I’m compelled to apologize for positivity. Experience has taught me that during crisis I must timidly recommend positive change: reframing one’s thinking, looking for the upside, or any potential feel-better fix should be suggested at a safe distance and from behind cover. When things are rough, we often despise positive thinking. But why? Does it make sense to become angry at a suggestion that might alleviate pain or offer remedy?
First, anger can feel empowering, a default strategy for dealing with adversity and being positive disarms us. It’s also because, I think, we don’t see another way for things to be. When someone offers guidance, logical, but disconnected from the hopelessness we experience, we feel shame from a lack of control. We see that things could be different, but we can’t pull it off, just as we can see ourselves in a fairytale world of castles and piled gold, but dismiss it as the stuff of daydreams. As this cycle repeats – perceived failure followed by shame for not exerting more control — we stop believing in the possibility of change.
Positivity is a habit that isn’t easy to cultivate. Our brains emphasize negativity, prioritizing survival over fulfillment: the failure to realize how fortunate most of us are is less important thanavoiding poison berries, hot stoves, and dark alleys. Negativity keeps us alive, and we’d rather be alive and miserable than happy and dead.
I’ve written about limiting factors before, the things that we must change, shift, remedy or remove to make good things happen in our lives. But identifying limiting factors will matter little if you won’t struggle to find the right mindset for success. Your idea of possibility will determine your success or failure. If you don’t think you can do something, you probably can’t.
Improving your health requires the belief that you can change; that belief requires positivity; positivity is a habit that’s hard to cultivate. So what do you do? I suggest two strategies: lead with yes, and the gratitude journal.
“No” is my favorite word. It’s compact, powerful, and unambiguous. I use it every chance I get. But I don’t use it until I need to. Just like we have posture in standing, sitting, or moving, we have a posture in living, a disposition that’s as unmistakable as recognizing the approach of someone familiar from a distance (we do have the ability to identify those we know by the way they walk, even before we see their faces, which I think is super cool).
The posture for many of us is closed, a “no” waiting to happen. (If you want to know what your posture is, ask those close to you. But, be prepared not to like the answer.) Even for many of the overly-accommodating door-mat types, their posture is “no.” Sure, they will give you whatever they easily can, but when you ask them to take a risk, try something new, or bet on themselves: “no, I could never do that.” These people perceive the world through the lens of “no.” Is it a craving for safety, or trauma they’d rather not repeat? I have no clue, but when you suggestsomething new or hard, “no” folks give up before they even start.
There are all types of “no” people: the hard, prickly grump that seeks to keep away hardship and loss by refusing to participate, or the eternal pessimist who can always say “I told you so” when something goes wrong. Whatever type, if you have a negative posture in life, the result is the same: you influence your outcomes before the hard work even starts. To complicate things further, “no” people suffer from an acute case of confirmation bias, the notion that we seek out and notice only the things that confirm the ideas we already have, and disregard those that don’t fit with our tidy narratives about life. If you’re one of these folks, every time things don’t go your way, your point has been proven again: you’re a loser, a failure, it’s just the way you are,and it won’t change.
As creatures, we are bundles of habits; change what we do, and we change who we are. I’m not saying it’s easy, but roll up your sleeves, do the work, and you’ll see what I mean. In cases of extreme trauma or long-standing problems, there’s only so much you can do. But if you don’t even try to improve your life, it’s certain that your posture, your way of being, of living, of striving and of doing won’t change. You’ll be stuck where you are so you’d better decorate your sad–little–room of an existence the way you like it, and get some good snacks and magazines.
Leading with yes isn’t about saying “yes” to everything. It’s also not about idle daydreams orself-delusion. It’s about asking yourself: what would need to happen for me to say “yes” to this proposition? It’s about opening yourself up to possibilities, and not saying “no” because it’s what you’ve always done.
Next time someone invites you somewhere you wouldn’t normally go, don’t mindlessly refuse, but consider under what circumstances you would go. Maybe a different time of day or going ina group is the answer. The same goes when you encounter any situation: how can I turn “no” into “yes”? “No” can become a reflex, so learn to give yourself a gap between an idea and your response before you decide.
Leading with yes gives you time to investigate, be critical, to visualize things another way.Maybe you will say “no” anyway, but at least you’re opening yourself up to a new way of thinking, approaching the situation in a way that’s more positive. And positivity is a great way to change the way your brain works.
Telling yourself “I can’t” usually guarantees that you can’t. Leading with yes acknowledges the obstacles between you and “yes,” and gets you in a problem-solving mode from the outset. Again, this isn’t blind consent, but removing your stream of thought from the well-worn banks of daily life and permitting yourself to carve out a new course.
Yup. Here it is again. Of all the positive, sappy, optimistic suggestions I make, the gratitude journal gets the most eye rolls. I’ve written about that stupid journal, and I’ll probably write about it again. It’s that good of an idea.
The format is simple (though there are ways to complicate the idea until it no longer makes sense): write down three things you’re grateful for every day. No need to wax poetic. Just pick some things that you like, that make you happy, that make you feel good about the life you’re stuck in and write them down. I write about anything from the way fresh coffee smells to the tickle of my cat’s whiskers. If it makes me happy, I notice it, and I write it down and expose my negative, downer of a brain to some things I think are awesome.
The act of noticing the good things in my life, and then writing them down, has become a habit. When I began journaling, I started scanning for entries for the following day, and in the processexposed my brain to more positivity. This didn’t make me peppy, or annoyingly optimistic, but it did open me up to good things in my life that I hadn’t noticed. It’s a simple habit, but one so valuable that I would recommend it to anyone.
If all you notice is the steaming heaps of crap in your life, you aren’t likely to think that you can change. But you can. I can’t say how, how much, or how soon, but you can make things better. 100% of the people I have ever worked with who have opened themselves up to positivity have made their lives better to some degree. But it’s a process. Start now, think good thoughts often, and stick to it. It may take a year, maybe two, but one day you will look up and realize that your posture has changed. You may even find that you are – dare I say – an optimist. But that won’t happen until you do the work. Get to it.
Janus Movement Solutions is an online, movement-centric, coaching platform dedicated to improving human beings by making them move better and feel better.