In his presidential address to the American Psychological Association, psychologist Martin Seligman, one of the world\'s leading scholars on learned helplessness and depression, urged psychology to “turn toward understanding and building the human strengths to complement our emphasis on healing damage” (Seligman, 1998, 1999). That speech launched today\'s positive psychology movement and led to Seligman becoming one of the world\'s leading scholars on optimism. Optimists, says Seligman, see life through a positive lens. They see bad events as temporary setbacks or isolated to particular circumstances that can be overcome by their effort and abilities. Pessimists, on the other hand, react to setbacks from a presumption of personal helplessness. They feel that bad events are their fault, will last a long time, and will undermine everything they do (ibid). Turning around this negative thinking pattern is core to sustaining a positive and resilient self.
The recovery movement has long used daily affirmations as one of its basic tools for creating and affirming a positive self concept, and as a tool for mood management. Now research studies confirm what we have intuitively known and practiced for decades, that affirmations help us to set a positive and affirming tone for the day that can actually shield us from stress and help us to manage natural stress responses: “Studies…have found that self-affirmation can buffer threats to the self in variety of domains.” Several recent studies have shown that self-affirmation “may also promote problem-solving performance under high-stress conditions” (J. David Creswell, et al, 2013).
Positivity Training: From Learned Helplessness to Learned Un-Helplessness
Collapse and helplessness can be part of a trauma response. Without intervention, both can unconsciously drive thinking, feeling, and behavior. But undoing the fear response and training ourselves toward more positive and self-affirming attitudes may be easier than we think. Through his research, Seligman saw that the state of helplessness was a learned phenomenon. He then realized that “un-helplessness” could be learned as well. We could, in other words, learn to be optimists.
He suggests that we learn to “hear” (and even write down) our beliefs about the events that block us from feeling good about ourselves or our lives, and pay attention to the recordings we play in our head about them. Seligman also suggests we then write out the consequences of those beliefs – the toll they take on our emotions, energy, will to act, and the like. He further suggests that once we feel we\'re familiar with the pessimistic thought patterns we run through our heads, we begin to challenge them (ibid).
For example, we can challenge the usefulness of a specific belief and generate alternative ideas and solutions that might be better. We can choose to see problems as temporary, the way an optimist would, because that in itself provides psychological boundaries. This new type of thinking can stop the loop of the negative tapes we run through our heads. Over time, as this more optimistic thinking becomes ingrained as our default position and we begin to see the results for ourselves, we\'re rewarded with new energy and vitality.
On the surface, this approach may appear to go directly against what therapists ask us to do by revisiting and resolving painful issues from the past. But actually, the goal of healing is to create a shift in the way we see something and to reorganize our perception of previous events. With this shift in perception, we open ourselves to new interpretations of past events, and as a direct result of this reframing, we become more available for different and more positive life experiences.
Affirmations are a form of reframing. In my book, One Foot in Front of the Other, I first state a problem and then reframe it so that it can be felt, understood, and then turned toward a more positive light. I add an affirmative quote that can be easily remembered and repeated in our minds. Morning readings of affirmations, or keeping a Kindle version handy and checking it during the workday, is a quick and easy way to bring a little inspiration into your day. Affirmations act as mood elevators that help buffer stress throughout the day.
Sustaining the Right \"Tipping Point\", or Thought Balance
Positive thoughts lead to positive feelings and experiences. Barbara Fredrickson, a social psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in her research on the benefits of positive thinking, found that it is important to actively maintain a conscious balance between our negative and positive emotions in order to sustain a positive attitude: “Our emotions tend to obey a tipping point”. Among Americans, that tipping point tends to be three-to-one. “We need three positive emotions to lift us up for every one negative emotion that brings us down” (Fredrickson, 2009). To improve the ratio, Fredrickson feels that we need to give ourselves time to do the things that we enjoy and to live more in the present. “Resilient people manage adversity and handle unexpected things. It\'s not just that they only experience positive emotions, but instead that they are able to cultivate more positive feelings. Resilient people don\'t make social comparisons. Instead they focus on what\'s positive in their own lives” (ibid). Affirmations help to keep little stresses in perspective, and they are a way of cultivating positive feelings about the self and life.
Making affirmations a part of your daily ritual, taking a moment to read uplifting and inspiring messages helps to elevate our feeling state and get our thoughts and intentions heading in a positive direction so that positive thinking becomes a habit. Daily affirmations are a quick and easy way to ensure that we get that three-to-one ratio in our day.
Fredrickson, B. 2009. Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Three Rivers Press.
Seligman, M. P. 1998. President\'s Address to the 1998 American Psychologi- cal Association\'s (APA) Annual Meeting. Published as part of the \"APA 1998 Annual Report\" in American Psychologist 54(8): 559-562.