I’ve just re-read Matthew Lieberman’s book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, and learned again some of the neuroscience (pp. 76-78) validating why an exercise like Positivity Portfolio can so powerfully heal our sense of self in relationship to other people.
We all have a need to belong. Signs that others like, admire, and love us are central to our well-being. Until very recently, we had no idea how the brains responds to these signs. Recent neuroimaging has changed that. While lying inside the bore of an MRI scanner, perhaps the most dramatic positive sign that we can get from another person, short of a marriage proposal, is to read something that person has written to express their deep affection for us….Being the object of such touching statements activates the ventral striatum in the same way that the other basic rewards in life do.
If positive social feedback is such a strong reinforcer, why don’t we use it more often to motivate employees, students, and others? Why isn’t it part of our employee compensation plans at work, for example? A kind word is worth as much to the brain in terms of rewards as a certain amount of money. So why isn’t it part of the economy, like all other goods we assign a financial value to?
The answer is that it isn’t yet part of our theory of what people find rewarding. We don’t understand the fundamentally social nature of our rains in general and the biological significance of social connection in particular. As a result, it’s hard to us to conceptualize how positive social feedback will be reinforcing within the most primitive reward systems in our brains.
The Positivity Portfolio below is based on the research of Barbara Fredrickson and other pioneers in the positive psychology movement. In her book Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive, [p.221] Fredrickson suggests,
Always keep [your portfolio] close at hand, in your briefcase, backpack or handheld. That way you can turn to it when you need it most. Maybe you’ll soon be stuck in a waiting room while a loved one has surgery. Maybe you’re about to give an important presentation to an unfamiliar audience. Maybe you’ve simply had a jam-packed stressful day at work and need to switch gears before you greet your family at home. Notice how engaging with [your portfolio] helps you to breathe easier, how it opens your heart and broadens your mind. Soon you’ll be thinking more expansively and compassionately.
Another key to keeping the shine on your positivity portfolio is to engage with it mindfully, with the single purpose of awakening your heart to the positivity you seek. Don’t just look at the contents of your portfolio; take time to engage with each [statement] deeply. Remember how you felt when you first [read each statement.] Breathe in that memory; let it permeate you as fully as possible. Let it resonate. Science has shown that mindful engagement with treasured objects keeps your positivity yield high.
Positivity Portfolio Exercise
Because our brains are so primed to feel a sense of reward when we receive approval, appreciation, genuine admiration and interest from others, strangers as well as colleagues and intimates, and because we can experience such a deepening of our own sense of self-appreciation and self-worth when we take in the sincere appreciation of others, this exercise is a powerful way to re-condition negative thoughts or criticisms of ourselves, rewiring into our habitual views of ourselves more positive and embracing views and strengthening the resources within of self-acceptance and self-worth to better deal with the stressors of life without.
1. Begin by asking 10 friends or co-workers to send you a card or an email with one or two sentences of what they genuinely appreciate about you. If you feel shy, you could even begin by emailing your friends first, sharing what you appreciate about them or about the friendship, and ask them to share in return what they appreciate about you. You can also gather appreciations like this from birthday cards or holiday cards.
2. Gather the comments onto a single sheet of paper, then tape the comments to your computer monitor or on the refrigerator. You can carry the comments around with you in your purse or wallet or on your phone.
3. Read each of these comments to yourself three times a day for 30 days. There’s no magic number in neuroscience about three times a day for 30 days; it’s simply an easy way to remember to do the exercise.
4. When you read these comments 3 times a day, take 30 seconds each time to take in the good of receiving this support and appreciation from people who know you and care about you. (Taking in the good is the advice of my friend and colleague Rick Hanson, and it’s excellent advice.)
5. If you read and savor the good of these comments three times a day for 30 days, you will create new circuitry in your brain that supports a more positive view of your self. And that newer view becomes a valuable resource every time you need to deal with difficulties in your life, and need to believe that you can deal with them.