Hara Marano, in a Psychology Today article, notes that psychological researchers seem to feel that human beings have a pull toward the dark, upsetting, and disturbing: a “negativity bias.” Perhaps indeed our brains are wired to focus on, feel, and resonate with negative events such as slights, insults, and crises. It is probable that positivity feels good, but negativity really engages the brain to mount coping mechanisms. Well, so be it. The fact is that overcoming that negativity bias and engaging in optimistic thinking, glass-half-full mindsets, and hopeful action are better for us. Gratitude and mindfulness are better ways of being. Just as eating too much food or prejudice are remnants of our evolutionary past, but are not typically helpful in our modern age, having a negative attitude and “sweating the small stuff” probably isn’t as adaptive or functional as “the power of positivity.” Herein you will find many inspirational quotes about optimism, sanguineness, and positivity.
As stated, Hara Marano, in a Psychology Today article, notes that psychological researchers seem to feel that human beings have a pull toward the dark, upsetting, and disturbing: a “negativity bias.” She sums up a neat study as such: “Take, for example, the studies done by John Cacioppo, Ph.D., then at Ohio State University, now at the University of Chicago. He showed people pictures known to arouse positive feelings (say, a Ferrari, or a pizza), those certain to stir up negative feelings (a mutilated face or dead cat) and those known to produce neutral feelings (a plate, a hairdryer). Meanwhile, he recorded electrical activity in the brain’s cerebral cortex that reflects the magnitude of information processing taking place.” Marano continues:
“The brain,” Cacioppo demonstrated, “reacts more strongly to stimuli it deems negative. There is a greater surge in electrical activity. Thus, our attitudes are more heavily influenced by downbeat news than good news.”
As I mentioned, the brain must have evolved to detect salient and high-value information (e.g., a threat) even at the cost of feeling good, relaxed, and connected. Thus, our likelihood of survival is enhanced if we take decisive or evasive action—versus just not caring much about unfortunate turns of events. Marano writes: “Our capacity to weigh negative input so heavily most likely evolved for a good reason—to keep us out of harm’s way. From the dawn of human history, our very survival depended on our skill at dodging danger. The brain developed systems that would make it unavoidable for us not to notice danger and thus, hopefully, respond to it.”
In relationships, however, one can’t act like a tyrant, have a chip on one’s shoulder, and think negatively all the time. It basically won’t function well in a relationship because, obviously, people prefer to be around those who are attractive, happy, easy-going, and generous. In a word: positivity. Thus, no surprise: “What really separates contented couples from those in deep marital misery is a healthy balance between their positive and negative feelings and actions toward each other. Even couples who are volatile and argue a lot stick together by balancing their frequent arguments with a lot of demonstrations of love and passion. And they seem to know exactly when positive actions are needed” ~ Hara Marano. One study of marriages (well, the gold-standard for studying marriage, in fact) found that the ratio of positive to negative should be 5:1. Optimism and positivity make relationships better! Lead researcher at the University of Washington “Marriage Lab”, John Gottman, Ph.D., produced the following quotes about positivity in marriage:
“In their day-to-day lives, [successful marriages] have hit upon a dynamic that keeps their negative thoughts and feelings about each other (which all couples have) from overwhelming their positive ones. They have what I call an emotionally intelligent marriage.”
“The most common research finding across labs is that the first negative attribution people start making when the relationship becomes less happy is “my partner is selfish,” a direct reflection of a decrease in the trust metric. They then start to see their partner’s momentary emotional distance and irritability as a sign of a lasting negative trait. On the other hand, in happier relationships people make lasting positive trait attributions, like “my partner is sweet,” and tend to write off their partner’s momentary emotional distance and irritability as a temporary attribution, like “my partner is stressed.”
Indeed, in the following quote, Gottman refers to the “emotional bank account” metaphor, noting that couples can either do rewarding and pleasant things to make the other person feel happy, reassured, and loved – or they can bring negativity, anger, blame, and cynicism to the relationship. The former will help it, and the latter is very likely to lead to divorce. He writes: “Couples with a strong friendship have a lot more access to their humor, affection, and the positive energy that make it possible to have disagreements or to live with them in a much more constructive and creative way. It’s about earning and building up points.” The more points a relationship has, the more money there is in the figurative bank account. Marriages need a surplus of positivity so that when times get tough, there is something to draw on. Indeed, individuals make assessments in relationships that follow the following pattern: 1. How happy and fulfilled am I? 2. Is this partner giving me what I want and need? 3. How likely would it be that I would find greater reward with another potential partner? This last question gets at a “cost-benefit analysis” that takes into account one’s self-esteem, yes, but also attributions about the marriage. A good relationship where a person feels “this partner and this relationship are probably the best I can do” are relationships that are going to last. Relationships beset by criticism, contempt, jealousy, blame, cynicism, and emotional “stonewalling” are doomed, almost to a certainty.
