You’re walking down the street when you hear from behind you a dreadful noise somewhere between a car crash and a fireball. You stop, every hair on your body now standing to attention. You turn. And there, a few metres away, is a snarling lion with hungry eyes and a purposeful stride that says, “Get in my belly, human!”
I have just finished reading an intriguing article on the science of positive thinking.
In the above scenario, there is no room for positive thoughts as our body registers pure fear (a negative emotion) and goes into survival mode.
“Negative emotions narrow your mind and focus your thoughts,” writer James Clear explains.
Which is entirely appropriate in lion-on-the-loose situations. It would be potentially fatal if our mind were to wander off in the face of such danger: “Oh look, Mrs Jones has done a fabulous job of painting her fence!” “Where is that shopping list?” (rummaging in handbag), “I’ll just call the hubby and let him know I’ve been held up…”
Fear narrows the mind.
The thing is, we live in civilised society where situations like this are extremely rare. But our bodies are still programmed to channel negative emotions.
Let me give you another scenario. A woman is unexpectedly pregnant. She is so stressed by the way she perceives a newborn will change her life trajectory that she cannot see anything else but the stress of the situation. She feels like a weak human caught in the gaze of a hungry lion.
“Negative emotions prevent your brain from seeing the other options and choices that surround you. It’s your survival instinct,” James writes.
The pregnant woman feels that her only choice is to run, to put as much distance as possible between the ‘threat’ and herself, to dissipate those negative feelings. And sadly, the first option she will be given in such circumstances, almost reflexively, is abortion.
Enter Barbara Fredrickson, a positive psychology researcher at the University of North Carolina. She published a significant paper about positive thinking that is one of the most highly regarded, referenced and cited pieces on the topic.
Here’s what she did: she set up an experiment, dividing participants into five groups before showing them different film clips. Subjects were shown images that evoked the following feelings:
Group 1: Joy
Group 2: Contentment
Group 3: Neutral (no significant emotion)
Group 4: Fear
Group 5: Anger
After the viewing, each person was required to imagine themselves in situations where the same feelings were felt, and to write down what they would do, starting with the words, “I would like to…”
The results were illuminating. Those who were in groups four and five (fear and anger) wrote down the fewest responses, while those in groups one and two (joy and contentment) wrote down a significantly higher amount of actions they would take – more even than the neutral group.
“In other words, when you are experiencing positive emotions like joy, contentment, and love, you will see more possibilities in your life,” James writes.
“These findings were among the first that suggested positive emotions broaden your sense of possibility and open your mind up to more options.”
Returning once more to the woman who has unexpectedly discovered she is pregnant; what does this research offer her?
It offers invaluable insight into the workings of the mind.
It tells her to surround herself with positivity so that her mind is opened to all the possibilities her circumstances provide.
It tells her to be aware that negative feelings produce tunnel vision.
And for those in her midst, we have a burden of responsibility to help. It can be so difficult to overcome negativity on our lonesome, yet how quickly our outlook can change with simple kindness from people who care. But how? you ask. Basic acts of friendship that encourage joy and contentment, despite the circumstances. A cuppa and a listening ear. A card of love and congratulations. A meal and a hug. An envelope with some funds to help her on her way. A smile and a word of encouragement.
One gesture of positivity could be all it takes to save a life.
Watch Stacey’s story
Here, Stacey shares how a positive outlook on her pregnancy literally changed and saved her life.