This week, systemic coach Zita Tulyahikayo and barrister James Pereira QC discuss the contrast between negative and positive thinking, how positive thinking can be harnessed and the wider opportunities that it creates.
As we cruise towards the end of March spring has heralded her arrival. With it comes the rejuvenating energy of renewed optimism and the uplift of positive thinking as winter’s drear recedes for another year.
Positive thinking has a heart-warming ring to it. Most of us would rather think of ourselves as positive people rather than negative people, yet at the same time culturally we have a tendency to be rather dismissive of too much positivity, a trait more generally associated with our friends across the pond.
Here in England we give far greater credence to words like ‘persistence’, ‘hard work’, and ‘focus’. Yet, like time, views march on and outmoded ideas once valued in the corporate arena are changing; compassion, empathy and positive thinking are the way forward, and as society and culture shift, so too does the way we connect and interact.
New psychological research from the University of North Carolina reveals that positive thinking is about more than just being happy and displaying an upbeat attitude. Positive thoughts create real value in both our professional and personal life; positive thoughts help you to build skills that can last much longer than a smile.
The life you are thinking is the life you are living
So let’s look at what your thoughts can do and what it means for you. If we start with negative thoughts we see from long established research that negative emotions programme our brain to carry out a specific action based on our primitive programming as humans. If you were to come across a sabre tooth tiger while out for a walk you are going to run, or enter what psychology refers to as the ‘flight’ mode.
In that moment, nothing else matters, you are entirely focused on the tiger, your fear and getting away as fast as you can. From this response we know that negative emotions narrow your mind and focus your thoughts. It’s a great example of when stress does serve a useful purpose.
However, this thinking is not so useful in a modern world – where the chance of you stumbling across a real tiger in the wilds of the City of London is very unlikely. Regardless, our brains are still programmed to respond to negative emotions in the same way – shutting off the world and limiting the options you see around you.
Similarly, when you are stressed out about everything you may find that you lose clarity and perspective on what is really important in the long list of things you need to get done.
Or, if you feel bad about drinking too much or eating junk food, exercising too little, all you think about is how little willpower you have, how lacking in motivation or how lazy you are.
Whatever the scenario may be, your brain closes off from the outside world and hones in on the negative emotions of fear, anger and stress – just as it did with the tiger. Before you know it, the negative emotions have you fully in their grip and your esteem and sense of self worth is compromised as your brain prevents you from seeing the other options and choices available to you. This is how your survival instinct operates. It is effective and efficient in a particular moment.
The power of positive thinking
Something different happens when positive thoughts and emotions are allowed to take precedence. Taking spring as an example of rising positivity. Memories of good times in the sunshine start to enter our thoughts, which create positive emotions and feelings of the good life and joy. When we are in a state of contentment and joy we are better able to come up with constructive solutions and actions that lead to success, and the scope of our thinking becomes expansive. The possibilities become endless the happier and more positive we are.
The added bonus of this expanded view is that not only do they run for longer than negative thoughts, but they enhance our ability to develop skills and resources that we can use throughout our life. In the absence of fear where the only thing that matters is survival, we are able to build skills for the future.
Imagine that the sun is shining, the air outside is a nice comfortable temperature. You venture out of the office and take a walk to the local patisserie. As you are waiting in line you see a colleague who normally makes you feel a bit intimidated, but because the sun is shining and you are feeling more bold and optimistic than normal, you proffer a smile. A hello is returned, some light-hearted chit chat about the weather takes place, and you return to the office with a tasty treat and a new perspective about the person: a positive one. Your colleague does likewise.
A week later you are called in for a meeting with your colleague who now wants to bring you in on a case with a new client. This is a small yet powerful example of a change in state to the positive that expands your social skills in a way that leads to success for you. If we call this coincidence then we deprive ourselves of ownership and accountability.
How to harness positive thinking
Given the tremendous benefits of positive thinking to our experience and performance, how can we harness positive thinking to benefit our daily lives at work?
Community. The most obvious source for inducing a positive state is our relationships with others; the greatest need of all humans is to belong. When we have a sense of belonging we truly flourish as positive emotive experiences with others provide a sense of support and belonging, which is vital to our sense of feeling safe. Safety assures our survival.
Writing. Writing or just making note of the positive things we see or experience each day, works as a feedback loop to our sense of wellbeing, mood enhancement and overall sense of wellness through the reminder that life is essentially good.
Play. Make time to play. You schedule your meetings, conference calls and other responsibilities; it makes sense to schedule time to play. When was the last time you blocked out an hour in your calendar to explore, experiment, allow your thoughts to survey the bigger picture? When was the last time you set aside time to just have fun? Do you really believe that your conference call with a client is more important than your happiness?
Happiness and success are two sides of the same coin
There is no doubt that happiness is the result of achievement. Winning a case, getting a promotion, meeting the love of your life. These things we know will bring us a great sense of joy and contentment. Yet we tend to assume that happiness always follows success. It is very common for people to put off experiencing happiness until after they have achieved some random goal months ahead. What we know from how negative and positive thinking influence our behaviour, it is the positive thoughts are essential to develop the skills that lead us to success. In a nutshell, happiness is the required first step to achieving success.
The challenge for some people may be to find ways to build happiness and positive emotions into your life. There are no limits to what has the potential to create that state in you, it can be anything that provides more than just a momentary decrease in stress levels and a few smiles. It is when the mind has significant periods of time to roam free and the emotions are positively directed that we acquire the ability to see how our past experiences can support our future outcomes, and the impossible becomes possible in ways only our imagination can conceive. That is the life enhancing contrast to the narrow focus of the fearful, stressed, negative thinking mind.
Seek joy, play often, go on adventures, broaden your horizons and let your brain do what it does best. There is a compounding effect 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 so the process repeats itself.
The authors welcome feedback from anyone concerned with the issues raised in their writing, and are also interested in hearing from anyone with suggestions for future articles. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @LifeTherapyZita and at james.pereiraQC@ftbchambers.co.uk and on Twitter @JamesPereiraQC.