Well-Being//

The Surprising Side Effects of Practicing Positivity

My family has a few tricks for keeping negative thoughts at bay.

MoMo Productions/Getty Images
MoMo Productions/Getty Images

My husband and I were recently talking about family finances and future investments. It was not a conversation I wanted to have on that particular day, and that must have come through loud and clear.  At one point my husband spouted, “you’re so negative”.

It wasn’t the first time I’d heard that.

A former team member once took me aside after a meeting and gently reminded me to put the beast back in the bottle.  Close friends have occasionally called me out for it.  So have my kids.

The truth is, I’m not a beacon of positivity.  When studying for exams at university I used to prepare myself for a mediocre grade, even though I was a good student.  I figured if I got an average result, I’d be prepared for it.  If I did well, I’d be pleasantly surprised.

That became my approach for job interviews, loan applications and performance appraisals.  Secretly lower your expectations and you’ll never be disappointed.  Not a great mantra to guide me through life, I know, but it became a habit that helped protect me from the fear of failure.

I’m trying to change my ways.  I don’t want to be known as a ‘Negative Nelly’ with colleagues.  I don’t want my family to see me that way either.  But there’s another reason.

I have a history of depression and anxiety, and negative thinking can affect my ability to manage those conditions. In fact, pessimism is one of the hallmarks of depression. Left to its own devices, it can stifle motivation, lead to constant rumination and lessen our ability to celebrate life’s joys.

To help keep my mental well-being on track, I’ve started practicing positivity – and yes, it is something I have to deliberately practice.

Now at dinner time, our family takes turns telling each other the best part of our day.

When I close my eyes each night I think of three things I’m grateful for, because it’s hard to buy into the negative when you’re focused on being grateful.

I also make a point of being kind to strangers.  I try to be kind to everyone, but I go out of my way to be kind to strangers because it forces me to look up and out – beyond my own little world, beyond my own little head – and see the rays of light around me.  Maybe I can even create a ray of light for someone else.

I built these and other habits into my routine to better myself. What surprised me was how they inspired new habits in the people around me.

If for some reason we forget to share the best part of our day at dinner, my little girl will be the first to ask me at bedtime, “Mummy, best part of the day?”  Often the best part of her day is that moment, the two of us sitting on her bed talking about our day.

My son has invented a game called Five Words of Kindness.  It starts with him choosing one family member and using five kind words to describe them.  Then it’s that person’s turn to say five kind things about another family member and so on.

Last year we bought a memory jar which sits on our living room table.  At any time, any one of us can write down a positive experience or an achievement on a little piece of paper and put it in the jar.  We’ll open it once or twice a year, take turns reading out all the good memories, and then start afresh.  Most of the entries in that jar are from my kids.

When my children see one of their friends struggling with a new task or getting nervous about a new experience, they don’t hesitate to share words of encouragement, a reassuring thumbs-up or even a much-needed hug.

Given my history with depression and anxiety, I’m mindful of how my children deal with problems, new experiences or setbacks. I secretly harbour a fear that my negative nature will rub off on them and predispose them to dark days in their own lives.

Practicing positivity is not only helping me with my own mental health – it’s fostering a greater degree of kindness and resilience in my children.

The reality is negative thoughts are a normal part of human function.  We all experience them.  Some of us just struggle with them more than others.

Negative thoughts are our brain’s twisted way of trying to protect us from threats (real or perceived).  We run into trouble when we buy into those negative thoughts, when we believe the negative stories our brains try to tell us, or when we let pessimism consistently hijack joy.

Researchers and psychologists suggest that one way to keep negative thoughts and emotions in check is to amplify the positive ones, every day.

So find ways to practice positivity in your life.  It not only lifts you up, it lifts and inspires the people around you – and that’s something to be happy about.

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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