11/30/2011 08:25 am ET | Updated Jan 30, 2012

It's Time to Start Thinking Positively

It feels like the world is in a collective funk right now. A few years after the financial crisis began, we're still mired in a slow global economy. There is gridlock in the U.S. government. Politicians spend more time explaining why their opponents are wrong than they do trying to fix things. Even the sports news is filled with stories of drug use and sexual abuse.

What do we do?

At this point, we might want to take some advice from Monty Python and "look on the bright side."


The human mind is capable of getting into a vicious circle when times are bad. Classic research by Gordon Bower has demonstrated that memory depends on your mood. When you are happy, you are generally reminded of happy things and happy times. When you are sad, you are reminded of sad things and sad times. Further work by Ian Gotlib and his colleagues shows that these memories feed back to further influence your mood state. That is, when you're in a bad mood, you remember sad things. Those sad memories keep you sad.

But wait, it gets worse. Many things in life can be viewed either positively or negatively. A person who speaks up and gives his opinion can either be assertive (a positive characteristic) or aggressive (a negative one). Work by Tory Higgins shows that your mood also affects how you deal with this kind of ambiguity. When you are sad or angry, you will interpret the things going on around you more negatively.

And one more. When you are focused on the negative side of things, you often focus on rejecting options rather than selecting them. Witness what is happening with the GOP primaries now. Republican voters are focused on eliminating candidates rather than finding ones they like. Research by Eldar Shafir shows that when people are trying to reject options, they weigh the negative information about the options more heavily than the positive information.

Getting out of this funk, then, requires a bit of work. We all need to make a conscious effort to focus on the positive aspects of life and the glimmers of hope. You may have to do that with small things at first. During the holiday season, enjoy your time with family. Spend some time with children and see the world through their eyes. Listen to some upbeat happy music. Go out with friends.

And at the same time, try to focus your conversations about the world on positive things. Right now, it is too easy to slip into complaints about the government, the economy, and the prospects for world peace. When you find yourself in yet another discussion about the ills of the world, look for a positive spin. The more that you train yourself to focus on the good things in life, the more that you will see the hope in every situation.