Book Reviews, Well-being

The Science of Positivity – A Book Review

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Who Wouldn’t Like to Be More Positive?

When I purchased Dr. Loretta Graziano Breuning’s book Habits of a Happy Brain last fall, Amazon told me another book of hers was set to release in December. The Science of Positivity made it on my wishlist and arrived as a Christmas present from my mom. I was excited to begin reading it, and finished up Driven to Distraction as quickly as possible.

A Note Before We Begin

There are less than a handful of individuals I’ve met who genuinely don’t believe in evolution. If you happen to be someone who doesn’t believe in or even entertain the theory of evolution, neither of Dr. Breuning’s books will appeal to you.

"You cannot have a positive life and a negative mind." -Joyce Meyer | MiddayMornings.com

Biology Can Make Positivity Difficult

Dr. Breuning sets the foundation for why negativity is an easy and very common trap to fall into: as mammals, we are wired to look for the bad around us. No, an adorable sugar glider isn’t a guaranteed pessimist, but he does constantly scan for the threats that would keep him from surviving. And we do the same. This makes sense to me since the theory can easily be applied to driving a car. You don’t drive a car taking in the lovely scenery, technologically savvy automobiles around you, and the complicated harmony of your favorite song. You drive – or at least should drive – constantly checking your mirrors, speedometer, and your relationship to the lane you’re in and other drivers. Survival threats are all around us and have changed a lot over time.

Survival threats are all around us and have changed a lot over time. We have developed so many devices and machines to help us mitigate and even eliminate many of these threats. (Backup camera anyone?) But our biological makeup has been developing and fine tuning our natural threat detection and elimination systems for longer than we’ve been inventing.

“We mammals are always looking for information that can help us escape harm. […] We have ten times more neurons going from our brains to our eyes than we have from our eyes to our brain. That means we are ten times more equipped to find the information we’re looking for than to process whatever happens to come along.” (pg. 36)

Hormones Play a Huge Role

Dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin play major roles in how we feel, think, and interact with the world around us. Both Habits of a Happy Brain and The Science of Positivity hit on these hormones. Here’s my very brief paraphrasing of what each one does and how it can affect your positivity:

  1. Dopamine: The accomplished hormone. When you are super thirsty and take that first sip of water, dopamine is released. But next time you need a drink, tiny bits of dopamine are released with each step you take towards the water cooler. But dopamine doesn’t last. And your last sip of water isn’t going to be as refreshing as the first. Dopamine is what stimulates you to achieve your needs one step at a time – whether that need is physical, emotional, social, or otherwise. If you got a surge of dopamine when you criticized someone, dopamine will tell you to do it again.
  2. Serotonin: The importance hormone. Serotonin is what’s triggered when you feel important or superior to others. When others give you respect, serotonin is released. If you are disrespected either socially (you don’t get that promotion at work that you feel you’ve earned) or physically (someone cuts in line ahead of you at the grocery store), your serotonin drops. You might trash-talk your boss with co-workers when she’s not around or you might complain to the store manager at the grocery store and your serotonin rises as they listen to your concerns and side with you.
  3. Oxytocin: The social bonding hormone. Oxytocin is what bonds mother to baby during birth. It surges when you are around people you trust. When oxytocin is present, you want to fit in. If you surround yourself with people who are upbeat and positive, you will try to mimic those behaviors to be accepted by that group. The converse is true.

"You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty." - Mahatma Ghandi | MiddayMornings.com

Our Society Can Make Positivity Difficult

In the US, we no longer rely on hunting and gathering or foraging. We have Walmart, Super Target, and even Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. We no longer need to conserve our energy for survival-promoting activities because we have cars, automatic dishwashers, and structurally sound homes. That leaves us a lot of time and energy to worry about things that feel like threats, but really aren’t.

This is a new age of existentialism where we have time to rewire our brains and ponder our own mortality. On page 60 of The Science of Positivity Breuning suggests some ways we try to “manage our mortality.” One way, she says, is by focusing on building something that lasts – “a child, an organization, a monument, an immortal soul, or a work of art.” As parents, we can try to extend our mortality by living through our children, creating a potential for stress, cynicism, and negativity with each growing moment – or “failure” – the child encounters.

