It sounds too simple, doesn’t it? Fluffy and naïve. “Just be a little more positive and you’re bound to see results.” Healthy scepticism and an eye roll feel a fitting response. And yet the benefits of adopting a positive attitude are increasingly well-documented and steeped in research from leading academic institutions.
Having a positive attitude can transform how we view work and perform in our roles. It also, notably, has drastic impacts on our health and well-being. In fact, John Hopkins Medicine reported that those with a positive outlook on life but with a family history of heart disease were, “one-third less likely to have a heart attack or other cardiovascular event within five to 25 years than those with a more negative outlook.”1 All of a sudden that eye roll feels a lot less fitting.
To properly implement this advice of taking a positive approach, we must first understand what it is. And, crucially, what it is not…
A positive attitude
A positive attitude is not the same as a blinkered, fact-denying, all-is-shiny-and-well outlook. It does not mean contorting reality or pretending setbacks and difficulties aren’t real. That much positivity would of course, ironically, be a negative, transporting you into the realm of delusion. Indeed, research shows that people who are excessively optimistic might overestimate their own abilities and take on more than they can handle, ultimately leading to more stress and anxiety.2 That’s not what positive psychology is about. Rather, it’s about perspective.
Believing in yourself, trying to learn from setbacks and constantly improve, and attempting to make the most from a bad situation are obviously advantageous traits. But they’re easier said than done. Positive thinking is the tool you can use to turn them from being nice hypotheticals to actionable practices that impact your life and career.
Positivity in numbers
Research into the power of positive thinking has yielded some striking results. In a landmark paper3 published by The Royal Society, Barbara Fredrickson, a positive psychology researcher at the University of North Carolina, tested the impact of positive emotions on the brain, in which 5 segmented groups were shown different film clips (two groups seeing positive clips, one group seeing neutral, two groups negative) and were then asked to imagine themselves in a scenario in which similar feelings would arise and to write down what they would do, starting with the phrase, “I would like to…”
The two groups who saw positive clips – of joy and contentment, respectively – wrote down a significantly higher number of actions they would take than both the negative groups and the neutral. Essentially, the findings found that positive emotions helped broaden the sense of possibility in the mind and open it up to more options, while negative emotions narrowed the field of possibility.
Research into positivity in the workplace has found its impact to be similarly prominent. A study by Dr. Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania found that optimistic sales professionals outsell their pessimistic counterparts by 56%4. While Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, found that, “doctors put in a positive mood before making a diagnosis show almost three times more intelligence and creativity than doctors in a neutral state, and they make accurate diagnoses 19% faster.”5 A separate survey found that optimists were 40% more likely to get promoted over the next year, six times more likely to be highly engaged at work and five times less likely to burn out than pessimists.6
Clearly, then, positive thinking has tangible benefits in the workplace and elsewhere. But for those whose natural disposition is a little less sunny, how do you start thinking on the bright side?
Techniques for positivity
The good news is that our thought impulses are not fixed. The patterns of our brains can be trained and altered until we’re able to wield them more effectively. In other words, if your natural disposition is to think negatively, you can change that – with practice.
There are a variety of practices you can bring into your routine to help make positivity a default. Atomic Habits author James Clear focuses on three7. First, meditation. The aforementioned Barbara Fredrickson and her colleagues found that people who meditate daily display more positive emotions than those who do not, as well as displaying increased mindfulness, purpose in life, social support, and decreased illness symptoms.
Second, writing. Clear cites a study in the Journal of Research in Personality8, in which 90 undergraduates were split into two groups, the first writing about an intensely positive experience each day for three consecutive days, the second group writing about a control topic. Three months later, the students who wrote about positive experiences had “better mood levels, fewer visits to the health center, and experienced fewer illnesses.”
Third, play. Clear advocates for taking time to do some fun activities, even at the expense of work (within reason – don’t skip that big meeting to have a quick go on the swings.) Too often, he argues, we are slaves to our calendars, to the detriment of our merriment and well-being. Stifling our joy stifles our work too. In the long run, taking and making time for more enjoyable activities helps far more than it hurts.
Those are just Clear’s three staples. Advice from others includes starting a gratitude journal9 (documenting some things big or small each day for which you are grateful), adjusting your language to introduce more positive phrasing, or even just smiling. A University of Kansas study found that smiling – fake smiles included – reduces heart rate and blood pressure during stressful situations10.
