Positivity gets a bad rap, but isn’t it kind of justified? Because I don’t think I’m alone when I say that unrealistic optimism isn’t exactly useful. When you’re stressed out of your mind or down in the dumps, the words “cheer up” are about as helpful as telling someone without a coat to keep warm. Unfortunately, a positive attitude is easily the irritating Pollyanna goody-two-shoes of the emotional crew.
While do I favor the black heart emoji and think pessimism sets us up for pleasant surprises, I found an article that made me rethink all the eye-rolling I do at positive attitudes. Especially when it comes to expat life, it looks like positivity is the arrow you want in your quiver.
The article I’m talking about is a summary of a recent study from the University of North Carolina about the way negative or positive emotions have the power to narrow or widen your focus. The real interesting part, though, is how it spills over into the rest of your life.
Most of us are familiar with the idea of fight-or-flight. Back when we were dinosaur food, any sign of danger would trigger this response, narrowing our focus to zero-in on the perceived threat and allowing us to do whatever was necessary to save our lives (i.e. fight or run). Even though we no longer worry about being eaten by T-Rex, our brains still work the same way. Nowadays it’s things like intense stress or fear of change that trigger a similar reaction. This negativity tunnel-vision is how we fall into a lazy rut, withdraw, or feel paralyzed by our to-do list.
Positive feelings, on the other hand, broaden our perspectives and can actually make us more open-minded. These moments are fleeting but interestingly, research shows that positivity builds on itself over time and ripples outward into other areas of your life. For the folks in the study, it manifested itself as increased mindfulness, a greater feeling of purpose and an easier time building social support.
Cue the fireworks because these are some big issues for trailing spouses. We have all shuddered at the seemingly insurmountable task of starting over. There’s the secret dread at trying to make friends, the stress of a mile-long to-do list and figuring out where you fit in. The best thing to have at our disposal when landing somewhere new is a sense of possibility.
Contrary to what I was expecting, participants didn’t report any change in their negative feelings. The cynic in me finds this encouraging. Bad days aren’t going to disappear simply because you decide to change your outlook. Building positivity, however, will help keep you focused on the big picture.
This article resonated so strongly with me because, in a way, I have been practicing this over the past year. Remember how I was quiet last summer and then came back with all these tales of misery? Ok, ok, I had a lot of fun but emotionally, I was a mess. I was feeling sad after leaving Colombia, uncertain about our living situation, and in a rough patch with a best friend. I thought I needed a break took a timeout from writing and volunteering. Instead of making me feel better, all I did was focus on my emotional ouches and anxiety. It bled all over my feelings about my new city and a few weeks in I was adamant that I would not be in Madrid for more than our temporary assignment.
I’m coming up on a year of real (and happy) life in Spain. It feels like I’m living in a different city, but the only thing that has changed is my attitude. Once I found out that we’d be going back to Madrid longterm, I became intentional about cultivating positivity. For me, getting a handle on my feelings comes down to two things: endorphins and getting out of my own head. Go for a run? Good idea. Donnie Darko with the blinds closed? Not so much.
So listen, I know it sounds kind of woo-woo. If you’re already in a spot where things feel overwhelming, it’s going to take time before you feel a difference. Don’t psych yourself out—it’s not impossible. Positivity is not about finding an upside to parking tickets. It’s a whole range of emotions—joy, amusement, contentment, hope, gratitude, interest. All you have to do is find something that sparks one of these and then keep building from there. You may need to kiss some frogs in order to find what works, but I have a feeling that you know where to start.
What do you think? Have you done something similar when life was difficult? I would love to hear your thoughts about transitions and rough spots in the comments below!