There’s so much talk around about the concept of positivity that it’s easy to understand how people can get tired of hearing about how they should think more positively. It’s become a bit of a cliché, really.

You hear phrases and platitudes almost constantly: “Think more positive”, “Look at the bright side”, “There’s always a silver lining”.

It’s easy to get caught up in the hoopla and have it all become a whole lot of noise. It can be like you’re hearing repetitive strains of “blah, blah, blah, blah, blah”.

What does being positive really mean? On a practical, every-day level what actions do you need to take in order to change your mindset?

It can be helpful to understand what positivity is NOT, in order to understand what it IS.

It is NOT:

  • Airy fairy woo woo.
  • Intangible,
  • Always feeling upbeat,
  • Ignoring the realities of daily life,
  • Never having a negative or unhelpful thought,
  • Never feeling sad, blue, defeated, or overwhelmed,
  • An instant, life-changing quick fix

For a moment let’s take a look at negativity.

www.vocabulary.com defines it as a “tendency to be downbeat, disagreeable, and sceptical. It’s a pessimistic attitude that always expects the worst. Negative outcomes are bad outcomes, like losing a game, getting a disease, suffering an injury or getting something stolen”. In real life, I believe the people who practice negativity are generally those who are often grumpy, argue frequently, regularly complain and always look for the worst thing to happen.

It’s super easy to become negative.

Here’s why. Hopefully by now you’ve heard me talk about the brain and our survival mechanism.

The brain’s Prime Directive (if you’re a Star Trek fan you’ll get that reference) is “Don’t Die”, or “Stay Alive”.

In order to achieve that directive, it needs to look around in the world for anything that might make it fail. It looks for all the possible ways that things could go wrong.

  • Is that tiger about to eat me?
  • Is the tribe going to kill me?
  • Am I good enough for the tribe to keep me around?
  • Am I doing a good job?
  • Is what I have to offer good enough?
  • Am I doing the right thing?
  • How can I make this work?
  • How can I fix my shortcomings or learn new things so the tribe will keep me?

Your brain considers every possible scenario to assess whether it has the capacity to achieve its directive.

Which means that every time you get thoughts about your skill level, your ability, your appearance or whatever, your brain is simply doing its job and achieving its Prime Directive.

What we also know about the brain is how it creates routines for everything we do. Our neurons form pathways that help us remember how to do stuff. It’s why we don’t have to think about how to walk or drive a car or write a sentence. Once it’s been practiced enough, it becomes an automatic process. This is why we can arrive home without really remembering most of the drive. Your brain has developed an automatic routine for how to operate a car and how to direct it to your home. The more familiar the route, the easier it is to do it without the conscious awareness of it.

And it’s the same with our thoughts. We create routines or programs, of how we think. When we’re young, we absorb the thinking style of those around us. We get taught by the significant adults in our lives, through example.

If your examples were people who were mostly positive, and were able to bounce back from hardship easily, then it’s likely you are too. If your examples got caught up in cycles of despair, always looking at the worst case scenario, you likely follow that pattern.

There’s always the exception to the rule of course, but for the most part, the patterns are followed.

It makes sense then, when people’s survival mechanisms step up to do the job they were designed for, that the cycle of negativity becomes easy to slip into.

So does that mean you have to spend your life in that space?

No – The evidence tells us you can change the patterns. Your brain is plastic, which means that it can change. You can learn new routines, new ways of being and new ways of thinking.

Learning how to support your brain to create new neural pathways can help you to create any new habit. The key to making it work is to take small steps, and take them often. Think about how you learned to walk or drive a car. You learned a small part of it, practiced it (a lot), learned the next part, practiced (a lot), and repeated the process until you had the entire routine down.

If you’re going to change your thinking patterns, it’s a good idea to decide what you’d prefer your new patterns to be – for most people, it’s about being more optimistic. It’s about looking at life through a different lens; noticing the small things that make the world beautiful, slowing down the mind chatter that seems to have you focused on doom and gloom, noticing the blessings and the abundance around you.

It doesn’t mean never having a negative or unhelpful thought (your brain will naturally give you that anyway, so there’s no point fighting it). It doesn’t mean that nothing ever goes wrong in your life. It doesn’t mean you never get caught up in a negative cycle again.

Positivity is much more about being able to take the not so great things in life and notice the good things that come out of them. It’s about allowing yourself to feel the negative emotions and being able to bounce back from them. It’s about seeing the good things about yourself (and there are plenty) while being able to make changes on the things you want to change. And it’s about acknowledging your dreams, striving to achieve them and picking yourself up when you fall over.

It’s about balancing your thoughts.

So how can you change the tide of your thoughts and bring them over to spend more time on the positive side of the fence?

Given what we know about how the brain works with neural pathways, my suggestion would be to create a daily practice of small, easy to achieve tasks that over time, will create a new way of thinking for you – and repeat them as often as you can.

I’d suggest slowing the mind chatter (meditation, mindfulness, breathing etc), connecting with the world around you (mindfulness, especially in nature), looking for the small blessings in your life (gratitude), acknowledging your positive characteristics (eg, affirmations), and so on.

Since the brain likes to keep you in the negative, I’d also suggest you track your progress and find an accountability buddy to do it with (it will help to keep up with the daily practice until it becomes a habit – which takes several months).