Rainbows, unicorns and the science of positive thinking*

unicorn2*Guest Blog By Kathryn Porter

I’m sure most people can remember the brain training craze that was everywhere a few years ago. You could hardly settle down to watch a good murder on the television before being bombarded with adverts for various devices that would help you boost your cognitive powers, with claims of improving memory, mental reflexes and even creativity.

In fact the evidence to support the claims of those adverts is limited, and it’s unclear whether brain training games specifically provide any benefit beyond improving at the specific game. However there is good evidence that there are activities which produce measurable changes in our brains. The most famous study was carried out by Eleanor Maguire, a neuroscientist at University College London. She studied London taxi drivers and found that an area of the brain called the posterior hippocampus was enlarged versus not just the general population, but also when compared with bus drivers and regular drivers.

The study followed a group of trainee cabbies over a four-year period, at the start of which all participants had broadly similar hippocampi, which indicates that the shape of the cabbies’ brains developed during their time driving taxis and was not because people with large hippocampi were somehow pre-disposed to becoming taxi drivers. Other studies have shown that musicians and bilinguals also display brain plasticity in areas relevant to those activities.

The idea that acquiring a new skill can literally change the size and shape of your brain (or at least specific parts of your brain) has to be good news. It suggests that through conscious effort we can adapt ourselves to tackle the challenges we face in our daily lives and careers, and that change is absolutely possible. But as with breaking or forming any habit, it requires practice!

There are numerous benefits that have been associated with having a positive mental attitude, in relation to general health and stress management, and treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy are showing growing evidence of success across a range of physical as well as mental health conditions. Positive thinking has also been linked with improved cognitive performance. A study by Richard L. Metzger et al published in 2006 in the Journal of Clinical Psychology found that the performance of “worriers” was worse than that of “non-worriers” in a set of tasks, and that “non-worriers” also performed worse when instructed to worry prior to completing the tasks.

Some of us are natural optimists (the “non-worriers” in the Metzger study) while others have a more pessimistic outlook. There is a misconception that optimists have their heads in the sand, wilfully ignoring anything that isn’t filled with rainbows and unicorns, but this isn’t really true…optimists are people who, while acknowledging bad outcomes, refuse to dwell on them, and instead focus their energies on achieving better outcomes.

Positivity is something that can be learned. Google “positive thinking” and there are literally dozens of blogs and articles with tip lists of varying lengths, all designed to promote positivity, some of which could leave the most optimistic of us grinding our teeth with cynicism! However, there are some (five, for those who like lists!) fairly straightforward and achievable steps to developing a positive outlook.

The first step is to banish negativity – be on the lookout for negative thinking and particularly negative language in our internal dialogues. If the voice in your head is telling you something is too difficult, complicated, won’t work, etc then stop! Consciously put those thoughts to one side and replace the negative narrative with something more positive. Sure, the thing may be challenging, but it’s an opportunity to learn something new, foster collaboration or develop a new approach. Success is rarely guaranteed, but framing a challenge in a positive way can be highly energising…even that really boring task you absolutely hate doing has the benefit that once it’s done you’ll feel better for not having it hanging over you.

Banishing negativity also extends to those around you…try to surround yourself with positive, supportive people, who will reinforce your efforts. It’s easy to be derailed by people who say “why bother, its likely to fail”. If you can’t avoid being with a negative person, because they’re a close relative or colleague, you can still take control of their impact on you. You might ask them not to make negative comments, explaining their effect on you, or you could simply practice ignoring their pessimism….their comments are just a bunch of sound waves, compressions in the air that make your eardrums wiggle, and nothing more, if that’s what you choose.

Be open to humour, and find opportunities to laugh, as laughter is a great way of lifting your mood and banishing stress and negativity. Find something that appeals to you, save some links and take time out from negative situations to visit them.

Widen your horizons by taking up a hobby, developing a new skill, or taking part in new social activities. Variety really is the spice of life, and having interests other than work and home provides a kind of psychological diversification…things may be going badly in one sphere of life but it’s unlikely that things are challenging in every sphere, providing an escape hatch from difficult situations.

And be healthy…taking care of yourself by exercising regularly, eating sensibly and getting enough sleep, contributes to feeling good and being positive. Meditation, yoga and mindfulness techniques can help foster a sense of physical and mental well-being providing the best backdrop for positive thinking.

Positive thinking will not prevent bad things from happening, nor should it be a means of ignoring potential challenges or disruptions, but there is a big difference between sensible contingency planning and living life under the assumption that each situation will have a bad outcome. Positive thinking means that when those challenges arise, you will be able to focus your energy on how things can be improved, and in the meantime, we can enjoy the unicorns!

Kathryn Porter has spent her career in the finance and energy sectors, and mentors women working in traditionally male roles. She usually writes about the energy industry on her blog www.watt-logic.com.