Social Threats

Consider this scenario: When Little Megan comes home from school, she tells you about how her classmate Courtney had a birthday. “That’s nice,” you say. Little Megan then proceeds to tell you how Courtney’s mommy came to lunch with huge cupcakes for everyone. “Yummy,” you say. Little Megan then tells you about how Courtney’s mom also brought everyone a Happy Meal from McDonald’s. “Wait, what?” you say. Yes, says Little Megan, and inside each Happy Meal was 4 tickets to the movies.

Maybe by now you’re laughing. Maybe you’re thinking, “Sweet! We can finally see that movie we’ve been wanting to see!” And just maybe, you’re thinking about how when it was Little Megan’s birthday a month ago you took in those tiny cupcakes from Walmart and called it good. And then maybe you’re thinking, “Megan’s class has 30 kids in it.” And you do the math for huge cupcakes (from some gourmet cupcakery, no doubt), and Happy Meals, and 4 movie tickets for each of the 30 kids.

At the time, you felt like a superstar because Megan wanted the tiny cupcakes from Walmart and you delivered. But now, with an intangible and possibly indescribable threat present in Courtney’s fabulous birthday bonanza, your cortisol (bad hormone) rises and you feel the need to do something about it.

How many negative things can you come up with to justify your threatened feelings? How many criticisms? How many friends are you thinking of calling or texting to go over the matter? How much do you wish Courtney and her perfect mommy just didn’t exist for the moment?

Tips to Become More Positive

The social “threats” in my life can most easily trigger negativity. Here are my takeaways on how I’m using The Science of Positivity to live a more positive life:

  1. Acknowledge my biological tendency toward the negative.
    • If I acknowledge it, I can be more aware of it and correct my perspective as needed.
  2. Repeat over and over the positive results of an interaction.
    • Many times, I replay a conversation in my head and ask myself why I said something a certain way or whether I misinterpreted a comment. Nine times out of ten I’m wondering if someone is mad at me. By repeating the positive results of an interaction, I remember the interactions more accurately and save myself a lot of needless worry and blows to my self-esteem.
  3. Consider which hormone I’m low in and address it.
    • If I need to feel important or respected (serotonin), I read something. Reading gives me information that I can share during dinnertime conversation – information that the rest of the family may not know about. If I need to feel connected to others (oxytocin), I give my husband or daughters a hug and express my love to them. If I need to feel accomplished, I create something. Because even if it’s less magnificent than someone else’s work, only I could have created it in that exact way – and that makes me feel good.

Keep a Positivity Journal

Dr. Breuning also suggests keeping a Positivity Journal three times a day for 60 days. While a Positivity Journal sounds a lot like a Gratitude Journal, it’s not. The main difference between them is that a Gratitude Journal accepts what has come to you while a Positivity Journal affects how you actively perceive the situation. Let’s take the lunchroom birthday scenario from earlier:

    • Gratitude Journal: I’m grateful Megan had a nice time with Courtney’s celebrations. I’m grateful I was able to give Megan what she wanted for her birthday.
    • Positivity Journal: Courtney’s mom makes me feel like a not-so-good mom. But I am a good mom because I gave Megan what she wanted for her birthday. Megan didn’t seem upset at all that Courtney gave so much more than we did. While this feels big now, in a week I don’t think it will be. Megan and I had a good time talking about her lunch. Maybe I’ll let Megan pick the movie we’ll see – that would make me feel like a good mom too.

The Science of Positivity

I would recommend The Science of Positivity by Loretta Graziano Breuning. It can give you some insight into why negativity feels easier and how to become the positive person you’d like to be.

4 thoughts on “The Science of Positivity – A Book Review

  1. This is an awesome post! I have multiple degrees in psychology and love thinking about how evolution influences our tendencies in the modern world. After all, we’ve only had the lifestyles that we have for decades, not millennia; so of course our natural tendencies don’t always have a place in our modern lives! You did a great job of breaking things down for anyone to understand, and it was a fantastic reminder to me to not just accept the thoughts that come into my head as reality, but to look at them through this very important perspective. Thank you!

    1. Thanks, Lori. I definitely recommend this and/or her Habits of a Happy Brain book. They both left me thinking about them long afterwards and have helped me learn how I can be more positive.

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