Broaden and build
The benefits of positive thinking don’t stop at mood enhancement. For anyone looking at the numbers cited in this article and wondering, “how can a simple adjustment in temperament bring all those results?” The answer is that it’s not just about the improved psychology, but all of the other avenues that psychology opens up. This is what Frederickson refers to as “broaden and build.”
Because positive emotions broaden the number of possibilities you consider (as opposed to actively narrowing, as negative emotions do), you are then more likely to use that positive thinking as the launchpad to build more skills, resources and relationships, which then lead to further opportunities. By broadening the avenues you consider, positive thinking opens up a whole world of additional prospects. Essentially, then, positive thinking sets the wheels in motion for further success, which will likely produce further positivity – and so the cycle is born. As Clear says, “happiness is both the precursor to success and the result of it.”11
Bringing positivity to the workplace
The benefits of positive thinking are clear and obvious. And better news still, positivity spreads. Amy Finlay, co-founder of Edinburgh IFA, notes that “Exuding positivity can be infectious and, over time, can influence your co-workers.”12 The same is true for negativity, however, which is why it’s crucial for those in management positions to facilitate a positive workplace culture. If employees are imbuing each other with positive energy, they are more likely to concentrate, improve their productivity, volunteer for tasks, and better manage their time. If management lets a negative attitude set in, it’s bound to lead to worse productivity, sloppiness, and generally make the company an unpleasant place to be.
To cynics, adopting a positive mindset sounds like a frivolous, new age concept, especially compared with more tangible changes one can make to workplace practices. But in reality, positive thinking goes a long way to improving the quality of our work, our creativity, our attitude around the office, and our dealings with others. As well as just being a nicer way to live.
Looking for a more productive, fulfilling, happier work life? Why not give positive thinking a go?
Among the holistic factors that impact job performance may be something that many of us do not acknowledge or take little notice of but matters considerably. That is our ability to mediate our environment and self-generate calm through silence. Without it, we may allow mental fatigue, creative stagnation, and distraction to influence our decisions and output.
Not all noise we experience is sound-based
The amount of conversation in the world is ever-expanding. Between our tasks, colleagues, smartphones, tablets and computers, we are surrounded by noise, white noise, and visible signals of something or someone to respond to. Transit to and from work can be loud, if not chaotic. Even if it is not, often it is frustrating. There is activity, commotion and movement in almost everything we do, which prevents silence and inhibits a sense of calm. Even without these contributing ‘noise-makers,’ the brain can be just as loud.
The meaning of silence
Silence, which should contain an absence of sound, is loaded. It is associated with loneliness, heaviness or awkwardness, and some use it as an indicator of emotional withdrawal, disapproval or punishment. Even in language, silence often carries negative connotations, e.g., a ‘conspiracy of silence,’ ‘silent war,’ being given ‘the silent treatment,’ or ‘lifting the veil of silence.’
To our detriment, increasingly, we perceive silence less and less as a form of strength. In other words, it is something to be done away with, not strive for. However, finding silence in our workday can offer us much-needed clarity and renewal in micro-doses and is, in fact, ‘an essential part of professional and/or personal development’ (Alerby, 2003). Here is why.
The Values of Silence
In his book Silence: In the age of noise, explorer Erling Kagge (2017) calls silence ‘the new luxury.’ Make no mistake, the nature of our existence in a busy and noisy world necessitates locating points of silence—it is not a luxury. The World Health Organization (WHO) released a report that investigated the impact of environmental noise from planes, trains and vehicles, and other community and leisure sources in Western Europe. It concluded that too much noise is a corrosive element in our lives. Not surprisingly, studies also show that dialling down the audible noise offers psychological and mental health advantages, such as enhanced creativity, heightened focus, self-control, self-awareness, and greater perspective. When these faculties of our mind operate at optimal levels, we can have more confidence in our thoughts and decisions because we are sure that our brain is functioning as we want and need it to. Silence is, therefore, a ‘sense-making process’ (Alerby, 2003).
Within reflective praxis, silence is also an active process. In Japan and Japanese business culture, silence is considered as important as speaking because it offers a ‘moment to understand what has just been communicated’ and to ‘respond in a well thought out manner’ (ibid). Through silence, we might understand the value of what is being said to us. If we allow it to be, silence is instructive, and periods of reflection, no matter how brief, may yield more understanding or extra time to overcome a problem. Famously, Francis Bacon once said, ‘Silence is the sleep that nourishes wisdom.’
