Positive or Negative? It’s Your Choice

Originally published on Linkedin.com on September 1, 2016 By Daniel Goleman
Larry David created the TV hits Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. While David lived most of his life in Los Angeles, he came from Brooklyn. One year, while filming a show in New York City, he went to a baseball game at Yankee Stadium. During a lull in the game, cameras sent his image up to gigantic Jumbotron screens. The entire stadium of fans stood to cheer him. Later that evening, as David was leaving, someone leaned out of a passing car and yelled, “Larry, you suck!” On his way home, David obsessed about that comment, wondering who the guy was, why he would say something like that. It was as though those fifty thousand adoring fans didn’t exist, just that one critical guy.
Focus on the Negative… or the Positive?
You probably know people like David, those who regularly focus on the negative instead of the positive in any situation. Replaying negative thoughts over and over in your head does more than make you unhappy in the moment. Research shows that such ruminating rewires your brain to make it easier for you to think negative thoughts in the future. Just like walking across a lawn beats down a path in the grass, repeated negative thinking builds up the pathway between the parts of your brain that attend to the negative.
Fortunately, the reverse is also true. Focusing on the positive can build your capacity for seeing the good around you.
High Performing Leaders Have a Positive Outlook
Being skilled at seeing the positive, even in adverse situations, is one aspect of emotional intelligence that distinguishes high performing leaders. Sigal Barsade, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, mentioned this in a recent Harvard Business Review article. She referred to research that shows the connection between positive emotions and better performance, quality, and customer service. This is true regardless of role, industry, or organizational level.
Positive Outlook is one of twelve emotional and social intelligence competencies I explore with colleagues in my forthcoming video series, Crucial Competence: Building Emotional and Social Leadership. Leaders with this skill recognize the opportunity in every situation and see other people positively. Looking ahead, they expect changes in the future to be for the better.
How to Build a Positive Outlook
Just as repeatedly thinking about mistakes reinforces the brain path to future negative thoughts, you can strengthen the connections to positive ones. Here are some basic steps to direct your mind toward the positive.
1)   Notice your mind is focused on negative thoughts, perhaps the downturn in sales, or that you’re complaining to an officemate about your recent less-than-stellar performance review.
2)   Redirect your attention to something positive in the moment, such as the warmth of the coffee cup in your hand or an appreciative email message you received from a coworker.
3)   Consider positive interpretations of the situation that felt negative. Was the downturn in sales related to a one-time situation that has now changed? Will the new marketing plan boost sales? The performance review wasn’t all bad. Remind yourself of the positive comments, and tell your officemate about some concrete actions you will take to improve.
Practice Makes Positive
The Notice and Redirect steps are the basic mental moves of mindfulness meditation. Practicing mindfulness helps build positive outlook as well as two other emotional intelligence competencies: Emotional Self-Awareness and Emotional Self-Control.
I talked about the brain science behind emotional intelligence in a conversation for Crucial Competence with my friend and colleague Richard Davidson. Dr. Davidson is a neuroscientist who directs the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He pointed out research that shows the importance of an area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. He said, “We know there are some strategies which activate the prefrontal cortex. We know that certain kinds of mindfulness meditation practices will result in increased prefrontal activation over time. These are circuits that are really important for positive outlook but also for emotion regulation and for attention. So, there’s a whole set of abilities which are impacted by strengthening the prefrontal cortex.”
It’s your choice, to attend to the negative or the positive. By redirecting your thoughts to the positive, you can build your emotional intelligence.