“You have something negative to say about everything,” said a friend of mine once. The comment stung because I knew there was some truth to it.
I admit it: I’m a naysayer. I can find something wrong with anything and everything. It’s sunny out, you say? Well, that’s lovely and all, but think of the UV damage to your skin! You’ve finally saved enough to go on a dream vacation in the tropics? Time to read up on the horrifying illnesses you can contract there! I think my attitude stems from being overly anxious, but that’s no excuse. I don’t want to be the doomsday prophet no one wants to be around.
There are numerous benefits to thinking positively. For one, positive people may actually live longer. According to a study by the Harvard School of Public Health, a sunny outlook may cut the risk of coronary heart disease in half, whereas negative emotions like chronic anxiety and anger may cause heart disease and increase systemic inflammation. Being upbeat can also help fight off viruses. In a study published in Psychosomatic Medicine, people with positive attitudes were better able to resist the common cold. Studies also show that positive people are more successful in relationships and careers.
Over the years, I’ve attempted to read a number of books on the power of positive thinking (The Secret being the most painfully nonsensical), but I inevitably ditch them halfway through because they’re far too preachy. Instead of trying yet another book, I decide to call Louisa Jewell, founder and president of the Canadian Positive Psychology Association, a nonprofit which offers educational programs to everyone from psychologists and psychotherapists to teachers and coaches.
What is positive psychology, you ask? If traditional psychology is generally focused on what makes us mentally unwell, positive psychology focuses on what makes us mentally healthy, says Jewell. It doesn’t cure mental illness, she adds, but evidence suggests that positive psychology can help prevent depression and anxiety.
It turns out I might be stuck in some sort of negativity spiral. According to Jewell, positivity and negativity are often self-fulfilling. “If you decide it’s going to be a bad day, everything that happens will be a verification that it is a bad day,” she says. To put me on the right track toward sunshine and rainbows, Jewell suggests some daily exercises, one of which is writing down three good things about each day.
“When you reflect on the good things that happen to you, you’re actually training your brain to look for the good,” she says. She also recommends something she calls “managing your positivity ratio,” which is just another way of saying, “Do things that make you happy.” Consider what makes you happiest on any given day—spending a few quality moments petting your dog, say, or drinking a cup of coffee—and take the time to savour them.
I decide to give her advice a try. On the first day, three good things come easily to me, and I jot them down in a journal: It was sunny out, my coworker shared a delicious clementine with me and I had a fun dinner with an old friend. As for managing my positivity ratio, I took an extra 10 minutes that morning to make my favourite oatmeal (instead of just rushing out the door) and I emailed my best friend to catch up before getting down to work. It doesn’t seem like much, but already I’ve begun to feel better.
By engaging in these sorts of exercises, says Jewell, you’re building up psychological resources you can use to become happier when going through tough times. Her philosophy is similar to that of my favourite positivity book, Pollyanna, by Eleanor H. Porter. As the title character might say, “You see, when you’re hunting for the glad things, you sort of forget the other kind.”
I’ve decided to approach positivity the way I approach working out at the gym. The more I practise positivity, the stronger my mental muscle will get, and the easier it will become. It’ll take work, but I’m positive I can do it.