‘Think Positive’ has become such a cliche that there’s a backlash against it, but as Dr Andy Cope has found out, there’s a true modern superpower in being able to override the default negative outlook that evolution has written onto our brains.
RSNG read his new book ‘The Little Book Of Being Brilliant’ to discover the mindset hacks that can help you to become just that little bit more awesome, everyday…
Don’t Hate Mondays
Ingrained habits don’t just appear in what we do – emotions can be habitual too, says Dr Andy Cope. Take Mondays, for example: ‘Why the heck do we reserve our happiness for Fridays? Why not TGI Mondays? It’s a seventh of our lives we’ve learned to loathe,’ he asks in The Little Book Of Being Brilliant.
When you combine this effect with the fact that emotions are contagious – transferring to your colleagues, friends and families and then travelling out in a ripple effect to people you don’t know and have never even met – then it’s easy to see how small changes in your outlook can have big impacts.
As Cope points out, we are hardwired to mimic others outwardly, which then creates a corresponding internal emotion. ‘You coming in full of genuine enthusiasm and positivity will resonate with your work colleagues. They will experience an upward spiral of emotions simply because you’re in their life.’
Spot Your Positive Illusions
When it comes to looking to the future, the human tendency is to expect that things will become better with ‘a big helping of happiness at the far end of the rainbow.’ Cope says these are called ‘positive illusions’ by psychologists, and we all have them, even if things are actually going well for us.
We have evolved to view the future positively because this is essential for human progress – unfortunately we don’t see the present in the same way. Instead we are hyper alert for negatives, because these are more pressing, in a survival context.
‘Evan Gorgon suggests the brain scans the environment five times a second, looking for danger,’ says Cope. When you combine this with the fact that your ‘positive illusions’ of the future are often just that: illusions, then you are set up to feel negative in the now and and then disappointed when you don’t strike gold at the end of the rainbow. But this is programming you can overcome...
Realise Your Brain Is Spamming You
Your mind has about 80,000 thoughts a day, and that’s just the ones that make it through from the buffering queue of the potential million thoughts that you could have. ‘Our brains are organised in exactly the opposite way to your computer’s spam filter… Your brain is alert to every threat, crisis and potential embarrassment. In fact, it’s so finely tuned towards negativity that if there isn’t a crisis then it’s very good at imagining one,’ says Cope.
What’s more the neurological reaction to external events, such as criticisms, bomb our bodies with the stress hormone cortisol, which can erode our self-worth, and lingers for a couple of hours says Cope. This contrasts with the oxytocin generated by receiving praise, which is removed from your bloodstream in around five minutes.
‘Happy people choose to be positive – the single biggest strategy they deploy is to actively and consciously choose an upbeat attitude’
Choose To Be More Positive
It’s starting to look like the dice are loaded against thinking positivity and being awesome, but Cope is optimistic, so long as you recognise the power of conscious choice. Cope turned the study of happiness on its head. Rather than studying those who were unhappy, he looked at the people who were the happiest and most positive.
He discovered that 2% of people are consistently in the upper level of mood. They generally feel great and report higher levels of energy and happiness, which contrasts with the bottom 2%, those who are not depressed or mentally ill, but are negative in outlook, and have less energy.
The surprising thing about this pattern isn’t that it exists, but that the reasons some people are more upbeat is down to their own mental habits. ‘Happy people choose to be positive. They actively and consciously choose an upbeat attitude. This is the single biggest strategy they deploy,’ Cope discovered.
He adds that this does not mean bad shit does not happen to the 2%. ‘The choice to be positive doesn’t change anything in the external world. Rather it changes your internal world – your thinking – so you’re better able to deal… Essentially it’s a mental upgrade.’
Follow The 4-Minute Rule
As Cope acknowledges, thinking positively and being genuinely enthusiastic takes mental effort. It’s far harder than defaulting to the familiar groove of a negative mindset, and if you force it, you can come across as over the top, or just plain annoying.
Fortunately, to be in the top 2% you don’t need to be positive all day long. In fact, it’s only the first four minutes that really count, says Cope, who quotes Steve McDermott’s findings that: ‘it takes about four minutes for those around you to truly catch your mental state.’
‘You haven’t go to be a 2%er all day. Just the first four minutes will do. That’s the first four minutes of coming into the office (happy, energetic, enthusiastic), going home, meal times, a business meeting – get the first four minutes right and everyone will almost have no choice but to catch your enthusiasm.’
One of the interesting things about human transactions, for Cope, is that they work in the opposite way to financial ones. ‘In banking you put rewards in and you get interest out, whereas in relationships you put interest in and you’ll get rewards out.’
He quotes from Dale Carnegie's book ‘How to Win friends And Influence People’: ‘be genuinely interested in the people around you,’ and ‘say nice things about people behind their back,’ because the grapevine is likely to carry your comments to them.
Cope points out that this has a tangible benefit for your own standing too, due to what psychologists call ‘spontaneous trait transference’. ‘If you are saying nice things about someone, the person to whom you are saying nice things in tribute to those qualities to you. This is all done on a subconscious level but I promise you that makes it more powerful rather than less,’ he says.
‘The argument is that the thought creates your entire world. Always has. Always will. And you are the thinker’
Think Inside Out
The last way you can reboot your brain into a more positive mindset is to start thinking inside out. Cope points out the obvious when he says that: 'the truth is that feelings are always generated from within us…’
So, an external event might trigger a thought, which then triggers an emotion, but you’re in control of more in that chain than you realise, because your brain cannot directly ‘see’ reality, from its prison in your skull. Instead, it’s interpreting its own version of that reality, by processing the raw data that is delivered to it by your senses. This is how things like optical illusions work.
'The argument is that the thought creates your entire world. Always has. Always will. And you are the thinker… it's a complete reversal of how life appears to you but it is, nevertheless, the way you operate,’ says Cope.
No one is saying that you can change reality with a thought, but you can certainly change how you see it, and your emotional reaction to it. Cope himself says that since becoming immersed in this way of thinking he has become calmer, worries less and has a clearer mind:
‘Your boss will still be a dick, the bad drivers will still be bad drivers, the politicians will still be slimy, the weather inclement… But their power to upset you has gone. You're free!’
WHAT NEXT? Want to improve at being a leader? Then read our interview with the expert on mindful leadership, author Neil Seligman, here…
Follow this article’s author on Instagram @The_Adventure_Fella
Comments are for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations.
You can order Dr Andy Cope’s new book online now: *The Little Book Of Being Brilliant.