Four ways to build resilience using positive thinking

Have you ever noticed when you start your day in a good mood, the whole day seems to go right for you? Traffic moves quickly, people smile and open doors, you have a great conversation with a colleague over lunch, you find a solution to a problem that’s been niggling at you and your productivity is high.

Such is the power of positivity. When we perceive situations through a positive lens, we notice the good in situations and boost our ability to deal with stress and be resilient.

While some people are naturally more positive and optimistic than others, positivity is a skill that can be practised and learned by everybody. By using a few simple strategies to be more positive, you can build your resilience.

What is resilience?

Resilience can simply be thought of as our ability to bounce back from life’s ups and downs. It is our capacity to deal with stress, get through difficult experiences and navigate challenges well. People with good resilience have the confidence to take on new challenges and view challenges as more surmountable.

Resilience is closely interlinked with happiness and wellbeing. The growing field of positive psychology has found that positive emotions can strongly influence our level of happiness and lead to flourishing, both physically and psychologically.¹

Science aside, there’s an element of common sense to all this. When we experience positive emotion or think positively, we put ourselves in a more empowered place to deal with challenges and, as a result, setbacks are viewed as temporary and changeable. On the other hand, when we are negative we may find ourselves in a downward spiral of disempowering thought, making it difficult to navigate challenging situations.

The chemistry of positivity

Looking at what goes on in our brain chemistry, we can better understand how positive thinking can hold so much power over our experience of life and our level of resilience.

When we face criticism, rejection, fear or negativity, either from our own thought processes or from others, our bodies produce higher levels of cortisol.² Cortisol is the stress hormone that can shut down the thinking centre of our brain and activate suboptimal behaviours, ranging from aggression through to conflict aversion. In short, it primes us to be more reactive and sensitive, and less logical. In this state, our ability to accurately perceive situations is affected; we are more likely to scan for negatives and magnify them.

On the other hand, positive thoughts, interactions and conversations are accompanied by the release of oxytocin.³ This hormone activates the pathways in our prefrontal cortex associated with building trust and improving communication.⁴

The catch is that oxytocin doesn’t stay in our body as long as cortisol, therefore it’s wonderful effects are shorter in duration. To build resilience and our ability to communicate and collaborate, we need to make consistent effort to be positive.

It’s all in your head

While positivity can help us to feel good in the short term, it can also help to rewire our brain in the long term. In fact, using positive thinking can train our brains to be more positive and activate the areas of our brain that are key to resilient ways of thinking and behaving.

When we routinely practise optimism, gratitude and other forms of positive thinking and behaving, our brain makes connections that support further positivity. We come to see the world in a more optimistic way, and over time, find we are naturally more positive. At the same time, the negative connections that we had created before begin to weaken.⁵

Research also shows that positive thinking stimulates the growth of our frontal lobes, the areas of the brain that are responsible for functions such as logical thinking, focusing on goals, making decisions and following complex instructions.⁶ Positivity is also strongly associated with higher levels of happiness and wellbeing.⁷

Building resilience through positive thinking

Building our resilience requires us to cultivate a positive mindset. Small changes, repeated consistently over time can be enough to help us improve the way we perceive and deal with challenges.

  1. Adjust your frame. Fortunately, we can choose the mindset that we embrace each day and situation with. To reframe, look at what the opportunities are in any given situation, look for solutions to a problem, and use more positive language when thinking about a situation. For example, instead of saying ‘I can’t handle this’, try saying ‘this is a difficult situation but I have worked through difficulties before, I can do this’.
  2. Scan for the positives and be grateful. Research indicates when people spend a couple of minutes each day focusing on the positives and being grateful, after about three weeks their brain starts to develop a pattern of scanning the world for positives rather than negatives.⁸ Take a moment to appreciate the beautiful weather, the food on your plate, or the friend that made you laugh today. Whenever you feel yourself spiralling into a negative thought pattern, pause and scan for the positives in the situation or in your life. Write down three things that you are grateful for every day to train your brain to be more grateful.
  3. Nudge your brain’s stress response. Research shows that it isn’t so much the stress itself, but the way we perceive and react to it, that impacts our health and wellbeing.⁹ Stress is an inevitable part of life, and indicates there is an opportunity for change or growth. When you’re stressed, try focusing on the stresses that are within your control and come up with one or two small, concrete steps you can take to reduce it. In this way you can help nudge your brain back to a positive and more resilient mindset.¹⁰
  4. Treat yourself to some feel-good habits. One of the easiest ways to boost positivity and build resilience is to do more of the things that make you feel happy. Try a daily ‘10-2-10’ regime: exercise for 10 minutes, meditate for 2, and get out for some fresh air for 10. Open the door for a stranger or give meaningful praise to a colleague or loved one.

Helena Kuo is a Partner and lead facilitator at En Masse, workplace wellbeing and behaviour change enablers. Contact Helena on 03 9429 8441.

References

  1. Martin E. P. Seligman, ‘Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being’, Atria Books, February 2007.
  2. Judith E. Glaser and Richard D. Glaser, ‘The Neurochemistry of Positive Conversations’, Harvard Business Review, hbr.org/2014/06/the-neurochemistry-of-positive-conversations, June 12 2014.
  3. Chester Elton and Adrian Gostick, ‘The Power of Positivity’, HC Online, www.hcamag.com/blog/chester-elton-and-adrian-gostick/the-power-of-positivity-189451.aspx, July 2014.
  4. Judith E. Glaser and Richard D. Glaser, ‘The Neurochemistry of Positive Conversations’, Harvard Business Review, hbr.org/2014/06/the-neurochemistry-of-positive-conversations, June 12 2014.
  5. Traing Your Brain to Let Go Of Habits’, The Mind Unleashed, themindunleashed.org/2014/03/train-brain-let-go-habits-10-methods-creating-new-neural-pathways.html, March 2014.
  6. John B. Arden, ‘Rewire Your Brain: Think Your Way to a Better Life’, John Wiley & Sons, 2010.
  7. Bruna Martinuzzi, ‘Optimism: The Hidden Asset”, Mind Tools, www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newLDR_72.htm.
  8. Shawn Achor, ‘The happy secret to better work’, TEDx Bloomington, www.ted.com/talks/shawn_achor_the_happy_secret_to_better_work/transcript?language=en, May 2011.
  9. Shawn Achor, ‘Positive Intelligence’, Harvard Business Review, hbr.org/2012/01/positive-intelligence, February 2012.
  10. Shawn Achor, ‘Positive Intelligence’, Harvard Business Review, hbr.org/2012/01/positive-intelligence, February 2012.