Did you know a scientific journal is only read by seven people on average?
This statistic excludes fellow psychologists, scientists, and doctors reviewing their peers’ work – students writing a paper requiring academic resources aren’t factored in either. But it does include the average Joe, Jane, or J.
Meaning, the majority of people in the world don’t read scientific journals. Probably because they’re dry as hell. “Drier than a popcorn fart,” as my former boss would say.
Sadly, this means we miss out on a lot of potentially life altering information.
A fact Shawn Achor, New York Times’ bestseller and researcher in the field of positive psychology, is less than impressed by. For this reason, he’s written several books about his field of study and spoken to a lot of businesses about how a positive mentality benefits productivity.
His goal is to shed light on his research findings to help individuals be happier and more positive and optimistic in their daily lives.
I was fortunate to hear Shawn speak during his talk at the 2021 Adobe Summit. His presentation was titled The Key to Sustaining Positive Change. During the talk, he shared insight on how to:
- wire your brain to think more positively;
- lead a life with more optimism; and how to
- build habits to sustain those attributes.
During his research on positive psychology—along with his work with companies like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Microsoft—Shawn identified five proven methods to make the brain operate in a more optimistic manner.
It’s no secret how unhealthy a negative mindset is. It leads to depression, lack of productivity, and ultimately, an unhappy life.
And modern society is fueling that negativity with the toxicity of hustle culture; news stories focused on violence and tragedy; and social media algorithms shoving misinformation and trollish behaviour in our faces.
Plus, we’re 13+ months into a world-wide health crisis that’s completely shaken the foundation of normalcy. We’re exhausted and frustrated, with many of us reaching a breaking point and a complete mental collapse.
Suffice to say, we could all use a little more positivity and optimism in our lives right now.
Knowing the majority of people won’t read Shawn’s research studies or his books, nor will they have the opportunity to hear him speak as I did, I want to share the five habits he unveiled to help you build a more positive life.
Our brains are designed to form patterns
Before I go on, it’s important to understand that the brain is a pattern maker. It’s designed to form connections in order to operate more efficiently.
Think about driving to work each day. Have you ever experienced a sudden realization you’ve driven 10 blocks without really paying attention to where you were going?
You’ve taken the same route everyday:
- you know where the stop signs and street lights are;
- you know the train crosses the road at 7:30AM; and
- you know the bus makes the usual stop at 7:45AM.
Everything is so familiar your brain is on autopilot, which sometimes means you daydream on your commute (of course, this is why it’s so important to remain focused behind the wheel).
Now, think about all the negativity we’re being fed daily.
Whether by choice or not, what’s happening is our brains are being taught unhealthy patterns. And these patterns are leading us to be pessimistic and unhappy.
Yes, research shows some people’s genetics make them happier or more positive by nature – others are born into privilege with a less stressful way of life. But that doesn’t mean we can’t control our own behaviour and how we think.
If we can be wired by negativity, that also means we can be rewired with positivity and teach our brains to operate with more optimism.
And by adopting these five habits into your day-to-day, you can do just that.
Remember, it takes approximately 21 days to instil a new habit. If you want to experience the true benefits of these behaviours, you must be diligent about the practice for AT LEAST the next three weeks.
1. Remind yourself of what you’re grateful for
This first habit is to remind yourself of three things you are grateful for everyday. And each day, think of three new things – at the end of the 21-day cycle, you will have a list of 63 things you’re thankful for.
Do this first thing in the morning while you brush your teeth. Take that two-minutes and think about what you’re grateful for. It doesn’t matter what it is—it might be your job, your partner, rock ‘n’ roll music, whatever—the important thing is to think of something new everyday.
Of course, the further along you get into the practice, the harder it becomes to think of something new. And that’s where the real magic is.
The deeper your brain has to scan itself, the more connections it starts to make to the items on your gratitude list.
Not only that, but it begins to recognize the positive patterns or behaviours at play in each moment of gratification.
For example, I like rock ‘n’ roll music because of the energy I feel when I listen to it – the loud guitars, the groovy bass lines, and the thunderous drums amp me up.
It’s hard for me to be in a bad mood while I’m rockin’ out, which is why I’m grateful for music. But I’m also grateful for my ability to play music, which leads me to being thankful for my parents for buying my first guitar, along with my cousin for inspiring me to play in the first place.
