AS GOOD AS YOUR WORD
USING MORE POSITIVE LANGUAGE CAN MAKE A BIG DIFFERENCE TO YOUR LIFE, REAWAKENING YOUR CONFIDENCE AND BOOSTING YOUR HAPPINESS
How do you feel right now? Think for a second and observe the words that come to mind. If you replied along the lines of “Fantastic thanks, everything’s going great,” then well done – you are likely to have lower stress levels, better health and more success in life, love and just about everything than many of us more pessimistic souls. If, on the other hand, your reply was more in the “Alright I suppose/can’t complain/mustn’t grumble” camp, it might be time to start reframing some of those responses. As inconsequential as they might seem, negative thoughts and words can have a huge impact on almost every aspect of our lives.
These are the findings of neuroscientists Dr Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman, whose book, Words Can
Change Your Brain (Penguin) expounds the power of the words we use and how they can shape our lives – for better or worse. “A single word… such as ‘peace’ or ‘love’… has the power to regulate physical and emotional stress,” they write. Conversely, negative words such as “No”, “I can’t”, “I’m useless”, “terrorism” and “drought” stimulate the amygdala, our brain’s fearcentre ( hard-wired to react as if faced with a physical or existential threat) to release stress hormones. “These chemicals immediately impair logic, reason, language processing and communication,” they write.
It’s not just the words we say out loud that affect us, either. The voices inside our heads that cheer us on or – more likely – criticise our every move, can be incredibly potent. And while the odd negative thought or phrase might not do much harm, they have an alarming propensity to breed. Consider how many of the following apply to you: have you moaned about the weather, or the traffic, or your boss today? Have you checked in on Instagram or Facebook, and felt that you weren’t pretty/thin/ happy/clever/successful enough? How many sentences have you started with “sorry”? Chances are you will have done at least one, if not all, of these things – and therein lies the problem. The more houseroom we give to negativity, the stronger its effect and the harder it becomes to escape its influence.
But if we can silence our inner doom-monger and think and speak more positively, the benefits are manifold. A recent study by Harvard School of Public Health found that people who look on the bright side have fewer heart problems and lower cholesterol levels. Research from Duke University found that MBA graduates for whom the glass was half full were more likely to find jobs than those who believed it was half empty. The same study also found that optimists tend to earn higher starting salaries than pessimists and are also promoted more frequently.
In part, this is because if we sound happy and confident, others respond more positively towards us, something it’s especially important for women to remember. How often have you sat in a meeting and noticed yourself, or a female colleague, saying something along the lines of “I don’t know much about this, but…”, or “This is just my opinion, but…” According to Dr Judith Baxter, linguistics expert and author of The Language of Female Leadership (Palgrave
Macmillan), these are typical examples of Double Voice Discourse and Out-of-Power Language – language that self-deprecates to avoid appearing arrogant or argumentative. But they give the impression of being less powerful, confident or decisive and devalue our opinion. And why would we want to do that? BREAKING THE PATTERN So how can we break the pattern of negativity? Happily, it’s easy to do. The trick is simply to replace those negative words with more positive ones. So stop saying “fine” – and start thinking “great”. Replace “should” with “could”. Don’t just try to do something, do it. And cease labelling yourself as too anything and start celebrating your strengths and achievements. Do it now to see how simple it is. Read the words on the opposite page aloud. Now try those above on this page – which should make you feel better…
For the more reserved among us, such wholesale positivity seems at best unfounded and naïve and, at worst, like cheating or even lying. If this is how you feel, some of the tactics used by cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) practitioners can help. First, for every negative thought you have about yourself, ask yourself if it’s true? Are you really a “failure”? Think about all the times you have succeeded in life. Are you really “unqualified” for your job, or do you in fact have a lot of relevant experience? Then try to turn your negative thoughts into positives, so ‘I’m too quiet’ becomes ‘I’m a good listener’. ‘I’m too loud’ becomes ‘I’m gregarious and enthusiastic’. Soon you’ll start to see that everything depends on the lens through which it is viewed. The only people we’re cheating by maintaining relentless negativity are ourselves. TALKING YOURSELF UP The joy is that it doesn’t even matter if the positive things you tell yourself are true or not – the mere act of saying them lifts your mood. You might consider yourself the world’s worst singer or dancer, but tell yourself you’re good – or better, great – and not only will you start to believe it, but others will respect you, too. It’s not so much about pretending, more about acknowledging that all value judgments, yours included, are ultimately no more than opinions.
“The longer you concentrate on positive words, the more you begin to affect other areas of the brain [changing] your perception of yourself and the people you interact with,” write Newberg and Waldman. “A positive view of yourself will bias you towards seeing the good in others, whereas a negative self-image will incline you toward suspicion and doubt.”
“The limits of my language are the limits of my world,” said philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Or, as American businesswoman Mary Kay Ash once said, “If you think you can, you can. If you think you can’t, you’re right.” The truth we believe is that which we tell ourselves, so go on, tell yourself – and the world – a happy story, and watch as it comes true.