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Accentuate the Positive

One of the many reasons I love the summer in Connecticut is that I have the opportunity to take a brisk walk on the beach whenever I choose. Including the benefits of exercise, it serves a number of purposes. If I am feeling anxious and troubled, it calms me down and clears my thinking. If I am working on a writing challenge, a solution often pops in to my head.

Walking on the beach often serves as entertainment as I observe a number of small human dramas unfolding around me. But, perhaps one of the most enlightening benefits is that I get to listen to snippets of a number of conversations as I pass by fellow amblers. Beach walks are, after all, the ideal environment for people to work out their troubles, vent or simply share information.

Although I’ve always enjoyed noticing pieces of conversations on my walks, I’ve begun listening with a different purpose in mind. I decided to count the number of negative or troubled comments I hear as well as the number of positive and joyful ones. The results were astounding. Over a period of three, one-hour walks in as many days, the comments I overheard were 90% negative – almost all of them concerning issues with relationships.

This was especially puzzling as those days held blue skies, bright sun and gentle ocean breezes. I decided to do a little research as to why this is so. Amazingly, I discovered that we, as human beings, have a built in penchant to see the negative before the positive – the bad before the good.

The key to understanding this phenomenon is to take a brief look at how the human brain developed. The reality is that we are deeply influenced by what is called our “primitive” brain, that part of our brain that is genetically designed to automatically control the bodily functions that take place off the radar of our conscious awareness. But, it also controls what is referred to as our “fight or flight” response.

This primitive fight or flight programming evolved to protect our species. If we were in some kind of physical danger from snakes, other animals or the environment, we simply did not have time to ponder a plan of how to react. In order to survive, we instantly had to make a choice to either defend ourselves or flee. Like the automatic functioning of our nervous system, it happens without thought. That’s all well and good because it has kept our species alive. However, there are some unwanted residual effects.

Jonathan Haidt writes in The Happiness Hypothesis, “Psychologists find that the human mind reacts to bad things more quickly, strongly, and persistently than to equivalent good things. We can’t just will ourselves to see everything as good because our minds are wired to find and react to threats, violations and setbacks.”

The reality is that bad is stronger and more visible than good and that explains a great deal about relationships and why I heard so much complaining concerning that subject. Haidt continues, “This principal called ‘negative bias’ shows up all over psychology. In marital interactions, it takes at least five good or constructive actions to make up for the damage done by one critical or destructive act.”

The one clear window in relationships when individuals do not notice the negative first, is at beginning of intimate relationships when couples are “besotted” with each other and the intense emotions of their bubbly neurological activity temporarily blind them. But, as time moves on and the intense physical attraction fades and their brains don’t get their “dopamine” high, something often changes. One or both stop viewing each other through the rose-colored glasses of physicality and begin to see faults that were always there but were rendered invisible. Then, if the relationship doesn’t morph into something more solid and enduring, one or both of the partners become unsettled, complain or try to change the other person into something other than what was there originally.

So, because bad draws our attention more than the good in relationships as well as in other aspects of life, we have the tendency to see issues that need to be resolved and situations that need to be changed. Add to that our natural inborn need to solve the problems we see and you have the ‘perfect storm’ that blinds us from perceiving what is actually working. Although this proclivity toward the negative appears to be a conundrum, it is really an opportunity to live an exceptional life. All you have to do is choose to – pay attention – and be on the lookout for the positive, embrace it and identify what is working and do more of it.

I believe that the later is extremely important both with ourselves and with those closest to us. Be aware of what actions we take in life that create positive results and do more of them. Identify what others do and say that works and reward them immediately with a positive acknowledgement. In other words, as Johnny Mercer wrote in his 1930’s song, you have to “Accentuate the Positive.” All it takes is a shift of mindset.

Here are three tips to help you do just that and the wonderful aspect of these suggestions is that by seeing the positive in others, it changes your perception about yourself:

Catch someone doing something good.

“Catch someone doing something good” is the mantra that Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson put forth in their wonderful 1982 best-seller, The One Minute Manager. This wonderful idea automatically puts you on the lookout for the positive. The bottom line is that if you want someone to behave in a positive, productive way, validate positive behavior immediately. You can do that in any relationship including with your partner, spouse, sibling, children, fellow worker and even – yourself.
-Ask, “What’s working now?”

Your spouse or significant other seems to do everything wrong and, when you criticize him, he gets sullen and defensive. What to do? Think about what attracted you to that person at the beginning of your relationship. With that mindset, take the time to see what he is doing right. There is something. You just have to look. Perhaps it’s giving you time, helping with chores, being attentive to the children or paying you compliments. Once you see it, encourage him/her to do more of it.

Ask yourself the same question. Instead of spending all your time putting out fires and solving the endless stream of problems that will always come your way – Stop – take a breathe and ask, “What’s working now in my life and how can I do more of it?” Believe or not, you will almost always discover something that you are doing that is creating positive results. Just – do more of it.

Look for success clues.

Success leaves clues and these clues will help you focus on the positive. Believe it or not, you don’t always have to be totally original or struggle to reinvent the wheel. Whatever issues you are dealing with – mental, physical, spiritual, emotional or social – the odds are that someone else has found the solution. Use the web. Do research and investigate. When you find what is working for someone else, duplicate it. That holds true for everything from solving a relationship problem to dealing with a career issue.

If you want to live an exceptional life, take it upon yourself to – accentuate the positive!

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  • James Mapes Speaker, expert of the psychology of “applied imagination,” performance coach, author: Quantum Leap Thinking James Mapes is the founder of Quantum Leap Thinking™, creator of The Transformational Coach™, expert on the psychology of “applied imagination,” best-selling author, highly acclaimed business speaker, consultant, seminar leader and personal excellence coach. For over 30 years, James has been ... more

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