A couple months ago, I made a commitment to positivity.
My kids have this book, “The Bad Seed.” The eponymous character is a sunflower seed with a bad attitude. Then one day, he decides to turn things around. There’s no explanation for why, but that doesn’t feel like it matters. The point is he’s trying. And it’s starting to work. He practices having a better attitude, and tries to be nicer to other seeds — holding the door for them or saying please and thank you. He’s getting better.
I feel like I’m in a similar place. I’m tired of letting myself have a bad attitude.
Tara Brach, Ph.D, a psychologist, author and meditation teacher, writes about neuroplasticity — the fact that we can “actually rewire the structure and function of our brain,” based on the attitudes we practice. Understanding neuroplasticity is important, she explains, “because, when we run through our thoughts over and over again, it creates a certain biochemistry in the body that then perpetuates more of the same.”
Essentially, practicing positivity can help us to build positivity muscle memory, just like practicing negativity, too, can become a habit.
So, much like the bad seed, I’m realizing that my outlook on life rests in my own hands. And I’m trying to redirect it for the better.
Breaking shitty habits
It was in fifth grade choir class that I first realized I could make the cool kids laugh by being an asshole — something that quickly became a habit. I insulted our teacher’s singing. I murmured things under my breath (loudly). On my report card, the teacher wrote, “Student’s attitude disrupts learning,” which I thought was hilarious. Like a degenerate badge of honor.
I spent the next two-plus decades using negativity as a proxy for humor. It was a running joke among my friends in college — “Don’t mind Harlan; she just hates everything.” And my negativity isn’t limited to humor. My fuse is short. I am moody and irritable by default. My best friend in high school wrote this sage advice in my yearbook, senior year: “Try not to get annoyed so easily.”
Negativity is something I’ve continued to cultivate as an adult. I routinely take on more than I can handle, and my multiple side projects, stressful full-time job, weekly classes and frequent all-nighters often push me into a well of anxiety and frustration. Then I make the people around me suffer for it — I yell at my kids (something that never works, by the way), snap at my husband and blow off my friends.
These are difficult habits to break, but I’m working on them.
My “positivity project,” as I call it, is pretty simple. It has two parts:
1. I’m trying not to vent so much — not to dwell as hard on the things that aren’t worth my energy. Of course, sometimes I need to focus on a problem in order to reach a solution. Or to share a frustrating story that’s too absurd not to.
But I’m working on moderation — on not heading down a rabbit hole of complaining that I can’t get out of. I find that, at least for me, complaining can snowball. And I don’t find it helpful when that happens. It only makes me feel shittier, and it’s contagious — it drags my husband or whoever I’m talking to right into the rabbit hole of shittiness with me.
So, when I feel myself about to share something frustrating about my day or week, I try to pause and figure out why I’m sharing it or what I’m hoping to get out of it. Usually that’s enough for me to tread gently, to either choose not to bother talking about it, or to share the thing in a controlled way and move on, without dumping all my energy into it.
2. I spend my morning subway commute each day keeping a journal of all the positive moments I’ve experienced — the moments of joy and the victories I’ve achieved. (I use Evernote for this but any app or even old-school physical paper would work.)
On training ourselves to be more positive, Brach writes: “Just 20-30 seconds of immersing ourselves in the feelings evoked by the hug of a dear friend or the laughter of a grandchild can strengthen the neural pathways in the brain.” Dedicating less than a minute to reflection can be hugely impactful — imagine the metamorphosis you could spark by spending real time relishing and reliving your best moments.
Worth noting: I try not to let any frustrations seep into what I record. And I try to be really specific and emotional in how I write, which makes the memories feel more powerful when I re-read them later. For example, I avoid things like: “After fighting all morning with Xavier [my son], he gave me a big hug and told me we were on the same team.” Instead I would write: “Xavier gave me the biggest hug of all time and said, ‘Mom, we’re on the same team, right?’” I keep the first part out of it because later, if I need a pick-me-up and read through old notes, it’s a million times more rewarding to relive only the positive parts.
I also have an accountability partner for this practice. Every day, my friend and I choose one moment of joy to share with one other. We use a messaging app that is devoted only to this dialogue and separate from our other communication, so the entire chain is full of moments of joy. It’s wonderful.
When we share our joys, we get the added bonus of feeling like we’re experiencing them together. As my friend put it: “I feel like we’re on the same team, out together in the world hunting for joy and beauty. So often we share the worst of ourselves and our experiences with those closest to us; in this project we’ve done exactly the opposite. And that’s part of what makes it so awesome.”
The best kind of snowball effect
I’ll admit that some days, it’s hard to come up with something to celebrate. But those are the days when it feels most important to pause and find a bit of joy. It’s often some mundane thing, like hearing a passing stranger hum or feeling a crisp winter breeze break in through my cloudy pre-coffee haze. But forcing myself to keep a record has made me pay more attention to the moments as they’re happening. I’ll find myself pausing to bask in the joyful thing while reminding myself to hold onto it and write about it later.
Ingrid Fetell Lee, designer and author of 2018 book, “Joyful,” and the blog, Aesthetics of Joy, spent a decade studying joy. In her TED Talk earlier this year, Lee described: “Each moment of joy is small but over time they add up to more than the sum of their parts. And so maybe instead of chasing after happiness what we should be doing is embracing joy and finding ways to put ourselves in the path of it more often.”
I can wholeheartedly attest to this. My simple practice has had a profound impact in a short time. Look, it’s still a work in progress. But I can tell you one thing for sure: I’m already a better seed than I was two months ago.
(Nothing in this article is sponsored.)
Update (December 14, 2018): We at the Juggle were so inspired by Jen sharing daily moments of joy that we started a Juggle Joy slack channel dedicated to just that. If you are looking to cultivate more positivity in your life, please join us!