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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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Published on August 25, 2019

How to Find Your North Star

How to Find Your North Star

Most of us are familiar with the concept of a North Star–it’s the star  (currently Polaris) that helps travelers on their journeys… acting as a guide to keep them on track. And, I firmly believe that we all have our own individual North Stars as well, which act in a similar fashion.

When I talk about a North Star, I’m referring to a life purpose. If you don’t have one, you’ll be lost in life. But, if you do have one, you’ll have a guiding light that keeps you firmly on track for fulfillment and success.

A life purpose is exactly as it sounds: a purpose that drives your life. For example, think of a famous athlete or musician such as Michael Jordan or Ed Sheeran. People like this live to express their physical, mental and artistic abilities. They’re passionate, energetic — and they know what they want to achieve in life. In other words, they’re following their North Star.

So how about you? Have you discovered your life purpose? Or are you simply drifting aimlessly on an ocean of wishful thinking?

Why We Should Seek out and Embrace a North Star

American author Denis Waitley said:  “Winners are people with definite purpose in life.”

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In my experience, this is absolutely correct. Winners know what they want, and they have a plan on how to get it.

If you’re struggling to achieve the level of success and happiness that you’d like, then you may need to spend some time to find and embrace your North Star (see the next section for help with this).

What benefits will following your North Star give you? Well, first, you’ll develop an almost super-human ability to overcome and defeat obstacles that come your way. This is because, you’ll be fixated on your end goal and won’t allow small things to stop you from getting there.

Let me give you an example of this:

You’ve decided you want to learn electric guitar. You purchase the relevant equipment (guitar, amp, leads, picks, etc.), and you subscribe to an online guitar tutorial site. For the first few weeks, things go well, and you make solid progress. However, unexpectedly, you break the top string on your guitar while playing.

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If you were just casually dabbling with learning how to play guitar, then the hassle of purchasing a new string — and learning how to fit it on your guitar — could be enough to end your fledgling hobby. But, if you were set on being a proficient guitarist, perhaps even a professional musician, then you certainly wouldn’t allow this obstacle to stop you in your tracks. On the contrary, you’d most likely head off straight to your nearest music shop to pick up a few packs of replacement strings, watch a YouTube video on how to fit it, and then carry right on with your playing! And, the next time you break a string, you won’t miss a beat.

Can you see now how a North Star (or big goal) can give you incredible energy, drive and persistence?

It’s the difference between a care-free attitude and a must-do attitude. The former will cause you to drift through life; the latter will keep you firmly on track to reach your desired destination.

A North Star is really just a greater overall goal that will allow you to align smaller, achievable goals to it. For instance, if you want to become a school teacher, you’ll need to pass your grades to go to college, then pass your college exams, then gain the appropriate work experience — and then attempt to secure a job. Without completing each of these steps, you’ll never make it to the front of a classroom.

In other words, big goals only become manageable when we break them down into smaller, bite-sized chunks. If you attempted to join a professional basketball team, for example, but you’d never played before, you’d be laughed off the court. But, if you trained hard, found a great coach, and had a burning desire to make it — the right doors would probably open for you.

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Let me ask you a question: Do you currently feel a little lost or unsure about your future?

If you do, don’t worry. Once you start following your North Star, all the other stars will begin to align for you! You’ll be able to keep your mind on the bigger picture, and you’ll understand the best actions to take in life to realize your dream. And, when you do this, your confidence will inevitably grow, you’ll give your health a boost.[1] In a research-backed article by Psychological Science, it reveals that following a life purpose can even help you live longer.[2] You’ll also feel energized by your progress in pursuing goals that genuinely mean something to you.

5 Things That Can Help You Find Your North Star

So are you ready to discover your purpose?

If yes, then read on to find out five ways that will help you do this: 

1. Break free from mental limitations— You know what I mean, your inner voice that keeps telling you that you’re not good enough to do or achieve the things you dream of.

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2. Ask yourself these questions: What do you love to do? What activities set your soul on fire? If money was no object, how would you spend your time?

3. Think back to when you were a child — What things brought you immense satisfaction at that time? And, were there things you loved to do, but adults told you to forget about them? …perhaps a dream about becoming an actor, dancer or astronaut?

4. Spend time in contemplation — Dwell on the answers to the above questions for as long as you need. And, then wait for answers to come into your mind. This may take minutes, hours, days or even weeks.

5. Listen to that feeling deep in your bones — You’ll instinctively know when your life purpose has been revealed to you. It will feel right to you, and it’ll also excite you to begin taking action.

Finding your North Star is a crucial first step on your journey to success, but navigating your way to it is a whole different challenge. To help you with this, check out my recent article: Need a Breakthrough from the Limitations Holding you Back?

Featured photo credit: Heidi Sandstrom via unsplash.com

Reference

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