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Positive Thinking in 2021- help without the hype

January 12, 2021

Another year begins, and for many, another lockdown too. Positive thinking in this context is not necessarily easy. Worries about the economy, job security, family stability, balancing childcare responsibilities, and general uncertainty about a great many things are enough to test the resilience of any one of us.

On the surface, scrolling through LinkedIn on any given day might give you the impression that the world is continuing as normal, and most people are on solid ground. Alongside the sharing of quarterly reports and industry trends, however, we see an increasing level of conversation and engagement around wellness and mental health.

A growing number of commentators are encouraging the sharing of emotion and vulnerability on LinkedIn; some from the angle that it makes issues of emotional wellbeing and mental health more visible in professional contexts, or even helps to form more authentic relationships via social media that can help your career. That is all well and good, and NEO Academy is all in favour of this, but these things are a positive by-product of the real focus, and that focus is you. This year let's focus on the inner you. Coping strategies, managing expectations, growing and developing or consolidating and reflecting. This is your year, and here are our #NEOtips to help make it, we hope, a little better.

Acknowledgement and acceptance come first

It might seem that everyone is using lockdown time to learn Mandarin or launch their new coaching practice, but this is only the small cross-section of what we see on social media. The reality is that many people are silently experiencing fatigue, anxiety, or just want to hunker down and get through this in any way they can.

There is nobody ahead of you on this path, because it is your path to walk alone. Wherever you are on that journey, it is enough. You do not have to make yourself a self-improvement project. As the World Economic Forum tells us: Everyone, in their own way, is doing their best to cope with the enormous challenge of COVID-19. The most positive and human way that we can respond is with compassion and kindness to ourselves and others."

A lot of the studies done on working from home show that home working can really increase productivity. And it makes sense, right? No commuting, fewer interruptions, more quiet space, and control. But these studies were done before the pandemic. This is not a normal situation, and those studies are not relevant to what we are experiencing now.

Researcher Nicholas Bloom predicted at the start of all this that productivity would be far lower from home. Even for those without children to support, these are not calm times for many of us. A survey reported a third of US adults experiencing anxiety in June 2020, and that number is set to rise with lockdown fatigue on the rise and an increasing economic squeeze.

This is not meant to be pessimistic, but realistic. It is OK to feel unproductive. It is OK not to feel OK. Let's keep those expectations in context, and be as kind to ourselves as we can.

Now that we have established a baseline, what can we do if we really feel able and ready to take positive steps towards feeling better?

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The power of positive thinking

We are our own worst enemy at times. Negative thoughts are powerful and can actually shape the way we think, feel, and see ourselves. No wonder! As humans, we are hardwired to focus more on negative thoughts than positive ones, and it is completely natural. This is known as the negativity bias, and it is a real thing. It really is a protective mechanism from a time when humans were constantly on the lookout for threats. We pay more attention to negative information, and we remember negative events far more strongly. As Eckhart Tolle tells us, you are not your thoughts; you are only the person listening to them, and that means we have control, and we have choices. If we are all programmed to think more negatively by default, then this means we need to make a conscious effort to really flip to positive thinking. Neuroscience research tells us that self-talk reinforces self-concept. In other words, when we tell ourselves "I am achieving nothing, I am failing", we will not only believe it, but the pre-conscious brain will actually prioritize the admission of information to confirm it. Yes, really. Negative thoughts make us view ourselves in a worse light and produce more of the same kind of thinking. So what can we do? Affirmations are a good start. This is when you say things like "I am enough. I am doing my best" or "I am learning and I am growing", and repeat it silently or (even better) out loud to yourself a number of times. Writing it down also works. There is real science behind this, and it is a relatively easy way to make a positive impact on the way you feel by slowly rewiring the circuitry of your brain towards positivity.

On a related note, gratitude journalling is another great way to focus on the positive and minimize the negatives out there that we just can't control. Consciously bringing to mind to good things in your life for which you are grateful is a positive way to start and/or end your day. The University of Berkley has some excellent tips on gratitude journaling, and for those who wish to go further into reflective journaling and would like prompts and structure, the DailyOm has some great programs.

Positive daily routines

Exercising some direct control over our lives is important for psychological and emotional vitality. Switching off social media and especially the daily news will limit our exposure to all those many things that are just not within our own control.

In their place, there is lots we can do to actually add some structure to our day and focus on what we can do. We've written a helpful article about it here, and we would love to hear more of your suggestions too!

Eating well, getting fresh air, taking some good self-care time, and making space to just be; all of these are important. What we can add here is connection. Picking up the phone or scheduling a Zoom call with a colleague, friend, or family member is a good thing to prioritize. These should be people who make you feel better, not worse; who are supportive and not critical.

The surprising thing here is that helping them feel better helps you too, and it's called the helper's high.

The helper's high

It is not a conscious choice for us to forget about how others around us might be feeling when we are stressed or anxious. We focus on ourselves and that is just the way it is, as we try to find solutions or examine what we see as the problem.

The strange thing is that despite it being the last thing we might feel like doing, helping others around us really does help to change things.

Even just making time to think and reflect on how others around you might be feeling can be a powerful tool to break the cycle of negative thought.

Helping others releases "feel good" neurotransmitters in our brains, and reduces stress. It also boosts our immune system's resilience, which is pretty handy at the moment. The positive connection that comes from helping others is an amazing thing, where both parties benefit and feel better.

Psychologists call this a “virtue cycle” but it’s really just “smile, and the world smiles with you”. This is not something to think about if you are really not feeling able to do so as we all know you cannot pour from an empty cup. However, if you find yourself turning inward too much in a way that's just not helpful to the way you feel, why not give it a try? Something simple like taking a treat over to a friend or colleague, or sending messages of love and support to those around you, can make a big difference in a day.

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Later this week, we will be talking on an episode of #NEOchats about how we can cope with these current challenges applied to education.

Indeed, the world of education is going through its own challenges, and sharing ideas and experiences on how we are getting through it seems like a positive thing to do. So why not join us on LinkedIn or contact us if you have experiences or insight that you would like to share with our community. We hope that this has been useful, and extend our wish to help and support our partners and colleagues in 2021.

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