December 23, 2016

On Positivity

As 2016 draws to a close, I wanted to make sure that I finish the year on a positive note. Much of my recent output, particularly around Geek Mental Help Week, has been focused on negative experiences that I've had in the past year, and I've received a lot of messages of concern and support from readers, for which I'm hugely grateful.

Thankfully, much of the concern is unnecessary, as I've been following an extensive programme of recovery, and I now feel more resilient than ever. Still, as a useful counterpoint to my recent "On Drama" article, I wanted to share a few tips on how I've managed to train myself to have a happier, healthier outlook on life.

The Happiness Advantage

I've promoted it a few times before in my articles and presentations, but I can give it no higher praise than this: Shawn Achor's book The Happiness Advantage literally changed my life. Shawn also gave one of my all-time favourite TED Talks, which is a good primer on the subject and one of the funniest ten minutes you'll see on YouTube without any cats being involved. Please take the time to watch this, pronto!

To summarise, we spend so much of our lives chasing success (particularly in our careers) in the hopes that it will lead to more money, and more happiness. Yet evidence shows that when we succeed, we simply move the goalposts in our heads: we look towards the next success, while all the time true happiness eludes us just beyond the horizon.

Shawn points to studies which demonstrate that we need to "reverse the formula": people who are happier are prone to achieving greater success. It's happiness that we should seek out, and the successes should follow.

The Happiness Advantage contains 200 pages of tips on how to build your own stock of happiness. Some of these are practical - for instance, performing charitable actions, or writing an email of thanks to a friend/colleague each day. Others are more psychological, such as learning to spot the signs of a "Tetris Effect" (when a succession of small negative events can have a spiralling effect on your emotions). I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Destroy unchecked negativity

When I look back a couple of years, I can see that I was often a profoundly negative person. Part of that comes with my profession: as a software tester, I'm trained to cast a critical eye in front of everything that comes in front of me, and to question what I'm seeing (and not seeing). This was the subject of Kim Knup's talk at TestBash Manchester 2016, which is viewable on the Ministry of Testing Dojo; Kim has also written a blog post, On Positivity, the name which coincidentally I picked for this article!

Thanks to The Happiness Advantage I've learned how to control these tendencies, and to apply them only at times when they're constructive. After all, there's absolutely nothing wrong with negativity: traits such as caution, pessimism and fear have survived through human evolution because they've been vital for our survival. For instance, fear tells us that it's probably not a great idea to jump into a lion's enclosure.

It's more important to control what I call "unchecked negativity": occasions when there is no productive purpose to expressing negative emotions. This sort of negativity is visible all around us; I saw a great example when queuing at the cinema recently. A couple behind me were tutting various complaints to each other:

  • "Why are there only two people serving? Don't they know it's going to be busy?" (There are plenty of reasons why there might only be two people serving. And even if they weren't, what was he proposing to do about it? There's little point in concerning yourself with matters that are out of your control.)
  • (At the group at the front of the queue) "Why didn't they decide what they wanted before they got there? And why are they buying so much food? Why didn't they eat before they came?" (Again - even if you knew any of these answers, what difference would it make to your life - other than allowing you to spend more time watching adverts in your cinema seat!)

Another great place to see unchecked negativity in action is in 1-star reviews on Amazon or TripAdvisor. While there are undoubtedly many genuine reasons for leaving an extremely critical review of a service/product, frequently these are left for spiteful, selfish or short-sighted reasons. "We had to queue for ten minutes to get drinks" - so what? Talk to each other! What's the rush?

Being on the receiving end of this sort of feedback is no fun either. I constantly spare a thought for my former colleagues at, whose fortnightly release notes on GetSatisfaction are usually met by a stream of people saying "Why did you work on X when I wanted you to work on Y?"

In short, train yourself to avoid random negative outbursts and you'll be able to fill the gaps with more rewarding bouts of positivity.

Make small changes every day

I already mentioned some of the tips from The Happiness Advantage, but aside from the tips themselves, I find it's important to make small, incremental changes. There's no need to turn your life upside-down, or to start behaving like a totally different person. Gradual change is easier to make stick, and it needn't feel like upheaval.

I'd like to recommend two small, free services which can really help you to achieve this. The first is a mobile app called Headspace which encourages you to perform daily 10-minute meditative exercises to improve your wellbeing. Secondly, another service which truly deserves to be called "life-changing" is an e-newsletter service called Moodnudges which is delivered to your inbox four times a week, which - as the name suggests - is designed to just nudge your mood a little to keep you positive.

Do it Bobby's way

If all else fails - Bobby McFerrin cracked this problem almost 30 years ago.

Here's wishing a happy 2017 to all my readers! :)

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