When I first came to Las Vegas the towering palm trees amazed me. Their arching green leaves looked like beach umbrellas against the wide blue sky. We had nothing so exotic and tropical in the Colorado Rockies. But over the years, I lost sight of the palm trees, amid the city’s endless concrete, smoggy sky, and obnoxious blinking lights. The progression seemed natural, naivety giving way to reality.
See, I’ve always held positivity to be biologically predetermined. I’m 5’6”, have brown eyes and am a bit of a pessimist. Actually, I’m pretty sure Rachel Dratch modeled her Debbie-Downer character after me. But Shawn Achor’s TED Talk revolutionized my understanding, convincing me that positivity, and by extension happiness, can be learned and cultivated.
The human brain is constantly sorting and averaging the maelstrom of information around it. When I focus on negative, my brain processes the (skewed) data and renders bleak assessments of the world. Conversely, noticing the good can improve my outlook. According to Achor, the benefits of taking in the positive (i.e. being a glass-half-full kind of a person) are profound. He calls it “the happiness advantage”. Dopamine floods the brain turning on all its learning centers, increasing intelligence, energy, creativity, resilience, and productivity.
But how does someone like me, habituated to seeing the negative, reverse my thinking? Mr. Achor offers several simple techniques to retrain your brain:
- Write down three new things your grateful for each day
- Journal about a positive experience you’ve had in the past 24 hours
- Random Acts of Kindness
For example, today I’m grateful:
- A Starbucks within walking distance of the auto shop where my car is being repaired
- New breaks
- 3000 miles before I have change the oil again
I make a new list daily. I’ve also combined the idea of journaling with the concept of flash fiction, describing positive events in my life as if I were narrating a story. I give myself eight minutes each morning for this task. Here are a few of my favorites:
You settle into your seat, lowering the armrests and worming your butt into the crook of the chair. The stark whiteness showering down from the industrial lights overhead dims and the giant screen stretching wide before you flashes green. The smell of popcorn is so thick in the air you taste butter on your tongue. The chattering couple seated two rows behind you falls silent. Everyone waits, holding in a collective breath. Colors, faces, action erupts upon the screen. You exhale. And your entire being rides that breath, commingling with the flecks of dust dancing in the flickering beam of the projection. For two hours, maybe three, you’re anywhere and everywhere, anyone and everyone. The ending always comes too soon.
He rolls the cue ball over the blue surface. It zips away as he leans down over the table, rubbing his hand over the felt. Backward spin counteracts the forward motion of the ball and after rolling a few feet it returns to his waiting hand like dog playing fetch. This is his ritual. He performs the same movements every break. Then his cue strikes the ball, which, in turn, collides with the tight diamond formation at the other end of the table. Colors scatter. Pockets swallow balls. Once everything settles, he circles the table, a predator stalking his prey, planning his route. One, two, four (the three and six are already gone), five, seven, eight and then—with just the right amount of English—the coveted nine. He sits down on a bar stool nearby and spots you through the crowd. His smile reveals more than he’d like. He’s happy he won, but more happy you were there to see it.
It’s not War and Peace but that’s not the point. Happiness is. And so far it’s working. I wake up and I notice the sunshine instead of the honking traffic outside my window. I’m able to glean helpful feedback from rejection. I’m seeing the palm trees again.
Watch Shawn Achor’s TED Talk and try it for yourself.