Do you ever hear someone talking about positive thinking—and want to hurl? When you have a stressful job, a nightmare of a boss, and a to-do list that just won’t quit, the last thing you’re thinking is, “Gee, maybe if I had a more positive attitude, this would all feel better.” How could that possibly be true?
But take heed! One researcher says if you use your brain the right way, you can turn your thinking around—even at work.
According to Shawn Achor, psychologist, Harvard researcher, and author of The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work, when you raise the positivity levels in your brain, you actually do better work and, generally, are happier.
Achor says the traditional notion of how to achieve happiness and success—that if you work harder and achieve more success, you’ll be happier—is broken and backward. By continually working harder and harder to reach the next level, you’ll likely end up feeling stressed, rather than happy.
Instead, Achor posits, your brain functions better (e.g., you perform better, you’re more creative, and you’re more intelligent) when your brain is in a positive mindset, rather than when it’s negative, neutral, or stressed.
It turns out that the dopamine—the drug that floods our brain when we feel good—also opens up the learning function in our brains. So, if you can figure out how to be happy, then your creativity, energy, and even your intelligence will increase accordingly.
But that begs the question: How do you become more positive?
Think of your brain as an elite athlete. When you want to master a new skill, technique, or improve a personal best, what do you do? You train! Similarly, Achor and his team created specific exercises you can use to train your brain. They tested the effectiveness of these exercises by having research participants perform them for 21 days—and the effects speak for themselves.
By doing the following exercises each day for the next 21 days, you can re-wire your brain, so that you can focus on the positive, rather than the negative.
1. Practice Gratitude
Write three things you’re grateful for each day. And no repeats allowed: Selecting unique areas of gratitude each day forces you re-frame your perspective to look for the positive, rather than the negative, aspects in your daily life. Achor’s research participants felt the benefit of this activity for up to 10 months after they completed it.
Each day, spend two minutes writing about one positive experience that happened to you in the past 24 hours. This invites your brain to re-live that situation, which doubles the positive impact it has on your life.
For at least 10 minutes a day, engage in some form of recreational exercise—run, walk, bike, swim, or whatever activity you enjoy most. After 10 months, depressed research participants who exercised were shown to have far lower risk of relapse than those who took anti-depressants. With exercise, you’re training your body to reduce the likelihood of falling into negative thinking and, instead, preserve your happy factor.
Find a quiet place and focus on your breathing—and nothing else—for at least two minutes each day. In our multi-tasking, often frenetic world, this can be hard! But if you do it successfully, you’ll sleep better, feel less stressed, and have more energy.
5. Practice Conscious Acts of Kindness
Your connections to others in your social circle are like oxygen to your sense of well-being. These connections fuel your happiness factor. A simple way to connect with others is to consciously reach out and share a positive message with them. Each morning, as soon as you open your inbox, write an authentically positive and affirming email praising someone or thanking someone for his or her contributions in your life.
Nurturing social relationships in this manner creates more positive habits, reinforces your social connections, and cushions you from the toxic power of stress.
So, can you do it? Can you commit to these five techniques for 21 days? Remember, there are three big predictors of success: your optimism level, your social support, and your ability to see stress as a challenge rather than a threat. These five simple exercises will help you make a significant impact on all three.