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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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James Clear

James Clear is the author of Atomic Habits. He shares self-improvement tips based on proven scientific research.

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Last Updated on July 3, 2020

6 Things To Do Every Day To Ensure You Stick To Your Goals

6 Things To Do Every Day To Ensure You Stick To Your Goals

Sticking to your goals can sometimes be challenging. We all want better health, better careers, and better jobs, and we want to cast an impression on everyone that we are living fulfilled lives.

Yet to reach our goals and make every minute of our time count requires commitment, consistency, and hard work. Setting goals is one thing, but sticking to them is another. We have to observe certain daily practices if we want to get the best out of ourselves.

Here are 6 things that you have to ensure daily to reach your goals.

1. Involve Others

You have to be accountable for the actions you are committing yourself to. Involve everyone around you, get them engaged, and talk to them on how they can help you accomplish your goals.

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When you involve others you feel, you have a responsibility towards them as well as yourself. Every day, make sure you are accountable for sticking to your goals. By joining groups or engaging others, you have more motivation to reach your goals.

For example, if you want to read more, try joining a book club. If you want to be a better entrepreneur, join an entrepreneurial organization.

2. Visualize the Rewards

Reaching a goal can be challenging and sometimes, it can be overwhelming. When the journey becomes tough and difficult, try to stick to visualizing your successes every day.

Wake up to visualize what rewards you will get from sticking to meeting your goals. If you want to lose some pounds, visualize yourself already underweight and benefiting from being underweight. The mind has a way of channeling your body and intentions to sticking to your goals and reaching them.

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3. Break Down Your Goals

Try to break down your goals into tiny chunks. The smaller the size of the goals, the more willing and prepared you are to meet them.

For example, if you find it difficult to get out of the house and take a workout at the gym, why not try to break the goal into making sure you are always dressed for the gym daily? By doing this, you demonstrate that you are moving in the right direction, and you can keep this momentum so you can meet the larger goal.

4. Reward Yourself

For every progress you make daily towards reaching your goals, try to vindicate and reward yourself. By doing this you appreciate yourself and the hard work you have put in for the day.

When you reward yourself, you program yourself to benefit from a larger reward in the future. You also propel yourself to gain daily rewards, which can be enticing and motivating. Rewarding yourself serves as a form of positive reinforcement that reinforces your mind and behavior to stick to your goals and stay motivated.

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5. Measure Your Progress

It is easy to become frustrated when you are not getting instant results. Change can be slow and rewards are not always immediate. Still, progress can be measured even in tiny bits, so take time to look back at where you are coming from.

You don’t have to feel depressed about not making that major progress in an instant. But when you journal or snap pictures to document your progress, no matter how small, you will feel grateful and elated to see what difference you have made from where you are coming from up until now.

6. Believe in the Possibilities

If you don’t even believe in the possibility of reaching your goals, how can you expect yourself to stick to your goals in the first place?

By believing in the possibilities of accomplishing a goal or task, you increase your chance of reaching it and eradicating whatever roadblocks or challenges you may face. Believe in what you can achieve.

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What self-belief has over self-control is that while self-control can be depleted but self-belief cannot. We all have an enormous reservoir of how much we can believe in ourselves.

With believing in ourselves comes perseverance, determination, and desire to reaching our goals. Every day, understand that what you need to keep going is your belief toward achieving your goals. Your goals are reachable if you think you can reach them!

Final Words

Due to circumstances in life, people tend to abandon some of their goals in life. You may also feel this way sometimes. In that case, just come back to this article and remember the 6 ways you can help yourself stick to your goals.

People don’t always reach their goals, but you will never know if you can reach them if you don’t stick to them in the first place. As long as you stick to your goals, there will always be the possibility of you achieving them!

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Featured photo credit: Kelly Sikkema via unsplash.com

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