Pathway to Positivity: Practical Steps to Become More Positive
When my daughters were teenagers they ruined Philippians 4:8 for me because it says “whatever” so many times.
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about[d] these things.
Now when I read it, all I hear is their dismissive voices echoing, “Whatever, Dad.”
Do you consider yourself a positive person? Studies reveal a growing trend toward people becoming more cynical, discouraged, and negative. When too much of a negative spirit infects us it robs us of living as abundantly as we are meant to live by decreasing our capacity to celebrate the goodness of God’s blessings.
Unsurprisingly, the increase in cynicism and mental health issues corresponds to the decrease in a sense of spiritual connection. Today, I will lay out practical suggestions for how our spirituality can improve our disposition and help us reclaim hopefulness and maintain a positive spirit in a cynical world so that we will feel better and help elevate those who are around us.
Growing negativity affects daily life
Staying positive is becoming more complicated, and it’s easy to lose our vitality. We are bombarded with negative stories that drain us. To paraphrase an old adage, if you’re not depressed and cynical, you’re not paying attention. We face monumental problems: mass shootings, climate change, homelessness, hate crimes, attacks in our own neighborhood, inflation, threats to democracy, and a divided political landscape that tears families apart.
The problem is compounded by a broken political system where air time is given to those who express the most outlandish opinions. They turn to the cameras and online platforms and spew hateful nonsense to provoke a sense of fear because that’s what sells and spikes campaign donations. Social media algorithms amplify the most shocking sentiments. Reportedly, many people saying this stuff act as normal, rational people when the cameras are off but feed the insanity loop when the cameras are rolling. It’s a spiraling downward cycle that needs an intervention of positive energy because the whirlpool is dragging us all down with it.
Negativity as a buffer.
Maybe you are like me and have a circle of friends where it’s as if points are awarded for being the most cynical person in the room, catastrophizing everything, showing how you know what’s really going on and how much worse it’s likely to get. Negativity is an emotional buffer against heartache when your hopes are crushed. No one wants to stick their head in the sand because if we don’t pay attention to the issues, we can lose what’s important. How do we walk that line of staying informed without sucking each other down the hole while maintaining hope?
It’s not just the social issues out there that get to us. We also perseverate on our personal problems, staying up at night worried and afraid. Negativity leads to bad decisions, robbing us of our potential. When we see no hope, we give up, our mood sours, and we are less inclined to consider the feelings of others because gloom takes over. We don’t need a devil tempting us; we have the internal demon whispering negativity and taking care of the rest.
But how do you stop and exchange the negativity for something more positive?
The most negative person I ever knew was a relative who sensed her negativity was a problem. Although she cluttered her coffee table with books about maintaining a positive mental attitude, including titles about scripture and positive thinking, it didn’t cure the problem. She’d offer up some problem, and I’d try to help her find a silver lining, but to her, it only illuminated a bigger darker cloud lurking behind it. Have you ever known someone like that? Some people are only happy when they have something to complain about.
It got so bad that other relatives confessed they kept their distance, and the more alienated she got, the worse she got—a vicious cycle. Nothing was ever good enough. I’ve preached before about how there is an epidemic of loneliness, much of it is self-induced and exacerbated by constant complaining. If you only come across as negative and sour, that brings down the people around you. Similarly, when you are positive in a group, that affects them positively. What is the influence you want to bring?
Negativity and positivity are contagious.
It’s weird how it works. A certain amount of complaining is social lubrication. “The heat is killing me! When will it ever let up?” Or, “Can you believe what so-and-so said?” A few weeks ago, I went to the DMV and stood in the line for people with appointments for 50 minutes. Folks complained about the long wait. Soon the conversation turned to traffic on the 405, and then people started offering examples of how everything in the world is getting worse, which allowed some to spout conspiracy theories. A guy in a wheelchair cut in line and went right to the front. Someone said, “I wish I were in a wheelchair to do that.” Then the wheelchair guy blew up by yelling at someone who didn’t make the comment, “Don’t ever say that. I pray every day that I wasn’t shot in the back by a gang member and could walk again.” A fight almost broke out, and security had to restore order. What happened?
