We all know someone who is “stuck in their ways”—someone with a closed mind, who never sees the positives in any unfamiliar or challenging situation.
There’s the supervisor who continually fails to give praise; that one family relative who won’t listen to any differing opinions; or even a friend who refuses to try new things. We live in a culture that encourages us to seek routine and comfort, and as a result, fear and negativity are often our gut reactions to uncharted territory.
Over time, it’s easy to slip into the cycle: We think negative thoughts, we settle into a familiar routine—with our behavior, with our actions, with our choices—and ultimately our comfort zones stop growing as our fears increase. But at what cost? In truth, positivity, open-mindedness, and resilience go hand in hand. When we choose to view new experiences as positive opportunities for growth, we grow our resilience and flexibility in the face of the unfamiliar.
Routine, consistency, and comfort aren’t all bad. Routine helps us develop self-discipline and makes achieving our dreams possible, like earning a ph.D. Consistency and comfort help us develop stable personalities and help us trust each other, as well as the world around us.
But these same qualities can overtake our thought patterns and take our focus away from creativity, healthy risk taking, open-mindedness, and flexibility. When we let routine take over our lives and sacrifice new experiences for comfort, our minds become breeding grounds for negativity and fear. Negative outlooks, bad habits, and rigidness can easily consume us and become so engrained in our daily lives that they become part of our personalities over time.
According to the broaden and build theory of positive emotions, postulated by psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, the benefits of maintaining a positive outlook extend way beyond our own mental state—positivity can literally alter our being and the world around us!
Compared to those who consistently let negative thoughts take over, people who intentionally choose to maintain positive emotions will trust more willingly, form more inclusive social categories, and broaden our awareness of self and environment. Further, positive people are more inclined to show compassion and feel empathy for people with different cultural backgrounds.
So why does choosing to think positive thoughts while rejecting negative thoughts have such a tangible impact on our daily lives?
According to Fredrickson, the answer comes down to our survival over time. Because a positive mindset allows us to trust more freely and exhibit empathy, it also increases our awareness and cultivation of resources, which she calls the “build” theory. Fredrickson says:
[the build theory creates] a momentarily broadened scope of awareness, creating a form of consciousness within individuals that included a wider array of thoughts, actions, and percepts than typical. […] Having a momentarily broadened mindset is not a key ingredient in the recipe for any quick survival maneuver. It is, however, in the recipe for discovery, discovery of new knowledge, new alliances, and new skills. In short, broadened awareness led to the accrual of new resources that might later make the difference between surviving or succumbing to various threats. Resources built through positive emotions also increased the odds that our ancestors would experience subsequent positive emotions, with their attendant broaden and build benefits, thus creating an upward spiral toward improved odds for survival, health, and fulfillment.
-Barbara Fredrickson, Positive Emotions Broaden and Build
Although new growth opportunities abound in the world around us—some more drastic than others—there are many simple exercises we can practice every day to broaden our awareness and grow our resilience through new experiences.
- Take a different route to work, or go on a walk in a new neighborhood. What do you like about this new route?
- Grab a notebook and head to a park. As you walk around outside, what do you see that you’ve never noticed before? What do you hear and smell? Write your observations down.
- Think of someone in your life with whom you share a surface-level friendship. Reach out to this person and make time to meet for coffee or lunch. When you meet, find something that you and this person share in common. Go out of your comfort zone and get to know them!
- Smile! Anyone can practice this one. Measuring cardiovascular activity as an indicator of distress, Fredrickson found in her research that subjects who smiled during a notably sad film clip, or in the face of an anxiety-inducing task, recovered faster than those who did not smile at all. In other words, smiling can train your brain and your body to become more resilient in a challenging time.
How do you maintain a positive outlook while trying new things? How have you grown from venturing out of your comfort zone? Tell us in the comments below.