A couple of years ago I learned about a Positive Psychologist named Barbara Frederickson and her concept of Broaden and Build Theory. This was a light-bulb-epiphany-penny-dropping moment for me. It was also an extremely confronting moment, but seriously life changing and the best thing that has ever happened to me. I hope that this information will also serve you in a similar manner and help you to change your life for the better.
The Spiral Affect
Before I talk about Broaden and Build Theory, first you must understand something very important about the brain and how biologically it has a tendency to focus on negatives more than positives. This is because it needs to, to keep you safe. Once upon a time before we were a civilised nation, we ran around with sticks and lived in caves. Our brains had to be alert to negative clues of danger to keep us from being eaten by lions and tigers and other such beastly animals. Our brain evolved to focus on those negatives at an unconscious level in order to keep us alive. Now that we are civilised however, we do not face these physical dangers to our lives every day. Due to the way our brain evolved though it still focuses on negatives and danger because that is how it was designed to function and it serves a purpose for when we are in a dangerous situation. The problem with this is that today’s danger is mostly just an emotional threat. So biologically we now have this tendency to naturally focus on negatives and emotionally dangerous situations more than we do positive situations. Negative feelings often hit us harder than positive feelings and we spend more time focused on a negative situation or emotion than a positive one. Understanding that this is a biological predisposition will help you to understand the imbalanced ratio that many people and society as a whole focus on.
Broaden and Build
The next part for you to understand is the concept of Broaden and Build Theory which examines how thought patterns either spiral and grow up or spiral and grow down. So in other words: the small, seemingly insignificant moment by moment passing thoughts that we have every single day, of every single moment, actually have the capacity to and do – often without our conscious realisation – either spiral up or down, depending on their nature and origin. So essentially this means that if I wake up late and start rushing around to get ready but I spill something I will then become even more annoyed and start thinking things like “great, of all the days to spill something it has to be today when I’m already late, this sucks”. By the time I get on the highway to find myself stuck in morning traffic I’ll be peaking road rage profanities with the ease of an excited puppy with a new toy, fuelling my downward spiral even more. By the time I arrive to work frustrated and flustered I will have a higher chance of taking something a co-worker says in jest offensively. Due to my negatively framed mindset I may snap at them and this may cause an argument. By this time anything slightly undesirable will be heightened and exaggerated and my mindset will became progressively worse throughout the day at anything that “doesn’t go my way” because I am now focused on how terrible things are and I am stuck in a mind frame that will naturally spiral downwards more and more. The only way for it to stop and go back in the other direction is if something wonderful happens to change my mindset (like I win something or get a promotion – which is highly unlikely if I react so strongly to negative situations all of the time) or if I actually put some effort into pushing it in the other direction to take control of my own thought patterns. Without putting in this effort however, if things go wrong throughout the day more and more, by the time I get home I am going to be a pissed off mess looking for a bottle of wine to drown my sorrows, wanting to blame my life’s miseries on everybody else.
Don’t get Caught in the Negative Whirl-wind
This is how the term FML (**** my life) actually developed and it is because the spiral in a negative mind gets more and more focused on only negatives, the deeper down the vortex that it goes. This is also how depression takes over. Usually it is something quite adverse or traumatic that triggers the onset of depression. The negative mindset after a trauma or adversity is much more susceptible to the downward spiral and this spiral then becomes tunnel vision when it gets low enough. A person stuck in this negative tunnel vision that forms the lowest part of the downward spiral, often sees nothing but darkness and negativity. They are so focused on the negatives that they can’t see any positives anymore. They remain stuck, without even realising that they helped put themselves there in the first place by not counteracting the brains’ biological tendency to focus on negatives which would have helped to overcome the adversity. They also do not know that they can help themselves get out of this tunnel vision and that the negative hurricane spiral of their brains neural pathways can be altered at any given moment with conscious effort.
This totally describes the old me prior to finding out about Broaden and Build Theory and realising that I can be in control of my thought patterns, as long as I put in the effort to do so. I was suicidal for 12 years and had clinical depression for a total of 17 years. I was raised by parents who were negatively focused and I was never taught any other way. When several traumas and adversities occurred one after another, I spiralled down the hurricane very quickly and stayed there for a very long time. I just did not know any different and that I could actually help my brain to focus on positives if I practised on a daily basis. Once I attained the understanding of how the brain biologically focuses on negatives more than positives I was then equipped to counteract that biological predisposition. I now choose to take control over my thoughts and actions and instead of letting them spiral downward out of control, I deliberately push them upwards so that my day and my overall mindset gets better instead of worse. After 6 months of consciously focusing on the positives and the things in life that I was taking for granted every single day (instead of focusing on what I didn’t like in my life and the bad things that had happened to me) I was able to get off anti-depressants. To this day, after almost 2 years I still consciously focus on and deliberately create new positive things to experience instead of focusing on obstacles that obstruct my happiness. I can actually feel the changes in my outlook in life and the way my brain functions. I do not have depression anymore for the first time in my life since the age of 12, but I am aware that if I was to start focusing on negatives again, I could easily spiral back down. Everybody has the power to do this, it is just up to you whether you choose to put the ongoing effort in and make a positive change in your life or if you choose to focus on negatives and create bigger obstacles than what is necessary.
About the author: Jamie views Positive Psychology as her lifes’ calling – to help change the world. She is the 47th person in the world to finish the only government accredited Diploma of Positive Psychology and Wellbeing in existence. She has designed a free 21-day Happiness Program to introduce people to retraining their brain for greater happiness. www.thehappinessninja.com.au