The Power of Positivity: Sending Your Brain on an Upward Spiral

            We hear it all the time in our society: think positive. Shelves of self-help books encourage readers to take on a more positive outlook, beauty products encourage us to “love the skin [we’re in],” and McDonald’s, one of the most questionably positive influences on our society, urges customers to “put a smile on.” But what are the true benefits of positive emotions? What does positive thinking do to our brains, and how does it affect the layers of environment and development that encapsulate our lives?

            In their 2010 exploration of positivity, Garland and colleagues describe the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. The researchers explain how positive emotions, which range from happiness to confidence to success, increase our “thought-action repertoire” and allow us to engage our brains in more creative and diverse ways (Garland et al., 2010). The researchers continue to describe how creative, broad patterns of thinking and feeling lead to a wider range of behavioral responses and expand upon “personal resources” like mindfulness, resilience, social closeness, and physical health (Garland et al., 2010). Strong empirical data highlights that these resources provide an “evolutionary advantage” that increases a human being’s chance of survival (Garland et al., 2010).

            Garland and colleagues (2010) also describe an “upward spiral of flourishing” that occurs with positive thinking. When we appraise situations or events from a positive mental space, we’re significantly more likely to experience them in a positive way. These positive experiences lead to a rewarding release of neurochemicals that feels good and reinforces the positive thinking. So what do we do? We think positive more often. We continue to broaden our range of cognitive and “attentional responses,” and positive thinking becomes increasingly commonplace in our lives (Garland et al., 2010).

            Garland and colleagues’ research makes a compelling case for putting a smile on, but it only tells half of the story of positive thinking. In order to fully understand the evolutionary adaptive nature of happiness, we need to broaden our lens and look at how positivity affects our relationships and communities. From infancy to adulthood, positive emotional experiences increase our ability to connect, thrive, and survive.

            Cozolino describes how positive experiences during our earliest years of life pave the way for broaden-and-build cognitions. As infants, we are constantly learning from our caregivers, and those that model attunement, curiosity, and a positive outlook on life send significant messages to their children. These types of caregivers are, quite literally, building more active and resilient brains in their children (Cozolino, 2014). Neural circuits that will help the young child socialize, learn, and regulate their emotions thicken and expand with every experience of happiness. Positive early experiences also create a “smart vagus” in the brain that is better equipped to manage stress and navigate complex social interactions (Cozolino, 2014).

            As children become teens and eventually young adults, experiences from infancy remain significant. As mentioned earlier, upward spirals of positivity facilitate further positive thinking. These spirals can also counteract the effects of disorders like depression, anxiety, and even certain symptoms of schizophrenia (Garland et al., 2010). Vaughn (2014) describes how positive emotional experiences can buffer adolescents from the numerous social and environmental stressors of middle school. By adulthood, these positive experiences, which have been established and built upon since infancy, create a “set point” for how adults perceive the world around them (Vaughn, 2014). These perceptions are based on a lifetime of emotional lessons and interpersonal experiences.

 

            Positive thinking, then, is far more complicated than simply “putting a smile on.” The “affective plasticity” that shapes how our brains think and feel is based on a lifetime of appraisals, actions, and reinforcement (Garland et al., 2010). That being said, it is never too late to change one’s default mode of interacting with the world. Smiling just a little more often, and approaching select situations with just a bit more positivity, may create a positive upward spiral that generalizes to all areas of one’s life.

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References:

Cozolino, L. (2014). The neuroscience of human relationships: Attachment and the developing social brain (2nd ed.). New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. Chapter 6: Experience-dependent plasticity (pp. 81-96)

Garland, E. L., Fredrickson, B., Kring, A. M., Johnson, D. P., Meyer, P. S., & Penn, D. L. (2010). Upward spirals of positive emotions counter downward spirals of negativity: insights from the broaden-and-build theory and affective neuroscience on the treatment of emotion dysfunctions and deficits in psychopathology. Clinical Psychology Review, 30(7), 849-864.

Vaughn, M. G., DeLisi, M., & Matto, H. C. (2014). Human behavior: A cell to society approach. Hoboken: N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.Chapter 4: Emotion (pp. 63-80)

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