The Power of Positivity

by Ryokan College on April 12, 2012

Recently, one of my clients shared a story about his morning that was very revealing of a dynamic I see far too often in practice.  He was heading to work late because of a doctor’s appointment, and freeway traffic was considerably lighter than during his typical rush hour commute.  He made it to work in less than half his usual time.

As I was about to comment on how nice that must have been for him, he added an addendum.  He pointed out that despite the fact that traffic was flowing freely, the traffic meter on the onramp was still merging cars onto the freeway one agonizing vehicle at a time.  When I asked him why that detail came to mind, he replied, “Well, how stupid is it that the signal was still on even though there was no traffic at that hour?”  Not surprisingly, his day had gone downhill from there.

Just as from the philosophically revealing question that asks if a glass is half-full or half-empty, a psychologist can tell a lot about a person based on whether he or she focuses on the half-hour of wide-open freeway… or the 60 seconds of waiting at the onramp.  More and more, we are learning that for those who constantly see the negative sides of things, life is considerably harder than for those who embrace positivity.

Dr. Martin Seligman, former head of the American Psychological Association, once noted that, “Human beings are naturally biased toward remembering the negative, attending to the negative, and expecting the worst.”  That said, he also noted that the subjective experiences people tend to value most highly are centered on the following: well-being, contentment, and satisfaction (in the past); hope and optimism (for the future); and flow of happiness (in the present).  Generally speaking, we tend to be negative, but we want to be positive.

There are seemingly limitless ways to achieve greater positivity.  Some examples include engaging in gratitude exercises, journaling about our most desirable qualities, performing daily acts of kindness, and setting and achieving goals; an online search for “positivity exercises” will reveal countless more.

Repeatedly, however, experience leads me to one core truth: it almost doesn’t matter which positivity exercise a person chooses, because positivity increases when we focus on positive things.  The real power of the exercise isn’t in the specifics of the exercise but rather in the attenuation of our minds onto positivity itself.

Another critical aspect of positivity is that it grows exponentially.  In much the same way that exercise not only burns calories as you are working out but also increases our resting metabolism so that we burn more calories even while doing nothing, so, too, does working on our positivity inspire an increase in the way we feel even when we may not be focused specifically on positivity itself.

I encourage all my clients to experience this dynamic for themselves.  I invariably find that if they spend some time each day focusing on the positive things of life, the emotional state that this focus creates inspires them to greater achievements in both their therapeutic processes and in their lives in general.  If I were to suggest one change that has the potential to impact the most lives in the most profound way, it would be this: Improve positivity!


Lance Miller, Psy.D., Ryokan Alum

-with John C. Thomas, M.A., Ryokan Alum

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