“In these times, you have to be an optimist to awake in the morning.” ~ Carl Sandburg
Different people tend to think differently. The amount of serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine are somewhat genetically-based. However, sometimes we get into ruts and live lives that are not rewarding, not fun, and not fulfilling our potential. The brain fluctuates daily – even hour by hour – based on things like sleep, diet/digestion, environmental stimuli, cognitions, appraisals, positive/negative occurrences, habitual ways of perceiving the world, and social situations. That is the point of psychotherapy, after all – to think differently, and therefore, feel and behave differently. As drugs such as cocaine and ecstasy show, a bit of chemical added to the brain’s neurochemistry changes perceptions, feelings, relationships, and behavior markedly. The human being is truly a marvel of complexity.
It may be true that negative events might make a bigger impact on us psychologically and emotionally, but anger, jealousy, and hate can trap us and cause damage to relationships. Either in isolation or in relationship or community, there is something to be said for “the power of positivity.” Being optimistic really does make a difference. It is part of an approach to well-being, flourishing, and contentment called positive psychology, all the rage in recent decades.
“Everything’s okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.” ~ Carolyn Myers
At the end of the day, though, one has a choice to make: happiness, or unhappiness; cynicism or positivity; optimism or negativity. How we choose (when choices are realistically ours, I mean) can make a difference. Add those up, repeatedly, and you have yourself a different life. It’s not easy, especially if humans are hard-wired to be ready to fight, flee, conspire, self-protect, and engage in faction: “The path of purity and positivity has always ridden rougher” ~ Tupac Shakur.
Indeed, “when the chips are down,” that is when human beings can really perform at their peak potential. “For those facing a long haul and a series of defeats, pessimism can be an ally. Apart from anything else, as some Native Americans have also discovered, the presentation of the bleakest and starkest possible picture can have the paradoxical effect of mobilizing the emotions and intellect,” offered generally pessimistic guy, Christopher Hitchens. The characterologically-upbeat philosopher and dynamic individual, Tom Morris, Ph.D., would counter that with: “We need to fight for clarity and imaginative vividness in the areas of our lives where the challenges are greatest and the opportunities are biggest. We need a vision to steer us forward and inspire us to greater efforts.”
It is possible to will more energy and see an inspiring vision. Depending on one’s “set point” when it comes to happiness, it is more or less easy to step up, reach out, and buck up. I myself have a hard time more days than not. Based on my parents’ genetic heritage, and my early environment, and the course my life has taken, I believe I have a neurochemical problem that pulls me toward depressed mood. Well, that sucks. Though my grandparents and parents showed mental illness that ranged from notable to marked, I was fortunate enough to have a better life growing up than they did. I also have benefitted from more sophisticated psychotropic medications than they were able to. “Depression” wasn’t even a thing when my grandfather was experiencing it. Amazingly, my dad drove and cared for patients’ lives on medications such as valium, Klonopin, and Xanax, whereas now antidepressant medications carefully target serotonin, norepinephrine, GABA, and dopamine. One little pill makes the world seem a bit different. Sometimes, I would rather stay in bed than get up and live (what I admit is a pretty fortunate) life. I do have certain coping mechanisms and tricks that keep me in the game. “I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will,” noted Antonio Gramsci.
We need to be open to new ideas and unexpected perspectives. Openness is a form of intellectual humility, and is an important human virtue. Paying attention won’t pay dividends unless we are genuinely open to learn.”
It’s an important lesson: tread carefully when it comes to judging another person as lazy, stupid, or foolish: we don’t really know what they are “up against.” Ideally, we view others as doing the best they can – at least until we get information that contradicts that default perspective. “Recognize yourselves in he or she who are not like you or me”Accepting uncertainty as our philosophy might allow us to honor each other’s stories more, delighting in all the bizarre and wondrous interpretations of the mystery. We might also show more tolerance for those who appear to be fools and for those who speak truths we don’t wish to hear.”
Do what you can, today. Make the best choice you can based on where your neurochemistry and your experiences have led you. Socrates advised: “He who would move the world must first move himself.” Take this winner right here as an example: “To get beyond the negativity of mere griping, I decided to try teaching peace. Criticizing the way of violence is hollow unless we can offer alternatives.” ~ Coleman McCarthy. He is a very interesting man. Read a bit about him here if this quote on positivity and personal agency intrigues you.
