Our Wolf’s Bounty

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Attitude is a choice. Happiness is a choice. Optimism is a choice. Kindness is a choice. Giving is a choice. Respect is a choice. Whatever choice you make makes you. Choose wisely.”

– Roy T. Bennett, The Light in the Heart

 

Be positive. It’s on bumper stickers, T-shirts, posters and on television. As such, the concept of maintaining a positive outlook is most often considered pop psychology and rarely thought of as a discipline to be mastered.

Especially in American culture, “positive thinking is a soft and fluffy term that is easy to dismiss,” wrote author and speaker James Clear, “In the real world, it rarely carries the same weight as words like ‘work ethic’ or ‘persistence.’ But those views may be changing” (2013). This is because the benefits of positive thinking are being studied across the globe and the practice has been overwhelmingly found to be the key to living well.

This isn’t really a news flash, though, just a wakeup call to ancient wisdom. “An old Cherokee legend tells of a battle between two wolves,” wrote Alex Korb in The Upward Spiral, “One wolf represents anger, jealousy, self-pity, sorrow, guilt and resentment. The other stands for joy, peace, love, hope, kindness, and truth. It is a battle raging inside us all. Which wolf wins? The one you feed” (2015, p. 158).

We all have those two wolves inside us and it’s common to think of the qualities that the positive wolf embodies as great in theory, but having little place in the “real world” that Clear references. Yet that is only because it is less fed. The negative wolf’s qualities may make it seem stronger, but that’s just brain wiring and marketing. Both can be changed because in the end we choose which wolf we feed in our hearts and in our world.

The Brain in the Battle

Positive anything is better than negative nothing.”

– Elbert Hubbard, Philosopher and Businessman

 

Barbara Fredrickson, a positive psychology researcher at the University of North Carolina, published a landmark paper on the benefits of positive thinking in which she detailed how our brains are wired to perceive threat over positivity to keep us safe, which primes us for a negative focus. In the jungle, that’s valuable because these “negative emotions narrow your mind and focus your thoughts…negative emotions prevent your brain from seeing the other options and choices that surround you. It’s your survival instinct” (Clear, 2013).

Korb also goes into great detail in his book about how our memory and perception systems are activated by negative focus as a potential means to help us evolve, make better choices and thrive–though if we get stuck on the negative the thriving part never happens, because thriving is a positive wolf quality. We can get stuck on the negative specifically around the emotions of guilt and shame for past mistakes. “Guilt and shame activate the brain’s reward center like candy bars,” he wrote, so we may be ying_yang_avatar_by_lordvampireone-d2xu7wbmore prone to perseverate or wallow in our negative feelings about ourselves or our world. No one gets healthier on candy bars. Korb said that one of the strongest building blocks to a healthy, happy life is gratitude. “Feed your brain with gratitude instead and it will nourish you with benefits” (2015, p159).

Being grateful and enjoying what we have now will help us attain better life based on Fredrickson’s “broaden and build” theory. According to Clear the theory proves present “happiness is essential to building the skills that allow for success” as “happiness is both the precursor to success and the result of it.”

It’s called the “broaden and build” theory “because positive emotions broaden your sense of possibilities and open your mind, which in turn allows you to build new skills and resources that can provide value in other areas of your life…negative emotions do the opposite…because building skills for future use is irrelevant when there is immediate threat or danger” (2013).

Want that better job but need new skills? We can feel bad about our current skill-set or we can be grateful for what we have accomplished, proud of our present abilities and hopeful that we can use them to learn new ones. Missing that deeper relationship with someone? We can get down on ourselves–or them–or we can think of the positives in the relationship and see the present connection as part of the path to more. Being happy now is key to greater happiness later.

Feeding the Wolf

Once you replace negative thoughts with positive ones, you’ll start having positive results.”

– Willie Nelson, Songwriter

 

The idea that those who keep a positive attitude are head-in-the-clouds, naïve slackers is falling away in the face of scientific data and industrial research which is provi1416705542436ng that not only is positivity one of the cornerstones of success, but it takes more effort than negativity. Think about it—it takes more effort to fly, swim, run and the same is true of maintaining a positive outlook when our culture is built on “bigger, faster, more” and our own evolutionary bent is focused on the negative. “Remembering to be grateful is a form of emotional intelligence” and staying positive on challenging days can be like swimming upstream, but the benefits are most crucial in those moments (Korb, 2015, p.160). Feeding the positive wolf takes courage, grit and practice but it’s easier than we expect.

The brain, once in a positive cycle, will begin to self-reinforce the behavior, knit together new neural pathways that tend toward the positive and feed that growth with a bath of positive emotion inducing neurotransmitters. It doesn’t even take fancy new technology. Clear suggests meditation, Korb suggests mindfulness; both are long-practiced strategies on which the internet is full of free resources.

Clear shared that students who simply “wrote about positive experiences had better mood levels, fewer visits to the health center, and experienced fewer illnesses” in a college study. “This blew me away,” he said. “Better health after just three days of writing about positive things!”

To be successful we must take our positive discipline just as seriously as our education and vocation. “Schedule time for play and adventure so that you can experience contentment and joy, and explore and build new skills [and] you will see more possibilities in your life” (2013).

Positivity as a discipline, playtime as important as a meeting, contentment not just as a future ideal but a present reality, and gratitude throughout it all. This is what we feed our positive wolf.

Hungry?

Let’s eat well and share in our wolf”s bounty.

 

ender

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Alex Korb PhD (2015) The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time. New Harbinger, Oakland, CA

Clear, J. (2013) The Science of Positive Thinking: How Positive Thoughts Build Your Skills, Boost Your Health, and Improve Your Work. HuffingtonPost.com. Retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/james-clear/positive-thinking_b_3512202.html

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