I’m reminded in my positive psychology course that our brains have a negativity bias. For good reason, the psychologists say. Our ancestors, the theory goes, would have gotten mauled or starved to death if they didn’t see the world as a scary, dangerous place.
I would love to think of our ancient ancestors as carefree, unencumbered by the ills of modern society, but I guess not. Maybe there were chill dudes who said, no worries, there’ll be more food tomorrow or in that other field, and that rustling sound is probably just the wind. Those guys didn’t survive to reproduce, psychologists surmise, looking at our negative-primed brains.
Why should 10 compliments be wiped out by one criticism? Why should one bad taco have us off tacos forever? And why should we judge the world a harsh and unsafe place, when for most of us, that’s just patently not true?
Positive psychologists say we needn’t fret about the brain’s pessimistic bent because 1) it’s not healthy to fret 2) we can learn to be optimistic and 3) as this article explains, that optimism can have profound health effects.
That’s all fascinating, but my favorite part of the Scientific American’s exploration of optimism and heart health is their data, specifically twitter word clouds.
Communities of tweeters that used the language of “skilled occupation,” positive experiences and optimism were associated with a lower incidence of heart disease. Groups that sent out tweets steeped in hostility, aggression, hate, interpersonal tension, boredom and fatigue were associated with worse community cardiac outcomes.
Imagine the word cloud of Trump’s tweets. Now, I’m not saying this means Trump is about to have a heart attack. The study was on communities rather than individuals. Still one can only imagine the insides of a guy who is so angry, suspicious, and hate-filled. Not to mention his many followers filled with hostility, aggression, and hate. Those are emotions the studies suggest put their health at risk. My guess is that my readers slant heavily away from this “community,” so it wouldn’t help for me to suggest here the letting go of those toxic feelings. You, reader, already get it. You, non-reader, are…not reading anyway.
Still, what of the rest of us, trying to remain or become optimistic? How does one build optimism? As this article explains, we can use a visualization exercise to boost optimism, with surprisingly positive results. You imagine yourself in the future in the best possible circumstances. That’s about it. I read a scholarly journal article on the efficacy of this intervention and it did increase optimism and happiness in a number of studies. I chose an article by happiness researcher (positive psychologist) Sonja Lyubomirsky in order to learn the actual research protocol, so you can try it for yourself!
‘‘Think about your best possible self’’ researchers explained,
“means that you imagine yourself in the future, after everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of your life goals. Think of this as the realization of your life dreams, and of your own best potentials. In all of these cases you are identifying the best possible way that things might turn out in your life, in order to help guide your decisions now. You may not have thought about yourself in this way before, but research suggests that doing so can have a strong positive effect on your mood and life satisfaction. So, we’d like to ask you to continue thinking in this way over the next few weeks, following up on the initial writing that you’re about to do. (Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2006).
So why not take ten minutes right now, or later this evening, and sit in a quiet room. Imagine yourself say, 10 years in the future having achieved your goals and dreams in any and all arenas that matter to you. Fully immerse yourself in the vision and write about it as specifically as possible. Then continue to reflect in this way. (The Psychology Today article linked above suggests visualization without writing, but the experimenters had the participants write initially.)
If you give this a try, leave a comment on the experience!
Sheldon, K. M., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2006). How to increase and sustain positive emotion: The effects of expressing gratitude and visualizing best possible selves. Journal of Positive Psychology, 1(2), 73–82. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760500510676