Productivity is a universal term in professional environments. How we achieve it is varied but not typically aligned with silence and taking a pause. Some business insiders argue that, contrary to logic or belief, the collective benefits of silence and taking a break from our professional responsibilities may stimulate productivity and creativity. Before he was a figure of nonviolent resistance, Gandhi was a lawyer and kept a weekly day of silence on Mondays to re-centre himself and concentrate specifically on work. Others like Vijay Eswaran, chief executive of Qi Group, a Hong Kong conglomerate, and Nick Seaver of Ziff Capital Partners have combined meditation with professional development and attribute time spent in silence to their successes. Reducing internal noise is as critical as reducing external noise.
There are physical benefits to be derived as well. Spending time in silence positively affects the body by reducing blood pressure, boosting the immune system, reducing blood cortisol, promoting hormone regulation and preventing arterial plaque formation. Moreover, research published in the National Library of Medicine indicates that prolonged silence produces new cells within the hippocampus, the brain region responsible for memory and the senses. Even just two minutes of silence a day has a calming effect more significant than listening to relaxing music. Although extended silence may be difficult to come by at work (and home), its value on your psychological and physical well-being is clear. Make time to engage in forms of wakeful rest.
Strategies for finding silence
How do you incorporate silence into your day? Time and space are needed for this, and some amount of ‘pure’ silence is beneficial if it can be found. If it cannot, meditation takes many forms and does not require classes. There are apps, and then there is simply sitting with yourself, gathering your thoughts, or letting go of them for a few minutes each day. Silence is as much a context as it is a process, and you can find it anywhere. We must seek it.
Similarly, you can meditate on an ad hoc basis. Walks, driving or riding the train, waiting at the doctor’s office, and layovers at the airport provide regular windows for meditation, contemplation, release and quiet decompression. Remember, it is more important to find a place for and not necessarily of silence. All you need is a few minutes of quality time for meditation, which, as the Mayo Clinic suggests, is good medicine.
Guard this space in your schedule
Achieving silence takes effort. For most people learning to use silence involves meditation training, retreats and wilderness experiences. Keep yourself open to what your mind and body require, and do not let this time and space be interrupted. Make it sacred, especially if it can only be a few minutes a day.
Soundlessness applies to a quiet mind as well. Take email and social media breaks and blackouts. Do not let yourself be consumed by ‘silent’ conversations. Our internal chatter greatly contributes to a lack of silence. Ultimately, if we cannot control the noise level in our society, we have some say regarding the amount of silence in our lives. These psychological and physical reprieves may be critical during difficult or tense periods.
References & Resources
Eva Alerby & Jo´runn Eli´do´ttir Alerby (2003) ‘The Sounds of Silence: Some remarks on the value of silence in the process of reflection in relation to teaching and learning,’ Reflective Practice, 4:1, 41-51. DOI: 10.1080/1462394032000053503
Bernardi L, Porta C, Sleight P. ‘Cardiovascular, cerebrovascular, and respiratory changes induced by different types of music in musicians and non-musicians: the importance of silence.’ Heart. 2006 Apr; 92(4): 445-52. DOI: 10.1136/hrt.2005.064600
Erling Kagge (2017) Silence: In the age of noise, Becky L. Crook (trans.), Vintage Books.
Dan Ruch (2017), Founder and CEO of Rocketrip, ‘Why Silence May Yield More Productivity Than You Think,’ published in Inc., https://www.inc.com/dan-ruch/why-silence-may-yield-more-productivity-than-you-t.html
Betsy Mikel (2016), Owner of Avek, ‘Neuroscience Reveals Nourishing Benefits That Silence Has on Your Brain,’ published in Inc., https://www.inc.com/betsy-mikel/your-brain-benefits-most-when-you-listen-to-absolutely-nothing-science-says.html
Mayo Clinic Staff (2022) Meditation: A simple, fast way to reduce stress
The WHO European Centre for Environment and Health (2011) ‘Burden of Disease from Environmental Health: Quantification of healthy life years lost in Europe,’ Bonn Office, WHO Regional Office for Europe coordinated the development of this publication.
Vijay Eswaran profile by Paul Maidment (2007) ‘The Sound of Silence,’ in Forbes
Nick Seaver TedX
See also Ted Talk
What does it mean for a person to function at their peak? Peak performance means that all basic needs are met so the mind and body are nourished, which allows for the highest level of success. It’s about long-term, consistent, and sustainable growth.