It’s this snowball of connections that begin rewiring your brain with positive patterns.
2. Journal about one positive experience
It doesn’t matter if you’re a writer or not, the practice of journaling is incredibly beneficial to your brain. And luckily, this habit has nothing to do with writing perfectly formed sentences with flawless grammar.
Every night before going to bed, take two minutes to jot down one positive experience you had that day. It can be a simple thing like the peaceful morning walk with your dog or a once-in-a-lifetime moment like seeing your child take their first steps; it doesn’t matter.
The important thing is to write down every single detail you can recall about that experience and how it made you feel.
Over time, your brain begins to dim the switch on the negative experiences you have throughout the day and starts to highlight the positive ones instead. In turn, you teach yourself that all it takes is focusing on a single cheerful experience to switch a bad day into a good one.
3. Exercise for 15 minutes
It’s well documented how exercise improves your mental and physical health, and it’s also shown to increase your productivity throughout the day. But Shawn’s research also indicates the benefits exercise has when it comes to wiring your brain to think more positively.
Fortunately for those who aren’t bullish on working out, this habit doesn’t have to include intense exercise – a brisk walk does the trick.
The longer you do this simple behaviour, the easier it is for the mind to identify the patterns at play. Similar to how a single positive experience can completely change your perspective on the day, your brain recognizes that a short period of exercise has a major impact on your health.
In fact, Shawn’s research discovered 15-minutes of daily exercise is similar to taking a top-tier antidepressant.
I’ll note this finding was taken from a test group practicing this behaviour for six months. Regardless, exercise is way healthier than taking medication – if this is an option for you, it’s worth exploring (FYI: I’m not a licensed doctor and am not advising you to stop taking prescribed antidepressants).
4. Meditate for two minutes
Hustle culture and the speed of modern life in the first world teaches our brains to always be on. And when it’s not, we’re often left feeling guilty, as though a moment of relaxation is unproductive or a sign of laziness.
Unfortunately, this forever-grind mentality puts our goals out of reach.
If we think we always have to be going, growing and never slowing, then no matter how much we achieve, it’s never enough.
This results in unhealthy brain patterns, which leads to a poor mental state, making us depressed or anxious or both. To combat this, all you have to do is the mindful practice of meditating for two minutes everyday.
Simply stop what you’re doing and focus on your breath, in and out. Don’t think about work, don’t think about your to-do list, and don’t think about what to make for dinner. Don’t think. Period.
This is a moment out of your crazy, busy life that’s just for you. And it’s this calming and peaceful practice which allows your brain to hit the refresh button and re-energize.
5. Send a daily praise message
Take two minutes each day and write a quick text message or email to somebody telling how you appreciate them or how they’ve had a positive impact on your life.
The message doesn’t have to be long, just sincere.
I’ve written before about how appreciation benefits the mind. Because it feels good to make people feel good – it’s like a shot of dopamine straight to the brain.
And the more happiness you spread, the easier it is to remain positive and optimistic.
That said, similar to thinking about what you’re grateful for, the further into the practice you get, the harder it becomes to think of people you want to praise. On average, most of us run out of individuals who immediately come to mind by the eighth day.
This is where the real benefit happens.
You’re forced to dive deep into your memories, which increases your mental map of social connections. You start to remember grade school teachers, past coaches, or friends that moved away and you no longer talk to – which all had a positive impact on your life in some way.
And when you reach out to them to give thanks, you reinforce that experience with a tangible connection; all the while, your brain is forming patterns and connecting the dots to happy thoughts.
When you highlight all the positive people in your life and bring them to the forefront of your mind, the negative ones fade into the background. In the long term, this makes it easier to sustain an optimistic mindset.
Does a positive life require all five habits?
No, you don’t need to practice all of these habits to lead a more positive life. There is strength in numbers, of course, but if you don’t want to exercise or struggle with meditation, that’s okay.
So what’s the most important one?
Shawn’s research shows sending a praise message is the best thing you can do everyday, as it immediately benefits your brain. As I said, it feels good to make people feel good – and the moment you do it, the positive effects are instantaneous.
On that note, thank you for reading this article to the end. I know how precious your time is, and it means a lot for you to spend several minutes of it entertaining my musing.
Honestly, I really appreciate it.
I hope you enjoyed the post and learned something along the way. Here’s to happiness and leading a more positive life.
Thanks for reading, folks.
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