and the process repeats itself.

Where to Go From Here

Positive thinking isn’t just a soft and fluffy feel–good term. Yes, it’s great to simply “be happy,” but those moments of happiness are also critical for opening your mind to explore and build the skills that become so valuable in other areas of your life.

Periods of positive emotion and unhindered exploration are when you see the possibilities for how your past experiences fit into your future life, when you begin to develop skills that blossom into useful talents later on, and when you spark the urge for further exploration and adventure.

To put it simply: seek joy, play often, and pursue adventure. Your brain will do the rest.

James Clear writes at JamesClear.com, where he shares science-based ideas for living a better life and building habits that stick. To get strategies for boosting your mental and physical performance by 10x, join his free newsletter.

This article was originally published on JamesClear.com.

Featured photo credit: Riccardo Cuppini via flickr.com

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Last Updated on January 13, 2020

50 Motivational Quotes for Work to Inspire Success

50 Motivational Quotes for Work to Inspire Success

Let’s face it – no matter how excited you are about a new project or priority in your life, there will always be days when your motivation lags. Days when – despite all the progress you’ve made in the past – it just sounds easier to sit on the couch playing video games than to buckle down and crank out the work needed to meet your goals.

In order to be successful, you must be able to motivate yourself past these humps. Whenever you feel your drive and determination lagging, turn to these motivational quotes for work to provide the extra spark of passion needed to keep you on track.

Quotes about Goal Setting

Whether you’re still in the planning phases of your business or whether you’re plotting a plan of attack to bring about your long-range vision, setting good goals is a critical part of succeeding in business.

Check out these quotes for extra inspiration on how to turn your dreams into reality:

quote-Benjamin-E.-Mays-the-tragedy-in-life-doesnt-lie-in-106113

    “The tragedy in life doesn’t lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach.”– Benjamin Mays


    “By recording your dreams and goals on paper, you set in motion the process of becoming the person you most want to be. Put your future in good hands — your own.”–Mark Victor Hansen


    “Give yourself an even greater challenge than the one you are trying to master and you will develop the powers necessary to overcome the original difficulty.”–William J. Bennett – The Book of Virtues


    “The entrepreneur is essentially a visualizer and actualizer… He can visualize something, and when he visualizes it he sees exactly how to make it happen.”–Robert L. Schwartz

    Quotes about Achieving Excellence in Work

    Once you’ve got your goals together, you’ll need to put in 110% of your effort in order to transform these visions into reality. To increase your motivation to work at a consistently high level, take a look at the following words of wisdom:

    “Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”–Aristotle


    “If you are going to achieve excellence in big things, you develop the habit in little matters. Excellence is not an exception, it is a prevailing attitude.”–Charles R. Swindoll

    Desire is the key to motivation

      “Desire is the key to motivation, but it’s determination and commitment to an unrelenting pursuit of your goal — a commitment to excellence — that will enable you to attain the success you seek.”–Mario Andretti


      “The secret of joy in work is contained in one word – excellence. To know how to do something well is to enjoy it.”–Pearl Buck


      “The quality of a person’s life is in direct proportion to their commitment to excellence, regardless of their chosen field of endeavor.”–Vince Lombardi

      Quotes about Determination and Persistence

      Since every business or other endeavor is bound to hit some rough patches, it’s often a person’s level of determination and patience that brings about either success or failure. These positive quotes give you an extra boost of encouragement:

      “Enter every activity without giving mental recognition to the possibility of defeat. Concentrate on your strengths, instead of your weaknesses… on your powers, instead of your problems.”–Paul J. Meyer


      “Knowing trees, I understand the meaning of patience. Knowing grass, I can appreciate persistence.”–Hal Borland


      “Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘Press On’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”–Calvin Coolidge

      quote-Thomas-Fuller-an-invincible-determination-can-accomplish-almost-anything-92190

        “An invincible determination can accomplish almost anything and in this lies the great distinction between great men and little men.”–Thomas Fuller

        Quotes about Leadership

        Whether you use it to engage your employees, to encourage teamwork or motivate others to follow your unique way of thinking, leadership is crucial. Take your leadership cues from these renowned leaders’ famous sayings:

        “The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born — that there is a genetic factor to leadership. This myth asserts that people simply either have certain charismatic qualities or not. That’s nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born.” –Warren G. Bennis


        “All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership.”–John Kenneth Galbraith

        Leadership is not magnetic personality

          “Leadership is not magnetic personality — that can just as well be a glib tongue. It is not ‘making friends and influencing people’ — that is flattery. Leadership is lifting a person’s vision to high sights, the raising of a person’s performance to a higher standard, the building of a personality beyond its normal limitations.”–Peter F. Drucker


          “The task of leadership is not to put greatness into people, but to elicit it, for the greatness is there already.”–John Buchan


          “High sentiments always win in the end. The leaders who offer blood, toil, tears and sweat always get more out of their followers than those who offer safety and a good time. When it comes to the pinch, human beings are heroic.”–George Orwell

          Quotes for Success

          Think of success as a holistic process – one which results from the combination of goal-setting, excellence, patience, determination and leadership you prioritize throughout your career. These highly successful people provide you with an excellent source of motivation:

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          “Be patient with yourself. Self-growth is tender; it’s holy ground. There’s no greater investment.”–Stephen Covey


          “Believe in yourself! Have faith in your abilities! Without a humble but reasonable confidence in your own powers you cannot be successful or happy.”–Norman Vincent Peale

          Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.