Often, peak performance is a term used in the athletics world. Athletes are in a constant cycle of training and recovery, learning their body’s cues in order to perform their best in matches or competitions. But the same mentality and techniques can be applied to entrepreneurship, the business world, or to anyone who is striving to live their best life. Superhuman status is not just for the elite.
“Peak performance in life isn’t about succeeding all the time or even being happy all the time. It’s often about compensating, adjusting, and doing the best you can with what you have right now.” — Ken Ravizza, Sport PsychologistKen Ravizza, Sport Psychologist
The power of the to-do list
It may seem simple, but one way to achieve peak function is by writing down goals and to-do lists for accountability. The goals should be SMART goals: specific, measurable, actionable, relevant, and time-bound. But a to-do list can include everything from long-term planning to what to accomplish before breakfast the next day. To-do lists help to organise the mind in a more linear fashion and create space to focus on the present moment rather than stressing about what’s to come.
It is also important to not rigidly adhere to a to-do list. Psychologists have found that a growth mindset is more indicative of long-term success and motivation. Part of being a highly successful person is learning to adapt to the inevitable fluctuations of life.
Mindfulness & mental health
Mindfulness and meditation can help with stress and the ability to remain calm under pressure. Prioritising mental health is equally important as physical health and the items on a to-do list. Goals are important, but they also need to be sustainable.
In fact, in a study in The Journal of Cognitive Enhancement, athletes who performed just twelve minutes of meditation a day showed higher mental resilience than those who didn’t. They also had more improved focus during training. Rest and recovery can often seem counterintuitive when schedules are jam-packed and the lists endless, but ultimately, taking the time to be present and slow down will lead to more effective results.
Diet, nutrition & sleep
A healthy diet, nutrition, and adequate sleep are essential to achieve peak performance. Sleep debt — fewer than seven hours of sleep — may be an ‘unrecognised, but likely critical factor in reaching peak performance’, says Cheri Mah, researcher at the Stanford Sleep Disorder Clinic and Research Laboratory. There is a strong correlation between diet and nutrition and quality of sleep. For example, sugar, caffeine, and alcohol negatively impact sleep, whereas eating a Mediterranean diet, and a diet high in Omega fatty acids, may lead to more restful sleep (Godos et al., 2019).
Many high performers work around their ‘peak performance hours’, which is the time of day when a person is most efficient based on the body’s chronotype and circadian rhythms. In other words, knowing whether one is a night owl, or a morning bird can help determine the day’s structure for optimal success.
The importance of deep work & flow
Lastly, the ability to be in flow is not only a factor in success but also happiness and overall life satisfaction. ‘Flow’, a term first coined by positive psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, refers to being completely immersed in the task at hand. It can be achieved by avoiding multitasking, focusing on quality of the work rather than doing as many things as fast as possible, and by doing a task that is enjoyable.
In the book, The Leading Brain: Powerful Science-Based Strategies for Achieving Peak Performance, the authors explain that optimal focus also requires some level of stress. Too much stress will inhibit focus, and too little leads to a lack of motivation. To achieve deep flow, then, there needs to be some sense of urgency in the work. There needs to be a purpose driving the task.
Peak performance is not achieved overnight. It requires consistent practice, having clear goals, and holding oneself accountable, while also maintaining a healthy and balanced lifestyle. Anyone can achieve peak performance and success by implementing the right habits.
More on sleep
- “Studies show that reducing sleep by as little as 1.5 hours for even a single night could cause a reduction of daytime alertness by as much as 32 percent, while also doubling the person’s risk of sustaining an occupational injury.” (Read more)
- The Power of Sleep: Unlocking the Secrets to Success with Elite Sports Sleep Coach Nick Littlehales
- Cracking The Performance Code with Justin Roethlingshoefer
- Performance improvement lessons from leading sleep expert Pat Byrne
- The impact of sleep on performance with Motty Varghese
What is the subconscious mind?
We spend most of our time on autopilot. Everything we do, from breathing to walking, to eating and having a conversation, occurs automatically as a way for our brain to preserve energy for what it considers more important tasks. This is the subconscious mind at work.
Freud developed the 3-level model of the mind, which is often represented as an iceberg: the conscious as the tip, the subconscious just beneath the surface, and the unconscious, buried below. The subconscious mind makes up 95% of the brain, while the conscious mind only 5% (Szegedy-Maszak, 2005). If we can learn how to access our subconscious, we have the power to unlock our full potential.