“When we sow the seeds of positivity, whether it be establishing brotherly or sisterly relationships in general care and kindness or consciously deliberate actions, we will reap that harvest. All one has to do is plant a seed. Someone else can water it, and someone else can even do the harvesting work. Maybe you see that someone else planted a seed. Give it a little water. When a couple people interact with the same good intentions, everyone eats of the fruits” ~ Unknown author
“I have seen what a laugh can do. It can transform almost unbearable tears into something bearable, even hopeful,” Bob Hope pointed out. Humor is indeed a fast-track to positive emotions. Sex can help. Exercise. Engaging faithfully in work that one perceives to be worthy and good. I myself know that reading and working with quotations has provided me with thousands of hours of distraction, meaning, fulfillment, and at times, joy. Hobbies, psychotherapy, social interaction, and starting a successful business are likely to encourage positivity and satisfaction. Find a book that interests you and let it sink in. Never one for a Panglossian sense of optimism, Franz Kafka’s quote about reading always stuck with me: “A book must be an ice ax to break the frozen sea within us.”
Go do something. Make some small difference. Get out and about. Risk a bit. “Adventures involve exploration into the unknown and embody an element of risk. They are marked by a kind of tension: excitement, enthusiasm, and eagerness for involvement on one hand, and a certain amount of apprehension and fear on the other. This is a very healthy kind of tension. The growth/exploration vector that pulls us into adventure is opposed by a security/stasis vector holding us back. Adventures happen when the pull along the growth/exploration vector exceeds the pull in the other direction and the overall decision is GO FOR IT!” wrote the late wisdom-seeker,
“Never cease to be convinced that life might be better – your own and others,” novelist and Nobel Prize winner Andre Gide claimed. I tend to think he was correct. This exemplifies a positivity, optimism, and resilience that I do believe will benefit each of us who adopts this perspective. “I prefer the errors of enthusiasm to the indifference of wisdom,” France’s treasure,It is unfortunate, considering that enthusiasm moves the world, that so few enthusiasts can be trusted to speak the truth”
Here is a very interesting article from the University of Nebraska, entitled: Differences in negativity bias underlie variations in political ideology. A related finding is cited here by smart guy, Cenk Uygur:
“The research revealed key differences between the psychological reactions of liberals and conservatives. Those differences were especially pronounced in areas like negativity bias and perceived threats. Yes, conservatives really do see danger lurking everywhere. The research also showed that ‘conservatives view themselves as part of a small group, and that they perceive those outside of the group as a threat to the well being of the group itself.'”
To end, I will share a few quotations on positivity and positive thinking. The first is one that is very special to me because it was written on a card by my uncle Gil Haimson, who has since passed away. I was probably 15 or 20 when I received it. It means more now that I see how life is transient and happiness is fleeting. If you, by hard work or by luck, have a generally happy and buoyant attitude, then good for you. Go to it! If you’re not so lucky or if you are in a rut at this time in life, I have the same advice: go to it. The only other option is characterized by negative emotions and negative outcomes such as depression, mediocrity, failure, woe, and misery. Since you have at least some power to choose your attitude today, choose, choose the light. “Hope is putting faith to work when doubting would be easier.”
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again,
may God hold you in the palm of His hand. ~ Gaelic Blessing
“Enthusiasm is the glory and hope of the world.” ~ Amos Alcott
“In spite of everything, I still believe that people really are good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever-approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the suffering of millions, and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.” ~ Anne Frank
“We can flow along with the mainstream of a culture that does not serve us well – does not really make us comfortable, does not really make us safe; but only offers illusions of happiness, comfort, safety – or we can begin the oftentimes prickly work of searching our own hearts, of asking who and what we love, who and what we feel strongly enough about to change our lives for, to fight for, to live for.”
“Blessed are those who can laugh at themselves, for they shall never cease to be amused.” ~ Anonymous
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
“June said she knew me – knew the kernel of me, deep inside, beneath the drugs and deceit and despair and anger and selfishness, and knew my loneliness. She said she could help me. She said we were soul mates, she and I, and that she would fight for me with all her might, however she could.”
“Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.” ~ Colin Powell
“…it was as though a ray of hope and faith flooded into my heart, and all the darkness of doubt was suddenly dispelled.” ~ Augustine
Search for other quotes on positivity, optimism, enthusiasm, openness to experience, joy, and fulfillment here in The Wisdom Archive.
You might be interested in a podcast in which I interviewed a quadriplegic who wrote a book entitled A Reason for Living. Spoiler alert: he worked through negativity and found meaning and fulfillment, even in his predicament. Existentialism, indeed! It is half-way down the page, entitled “Finding Fulfillment and Purpose.” Might as well also check out the one about turning thought into action with Ruth Westreich while you’re in the listening mood!