When I ask you, “how was your day?”, what is your response?
Do you immediately recount the negative experiences that have recently happened or are you able to identify some of the positive outcomes you may have experienced?
Most people dwell on the areas of their life that are not going well or where they have experienced negative emotions. This tendency is driven by the default wiring in your brain. Positive psychology and strength-based questions can help override your negative thinking and improve your capacity to create success in your life by focusing on what is going well for you now and building on your key strengths.
Your brain is wired to focus on the negative; what is not working, what is wrong with a situation, or where there might be danger, risk or vulnerability. Your default operating mode is negative because of your amygdala, the part of your brain that manages your emotions, emotional behavior, and motivation. Your amygdala uses approximately two-thirds of its neurons to detect negative, risky, and dangerous experiences as a mechanism for self-preservation. Rick Hanson describes it in this way: “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.”
What further amplifies your propensity toward negative biases is that negative emotional stimuli; fear hurt, anger, danger, and vulnerability have been proven to produce more neural activity than positive stimuli. Therefore, your negative emotional patterns are remembered more easily and get hardwired into your long-term memory.
Here’s an experiment to try:
Look around the room and then close your eyes. With your eyes closed, identify those items in the room which are red. My guess is that you would probably recount a small number of items.
Now open your eyes.
Look around for another 30 seconds and notice everything that is red, and then close your eyes again. Now identify everything in your room that was blue.
You probably can only remember the items that were red because your brain was focused on finding red objects.
Granted this was a setup, but it demonstrates how your brain is wired to filter in that which it is focused on. Where you put your attention is how you experience your surrounding world. Since your default mode is to identify risky, unsafe, and negative experiences, it takes extra effort to override this natural tendency and filter in positive experiences and outcomes.
To compound your negative propensity, your brain is prone to misremember how unhappy or happy you were at various past events. In fact, the more time that has passed from the actual event the less accurate your memory is. This is called retrospective impact bias when you overestimate the intensity of your negative emotions associated with a past event.
This happened to me recently when I assumed I had done poorly in high school and was a C student with a low GPA and class rank. Many years later while cleaning out a box with old high school materials, I found my grades and discovered that I was actually a B student and my class rank was more aligned with the top third of the class. I had completely misremembered my academic standing and accomplishments leaning toward a more negative bias.
With your brain wired to amplify the intensity of negative feelings associated with past events and on red alert scanning for threatening circumstances, it’s no wonder that when you take time to review the past year, you tend to focus on the things you didn’t accomplish or things that didn’t work out as planned. Your emotional memories play havoc with your current situation causing you to overestimate threats, miss opportunities, and underestimating resources. This leads to increased feelings of self-defeat and discouragement.
While negative emotions are important and necessary, ( Read: How to use your anger to serve you.) they can come at a cost. If you find yourself sweeping positive emotions, successes, and experiences aside, then maybe it’s time to cultivate some positivity in 2018.
When you make a concerted effort to deliberately focus on the positive, you will uncover and spotlight the wins in your life which in turn leads to greater happiness and well-being. Click to Tweet
Every time you build your reservoir of positive emotions, such as happiness, gratitude, joy, hope, inspiration, and love, you are enhancing one of the five pillars of human flourishing. You are taking deliberate action steps to cultivate an environment where you will thrive.
Rather than focus on disease, pathology, or what is wrong, Positive Psychology suggests that you focus on your strengths, on what is working, and where you are deriving meaning and purpose.
- What are the conditions that will help you thrive in 2018?
- What are your strengths and how can you continue to use them in the days, months, or year ahead?
Here are 20 strength-based questions that can help you focus on the positive so that you can achieve your goals in 2018.
- What went well for you this past year?
- What are your strengths and how did you use them this past year?
- What have you achieved so far?
- What did you like most about your life?
- What were you most proud of this past year?
- Tell me about creative or different solutions you tried and what results did you achieve?
- Describe a time when you felt challenged and you were able to rise above it and meet your goal.
- What were you grateful for this past year?
- What attributes do you appreciate in yourself?
- What are your resources or support systems you have in your life right now?
- Describe a time when you were at your best?
- What projects did you derive the most energy from and what would you like to do more of in the future?
- What skills and strengths do you want to be sure you are using this upcoming year?
- Moving ahead to next year, what would like to learn?
- Describe what a successful year ahead might look like or feel like?
- What wins from last year can you build upon for this year?
- What new or additional support systems do you need to help ensure a successful year ahead?
- What key strengths can you draw upon to help you achieve your goals for the next month or next three months?
- What is a good thing that happened to you last year? What does this mean to you and how can you create more of these good things to happen to you in the year ahead?
- What can you do to increase activities in the next month, 3 months or year that would contribute to your own sense of purpose, well-being, and happiness?
Once you start making the effort to “wake yourself up” – that is to be more mindful in your activities – you suddenly start appreciating life a lot more.
Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being by Martin Seligman
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