The Reticular Activating System
The Reticular Activating System (RAS) is a network of neurons that act as a filtering system between the conscious and subconscious mind. As our brains cannot absorb everything that is happening around us, the RAS controls the information that goes into our consciousness. It exists as a mechanism for survival. If we had to consciously think about every small action we take throughout the day, our energy would be depleted for when we need to be alert.
How can we use the RAS to change behaviours?
The RAS reinforces behaviours we have learned to do automatically. To change a behaviour, the neural pathways need to be reprogrammed to create a new response. For example, if we want to start waking up earlier but have the belief that we’re not a morning person, it will be difficult to suddenly start waking up earlier. We have to first become aware of the thought that may be holding us back—‘I’m not a morning person’—and shift that to a narrative of why we might enjoy the mornings, what we want to achieve by waking up earlier, and repeat the action until it becomes automatic.
This is also known as neuroplasticity: the brain’s ability to rewire pathways to create a new behaviour response. Researchers have also concluded that to truly change a habit, we have to see the value of the new goal and the reward. So, how can we begin to bring the subconscious into awareness, shift our habits, and set ourselves onto the path of success?
The first way is through visualisation. Visualisation has long been used by top performers and athletes competing for the Olympics to prepare for the day of the events. It requires imagining the exact conditions you will be in, what it’s going to feel, smell, look like, and envisioning how you’re going to succeed.
As Frank Niles Ph.D., explains: ‘visualisation works because neurons in our brains, those electrically excitable cells that transmit information, interpret imagery as equivalent to a real-life action. When we visualize an act, the brain generates an impulse that tells our neurons to “perform” the movement. This creates a new neural pathway that primes our body to act in a way consistent to what we imagined.’ In other words, if we see it, we can believe it.
Take the time to pause
Meditation is a powerful tool to bring the subconscious into awareness. Studies have shown that practising mindfulness and meditation can help with depression, chronic pain, anxiety, and a variety of other mental and physical conditions. Meditation also aids in rewiring the brain’s circuits by increasing the amount of grey matter, which improves emotional regulation and impulse control. It gives us more control over our subconscious behaviours and leads to better decision-making that aligns with our goals.
Write down thoughts
Since the subconscious mind absorbs information that the conscious mind does not have the capacity to process, it contains a wealth of data, waiting to be accessed. Many high-achieving individuals swear by morning pages, which is the daily practice of freewriting in the morning before starting the day. As you write, it’s important not to edit or get caught up in spelling and grammar. This is the time to see what may come up without the conscious mind interfering.
Journaling is also a great way to define our goals. Unlike morning pages, this is best to do at night before bed to clear the mind for sleep. By writing down what we want to accomplish, our goals for the future, and how we want to achieve them, we bring them into awareness.
Get adequate rest
We often underestimate the value of a good night’s rest. Sleep, however, is essential to giving our minds and bodies the time to reset; it is when the brain recharges and processes information from the day. In fact, studies have shown that having adequate sleep, seven to eight hours a night, improves memory, regulates metabolism, reduces fatigue, and improves cognitive and behavioural function. The subconscious mind is more likely to repeat old patterns if it’s running on empty.
Tapping into the subconscious and rewiring neural pathways takes time. Change will not occur overnight. By becoming aware of our subconscious thoughts and behaviours, implementing techniques such as visualisations, meditation, journaling, and getting enough rest, we will soon begin to see the positive impact on our daily lives.
More On Meditation
- Meditation and mindfulness can help with stress and the ability to remain calm under pressure (Read more)
Eugene, Andy R, and Jolanta Masiak. ‘The Neuroprotective Aspects of Sleep.’ MEDtube science vol. 3,1 (2015): 35-40.
Berkman, Elliot T. ‘The Neuroscience of Goals and Behavior Change.’ Consulting psychology journal vol. 70,1 (2018): 28-44.
Clarey, Christopher, ‘Olympians Use Imagery as Mental Training.’ The New York Times. February 22, 2014.
Luders E, Toga AW, Lepore N, Gaser C. ‘The underlying anatomical correlates of long-term meditation: larger hippocampal and frontal volumes of gray matter.’ Neuroimage. 2009 Apr 15;45(3):672-8.
Niles, Frank, Ph.D., ‘How to Use Visualization to Achieve Your Goals.’ Huffington Post. June 17, 2011.
Szegedy-Maszak, M., ‘Mysteries of the Mind: Your unconscious is making your everyday decisions.’ U.S. News & World Report, February 28, 2005.