Information is only useful when it helps you reach productive conclusions and take effective action. Information that is limited or irrelevant will hamper your ability to create positive outcomes and keep your positive energy flowing. How do you know what information to pay attention to and what information to disregard?
The answer, interestingly, comes from research on marriage and divorce. Initially studies focused on unhappy marriages with the objective to learn how to avoid divorce. Not surprisingly, these studies revealed that in unhappy marriages neither partner understood the other well. From this perspective, the advice to strengthen a marriage was for each spouse to make a clear-eyed assessment of the other in terms of strengths, weaknesses and values.
While it seems sensible that an accurate understanding of who your partner really is would prevent divorce, it turns out that this is not the best practice. In the past two decades, investigation has shifted away from unhappy marriages and towards identifying the distinct characteristics of great marriages. The idea is to discover what lies at the core of these great marriages in order to help people build more lasting, rewarding relationships.
In his book The One thing You Need to Know, Marcus Buckingham summed up the research this way: Find the most generous explanation for each other’s behaviors and believe it. Thus, the happiest spouses aren’t the most objective. On the contrary, happy spouses choose to focus on positive aspects, creating an upward spiral of love.
How can you apply this finding to unleashing your positive energy? Think back to the Cherokee chief’s story of the positive and negative wolves. At the heart of this parable is the notion of choice, in this case, choosing your perception. Gathering data in an objective, unbiased fashion is only the first step. Your positive energy lies in how you choose to perceive that data. If you want to feel happy and put yourself on an upward spiral to experience a positive outcome, then you want to deliberately focus on a “generous explanation.”
This seems easy in theory, but harder in practice. For example, if you live with someone long enough, they will drive you crazy. Work with someone for a long time and they will get on your nerves. Even if this person is the love of your life, or the best friend you ever had, at some point they will become problematic. You will be staring at your negative wolf! Guaranteed. Why?
Because one day those quirks, idiosyncrasies, and eccentricities that you once found adorable, or at least tolerable, will become unbearable. This is likely to happen when you are under stress, when tasks are piling up or when someone else is also driving you crazy. Under these circumstances, your best friend becomes a pain, your spouse becomes insufferable and your boss becomes inhuman.
Notice that the person in question is now a pain in your neck not because of a change in their personality, but because of a change in your perspective. When you are stressed out, tired, worried, or frustrated, for example, your brain misinterprets incoming data, which results in negativity, distorted perceptions, invalidation and criticism. All you can see in another person is the negative aspects. It’s as if your brain is shining a spotlight only on the negative, so that is the only information you are paying attention to. No wonder your positive energy is shut off!
What can you do to get yourself into a positive flow? Try this experiment the next time you are on a downward spiral, angry or annoyed at an individual or situation in your life. Initially, you may not be able to find any positive aspects in these circumstances because your brain will not let you focus on those particular details. The first step to finding the positive aspects of a difficult situation may be to get yourself in a more neutral position. You can do this by focusing on the positive aspects in other areas of your life. These might include your children and home, nature, an upcoming trip, a successful project. Once your positive pump is primed, your brain will begin to see things in a more constructive and generous way. You are now ready to find the positive aspects and get your positive energy flowing again.
(Look for Part 2 to discover the powerful tool of reframing.)