            “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”–Winston Churchill


            “Successful and unsuccessful people do not vary greatly in their abilities. They vary in their desires to reach their potential.”–John Maxwell


            “Would you like me to give you a formula for success? It’s quite simple, really. Double your rate of failure. You are thinking of failure as the enemy of success. But it isn’t at all. You can be discouraged by failure or you can learn from it, So go ahead and make mistakes. Make all you can. Because remember that’s where you will find success.”– Thomas J. Watson


            “The great successful men of the world have used their imagination.  They think ahead and create their mental picture in all its details, filling in here, adding a little there, altering this a bit and that a bit, but steadily building – steadily building.”–Robert Collier


            “It is a paradoxical but profoundly true and important principle of life that the most likely way to reach a goal is to be aiming not at that goal itself but at some more ambitious goal beyond it.”–Arnold Toynbee

            Sports Quotes for Athletes

            You don’t need to be a Michael Jordan-caliber athlete to draw inspiration from the following quotes. Even if you’re just a recreational player or someone who’s using sports as a means to get back in shape after long periods of inactivity, the following motivational sports quotes will encourage you:

            “My attitude is that if you push me towards something that you think is a weakness, then I will turn that perceived weakness into a strength.”–Michael Jordan


            “Pain is temporary. It may last a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a year, but eventually it will subside and something else will take its place. If I quit, however, it lasts forever.”–Lance Armstrong

            Strength does not come from winning. Your struggles develop your strengths.

              “Strength does not come from winning. Your struggles develop your strengths. When you go through hardships and decide not to surrender, that is strength.”–Arnold Schwarzenegger


              “I know what I have to do, and I’m going to do whatever it takes. If I do it, I’ll come out a winner, and it doesn’t matter what anyone else does.”–Florence Griffith Joyner


              “Every time you stay out late; every time you sleep in; every time you miss a workout; every time you don’t give 100% – You make it that much easier for me to beat you.”–Unknown


              “If you are hurt, whether in mind or body, don’t nurse your bruises. Get up and light-heartedly, courageously, good temperedly get ready for the next encounter. This is the only way to take life – this is also ‘playing’ the game!”–Emily Post


              “We must train from the inside out. Using our strengths to attack and nullify any weaknesses. It’s not about denying a weakness may exist but about denying its right to persist.”–Vince McConnell

              Quotes to Motivate Learning

              Committing yourself to pursuing knowledge in a single area is a tremendous endeavor – one that often seems overwhelming given the depth and breadth of information that’s available today. Keep the following motivational quotes in mind if you’re learning:

              “How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and the strong. Because someday in life you will have been all of these.”–George Washington Carver

              quote-William-Arthur-Ward-if-you-can-imagine-it-you-can-36189

                “If you can imagine it, you can achieve it; if you can dream it, you can become it.”–William Arthur Ward


                “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”– Aristotle


                “Success is not the key to happiness.Happiness is the key to success.If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.”–Albert Schweitzer


                “Wear your learning, like your watch, in a private pocket: and do not pull it out and strike it, merely to show that you have one.”–Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield


                “He who asks is a fool for five minutes, but he who does not ask remains a fool forever.”–Chinese Proverb


                “Study while others are sleeping; work while others are loafing; prepare while others are playing; and dream while others are wishing.”–William Arthur Ward


                “Books can be dangerous. The best ones should be labeled ‘This could change your life’.”–Helen Exley


                “A book is like a garden carried in the pocket.”–Chinese Proverb

                All-Time Favorite Positive Quotes

                Finally, whatever your goals are in life, you can’t go wrong by taking the advice of the following famous motivational quotes:

                “Change your thoughts and you change your world.”–Norman Vincent Peale


                “Your time is limited, don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living the result of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinion drowned your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition, they somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”–Steve Jobs


                “Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending.”–Maria Robinson


                “Out of clutter, find Simplicity. From discord, find Harmony. In the middle of difficulty lies Opportunity.”–Albert Einstein


                “Yesterday is not ours to recover, but tomorrow is ours to win or lose.”–Lyndon Johnson

                If we did all the things we are capable of, we would literally astound ourselves.

                  “If we did all the things we are capable of, we would astound ourselves.”–Thomas Edison


                  “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”–Wayne Gretzky


                  “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”–Winston Churchill


                  “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”–Ralph Waldo Emerson

                  Final Thoughts

                  To use these motivational quotes effectively, find the one that speaks to you. Although all of the phrases listed above can be considered “motivational,” only you can decide which one resonates with you most directly.

                  Next, take the quote you’ve settled on and copy it onto small index cards or other pieces of paper that can be stored around your home and workspace.

                  If you’re creative, you can create inspiration boards, signs or other decorative displays featuring your favorite motivational quotes – really, though, the most important thing is that your chosen phrase be accessible in a variety of different places. This will make it easy to access and review whenever you feel your motivation slipping away.

                  More Inspiring Quotes

                  Featured photo credit: Kyle Glenn via unsplash.com

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