We greatly prize positive emotions: joy, love, gratitude, happiness, hope, inspiration, etc. So much so, that we tend to classify these positive emotions as being “good”. And whilst one of the functions of positive emotions is to make us feel good, emotions themselves are neither good nor bad, they just are. They are here to serve a function.
Some of the other functions of positive emotions is that they help to:
- Motivate us to engage – with our relationships, our work, and our external world. It urges us to explore, to innovate, to learn and to expand our self
- Encourage us to continue – they are internal signals that what we are doing is good and is working for us. They increase our attention, cognition and action.
- Build physical, intellectual, and social resources. For example, by building our resilience or helping us bounce back from illness more quickly
- Undo the effects of negative emotions
3 ways to get more out of positivity!
1) Share the love with others
It’s almost a cliché: “positive breeds positivity”. And sure, it’s true, but why?
Research has found that when you share your happiness with others, it actually makes you feel even more positive. It also increases your overall life satisfaction. The sharing with an empathetic listener – someone who is happy for you that something good is happening – creates a positive reinforcement where you are both lifting each other up.
Another reason that positivity creates more positivity is that by sharing with others you actually make it easier for you to access the positivity memory and create associative links, making your positive experience more real. This means that you will have greater and more readily available access to your positive memories.
So take the time to share your good moments with those around you and celebrate your achievements – no matter how small they are.
2) Avoid toxic positivity
Being positive doesn’t mean ignoring the reality of the situation. This is toxic positivity, and it can seriously impact on our mental well being.
For example: Right now we’re all dealing with a crazy pandemic. It is scary and it is having real effects on people. Some people have lost a loved one, some their jobs, some their homes. Even for those who haven’t lost these things, we’ve still lost the normality of everyday. No matter how often the politicians on tv announce “this is the new normal” there is nothing normal about this time. It is traumatic and stressful and likely that people will be affected by this for a long time. Many of us our grieving what we’ve lost.
Yet some people have created this toxic positivity around COVID:
Toxic positivity can make us believe that there’s something shameful about the way we are feeling. It is an isolating experience because it asks us to suppress our real feelings. We’re left feeling invisible and isolated. Part of being wholehearted is that we feel all our emotions. And the negative emotions make up part of our core emotions as much as the positive emotions do – because they serve important functions too. To numb negative emotions, to ignore them, to silence them, is to be not whole. You cannot experience your positive emotions fully if you do not fully experience your negative emotions.
Don’t get me wrong, having those darker feelings is difficult. Sometimes things really do just suck and life seem hopeless. It is fine to acknowledge when you have difficult emotions or are in a difficult situation. And sometimes our negative emotions overwhelm us and we need to get professional help with them. Instead of forcing toxic positivity on yourself or others, try and acknowledge that it is okay not to be okay and deal with the reality of the situation.
For a more in-depth article on toxic positivity in the context of wider societal issues, see this excellent article by neurodiverse woman Megan Wildhood.
3. Lift yourself up
Part of my philosophical background is that I am post-modern and constructivist. What this means is that I believe that we, as individuals, are agents of change. I believe that what we think, say, and do means something. The whole “you reap what you sow” thing.
For years I struggled with negative self-talk. I still do sometimes. If someone complimented me, I’d instantly deny it in my head. If someone told me I was pretty I would tell myself I was ugly. If someone said I was smart I would remind myself of all the dumb things I had done. And if someone was critical of me, the barrage of hate I’d unleash on myself was relentless.
It is hard to be happy when you carry that level of negative self-talk. This type of emotional dysfunction meant that my negative emotions were no longer fulfilling their proper function. If anything, they were over-functioning and that stopped my positive emotions from being able to do their job. My negative emotions were being toxic in this case. The incessant negativity resulted in me constructing this person, this identity, who was so unlovable that the problem wasn’t just that I didn’t love myself. I hated myself. And it took me decades to turn that around.
I wish someone had given me permission to be kind to myself. And to be really honest, maybe someone did and I just was not ready to hear it. I had to learn that the inner critic of perfectionism does not always see reality. I had to learn gratitude. And not the kind of gratitude where I post perfect Facebook pictures to create envy in other people. But the kind that accepts who I am and what I have and finds the good in that.
I am a lot more resilient now, and in part that is because positive self-talk helps to process thoughts, deal with painful or stressful situations, emotionally regulate and increase self-control. Here are two techniques to increase your positive self-talk.
Decrease negative self-talk This is trying to catch yourself when you are in a cycle of negative self-talk and simply not allowing it. Usually our negative self talk is based on a type of cognitive distortion. Try and identify which ones applies to you, because it will make it easier to for you catch your negative self-talk. It might be more than one – it might be most of them. That is ok.
If you have the emotional space – ask yourself where did the negative self-talk come from? Identifying the root causes can be helpful in breaking the cycle of negativity.
Replace the negative self-talk with positive self-talk. A really concrete and practical way to increase positive self talk is with the following exercise:
- write a list of some of your negative self-talk.
- for each example, write the opposing positive self-talk
When you catch yourself using negative self-talk, replace it with your positive self-talk. Similarly, when you catch yourself using positive self-talk, take a moment to acknowledge that you’re growing. This creates a positive feedback loop for yourself.
One way I increased my positive self-talk is by comparing the standards I had for other people and that I had for myself. I considered others worthy. I was positive and encouraging towards them. Myself, less so. I really challenged myself on this disparity and started holding myself to a higher standard. Deciding to treat yourself respectfully, like a friend, and not putting up with abuse from yourself any longer can be an incredibly freeing and validating experience.
Readings that informed this blog:
Brown, B. (2018). List of core emotions.
Lambert, N., et al. (2012). A boost of positive affect: The perks of sharing positive experiences.
Oles, P. et al. (2020). Types of Inner Dialogues and Functions of Self-Talk: Comparisons and Implications.