“Random or conscious acts of kindness can not only create ripples of positivity but create a real revolution.” -Shawn Achor
I had the honor of seeing Shawn Achor speak at an event in Chicago. The world’s leading expert on happiness and success and the New York Times bestselling author of The Happiness Advantage, Shawn reminds us that happiness, or what he refers to as “rational optimism,” is a powerful and often overlooked antidote to coping with the harsh reality we’re living in.
According to Shawn’s research, if you’re constantly scanning the world for the negative (ie: watching endless loops of negative news coverage) and leave out the positive, your brain will start to atrophy, making it harder to access happiness and optimism in the long run.
Your brain atrophies without regular exposure to positivity? Yep. Just like a muscle you stop using due to inactivity (think about how flaccid your bum has gotten sitting in front of your computer for 10 hours a day, every day, for years), your brain will stop reinforcing those parts that aren’t regularly stimulated.
“If you can find a way of becoming more positive in the present, then your brain works even more successfully, allowing you to adapt to the world in a new way,” Shawn explains. So if you want to have a life that is hopeful, joyful, and infused with optimism to get out of the slumps of despair, it’s time to start working out your happiness muscle.
Now I get what you’re thinking: How can I be happy when there’s so much devastation and loss around me? It doesn’t feel right to be happy when others are suffering.
Shawn teaches us that happiness isn’t about sugar-coating reality. It’s not about dancing your way through life with rainbows and unicorns around you as you sprinkle fairy dust on everyone to get them to smile. Rather, it’s about rewiring your brain to become resilient to the stresses of life so you can better cope with change and loss.
It’s about finding the good amidst the grief and becoming stronger for it.
It’s about getting all your inner resources to work for your greatest benefit, not against you.
“If you can raise someone’s level of positivity in the present, then the brain experiences what we call a ‘Happiness Advantage,’ which is your brain at positive performing significantly better than it does at negative, neutral, or stress. Your intelligence rises. Your creativity rises. Your energy levels rise. Your brain at positive is 31% more productive than your brain at negative, neutral, or stress.”
So how do you practice rational optimism in the midst of fear and grief? Here are 3 practical and simple ways to start:
Rational Optimism Exercises
1. Focus on doing small things that make you feel comforted, secure, and protected to lower your stress level and get you out of fight-or-flight mode. If you don’t, you run the risk of staying in a place of chronic stress and overwhelm, which over time leads to increased blood pressure, physical ailments, anxiety, depression, poor problem-solving skills, and decreased life satisfaction. Simple acts like drinking a cup of calming lavender tea, diffusing Jasmine or Bergamot essential oils, cuddling with a pet for 15 minutes, or holding someone’s hand as you share what’s scaring you right now can significantly lower your stress and return your brain to a state of homeostasis, or balance.
2. Practice building up your optimism. To do this, Shawn recommends the 3 Gratitudes exercise: Take 45 seconds each day to name 3 new things that occurred over the last 24 hours that you’re grateful for. And most importantly, name WHY you’re grateful for them. It’s one thing to say, I’m grateful for my life, my home, and my kids. But when you engage your brain to think about why you’re grateful for them, you stimulate areas of your brain that increase optimism, performance, creativity, and overall success.
3. Engage in “Conscious Acts of Kindness.” Spend 2 minutes writing a text or email of praise or thanks to 1 new person each day for 21 days. Sound awkward? It is, because we’re not conditioned in our society to openly express our gratitude for others. But this kind of social connection has the greatest impact on life longevity and happiness. It’s just as predictive as obesity, blood pressure, and smoking. So get your computer or phone out and type away that note of thanks to your coworker, boss, neighbor, sister, or even yourself!
There are myriad blessings in disguise that come with moments of despair. If you take care to notice the blessings and train your brain to seek them out regularly, you will find more opportunities for deeper connections with others, increased compassion and empathy, and clarity around our purpose here on earth: to give and receive LOVE.
As we continue to face unsettling and scary changes in our country and world, you’ll be tempted to feel like everything is out of control and you’re helpless to what’s happening.
Focus on taking the best care of yourself to feel secure, comforted, and protected.
Do little things each day to lower the stress of what you’re going through.
Fill your emotional cup back up with the energy of acceptance, understanding, gratitude, and forgiveness.
Stay connected with others and let your positivity ripple its way into the hearts of everyone you come in contact with.
Strengthen your rational optimism muscles and walk away with a new appreciation for how happiness is the antidote to grief. ❤️🙏🏼
Click here to learn more about the Happiness Advantage in Shawn’s poignant and hilarious TEDx talk. It’s guaranteed to make you feel happy today.
Dr. Gladys Ato champions individuals and organizations to evolve through change and loss and reach their highest potential as leaders of tomorrow. She is a personal growth expert, clinical psychologist, speaker, and author of the book, The Good Goodbye: How to Navigate Change and Loss in Life, Love, and Work. Get your copy of the book and a FREE 30-page supplemental workbook by clicking here. Visit her online at drgladysato.com or find her strolling the streets of San Francisco with her pup, Lovebug, hunting for estate sale treasures, nourishing her passion for style, and satisfying her foodie palate.
Originally published at medium.com