Nothing bonds people together like having a common enemy, even if it’s the weather or traffic, or a politician. Hence, the “mean girls’ effect,” where we focus on the faults of someone we know. When we become so focused on the negative, that’s all we see, and it sours our spirits. We do well to remember the adage that if someone gossips to you, they will gossip about you.
An Inner Transformation
So, how do we turn this negativity around? How do we elevate rather than depress those around us? Positive thinking books on the coffee table and feel-good memes have their place, but they don’t solve the problem. It starts from the inside. When you are connected spiritually and have a sense of purpose and gratitude, the positivity emanates from the inside out. These are the things that faith helps us with.
We’re reminded that we are unconditionally loved—even with our faults, and given gifts to play our role in God’s purpose of making this a more user-friendly world. We worship and give our thanks and praise for the good things in life. We are reminded by scriptures like our lesson today to focus on the positive.
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about[d] these things.
The HAPPY method.
I came across a two-week program guide developed by clinical psychologists that has shown positive results in helping people feel more positive. So, I decided to try it. I will link to it on the website. Going through it, it felt like most of the suggestions rhyme with biblical principles. After all, nothing’s better than when scientific research comports with the ancient wisdom reflected in scripture. It seems like a well-grounded approach.
As the authors say,
We do not suggest that you go about your life with blind positivity – being unrealistically optimistic and ignoring things that need real attention. Negativity can be a useful emotion. It helps us to understand what could go wrong and how we can be prepared for it. However, it is important for us to let go of that negativity when it is no longer useful so we can concentrate on our future of positivity. Carrying that negativity around can be burdensome.
They offer a helpful distinction between decisional and emotional positivity. Decisional positivity is when you see the bad but make a conscious effort to shift your focus from the dire situation to the good that can come out of it and let that determine your next steps. That’s where it starts. Emotional positivity, on the other hand, happens internally over time when you start feeling more positive. That is, it takes practice. You get there by making a habit of decisional positivity, always asking how I can bring a positive spirit to this situation.
Any spiritual approach begins with getting intentional about expressing gratitude. The more explicit and varied you keep your gratitude list, the better off you are. It’s easy to carry a general sense of being grateful for food, family, shelter, and country. But to make gratitude a functional discipline, you must keep finding specific new things to be grateful for.
On our morning walks on Signal Hill, two pillars line either side of the Promenade. We call them the stones of appreciation. The idea is that every morning, we are supposed to look each other in the eye and say something we appreciate about the other person, but we can’t repeat something we’ve already said. At first, it was a little rough. I would aim for personality traits. “I love how you are with older people.” And she’d say, “I appreciate you did the dishes.” But it’s evened out over time, and we’ve been at it well over a year. It feels good to express and receive gratitude.
Find some ritual to make your stone of appreciation and be specific, detailed, and fresh every morning.
Being spiritually grounded—realizing that God is good and watching out for you and has got you no matter what comes.
This helps us keep things in perspective. Legendary football coach Lou Holtz was on to something when he said,
“10 percent of life is what happens, the other 90 percent is how you respond to it.”
Do you respond with faith and lean into its resources? Faith helps us maintain a more extensive perspective when things don’t go as we want. It helps us see that most of our problems are not that big of a deal in the long run. And we can always choose our attitude about how we share it.
Being generous with our time and resources helps us remember others are worse off than us, and it supercharges our positivity when we see that we can make a difference. Jesus taught us to serve and be humble on the Christian path because it leads to good things for others and ourselves.
But there is another kind of generosity that Bene Brown talks about, and that is generous assumptions. It’s natural when someone does something, we don’t like to assume what their motives were. If someone doesn’t respond to your email, instead of assuming they are rude or dismissive of you, have the best possible assumption. Maybe they were thinking about their response, and other things happened, and they just forgot. Try to default to thinking about the best of people instead of assuming they are intentionally trying to upset you.
Upgrade to the 5G plan because you want the best tech.
Focus on your strengths to get you through. Internal and external resources. When something challenging happens remind yourself that you are resilient, resourceful, and supported. It may take all our resources, but God gives you what you need.
Whatever is honorable, just, pure, pleasing. As Paul says, put your mind on these things. Practice your whatevers.