• Alicia Assad

This is Why I'm so Positive

Choice #2: I believe in the power of positivity.

Recently a friend said to me,

“I’m just so negative and you’re just so positive.”

I was shocked by this perspective of a fellow mom who has seen me irrationally anxious, crying my eyes out, and ungracefully managing a temper tantrum….

Despite years of friendship where I have been my authentic self, her perception is that I am "more positive" and my positivity is unattainable to her. I just want to note that she is a woman I admire for many reasons, and since she made this comment, I’ve been insisting,

"I am just as ‘negative' as you. I work hard at being happy."

Yes, after years of striving for, studying, and working hard at happiness, it’s become easier to maintain an optimistic perspective. While I do have my moments of negativity (this is natural and OK) I am happier than I have ever been and generally, I am positive.

I feel it’s important to tell you this, because if you haven’t seen me in my rather ungraceful states, and you peer at some of my nice pictures or read my “positive” words then you might assume I am serially happy.

Take for example, this photo you will find on my About Page:

Photos by JLM

What if I told you the morning of the day I took this photo I was feeling particularly frantic over something? I was NOT in a good mood. But I processed my anxiety, did what I needed to take care of myself, and pulled myself together just in time to take photos for my website.

The smile you see above is genuine, because I was laughing at my toddler who was running towards me saying something really cute. This is the joy of motherhood captured by a talented photographer.

Point being, I DO NOT look this genuinely happy all day, every day. However, this fleeting moment of positive emotion is what I strive to infuse my life with and in motherhood, I find an abundance of reasons for joy, gratitude, and love.

While happiness is a complicated matter that requires more than just “being positive," when you understand the science behind the positive emotions we experience and why they are good for us, you might be inspired to start striving to be more positive too.

I find empirical validation gives me motivation I need to create and keep my healthy habits: I eat lots of veggies because I know they are good for my body and I aim to experience lots of positive emotions because science tells me they will enrich my life and make me more resilient.

But before I even begin to explain how I became “so positive," I want to clarify:

  • I want to be happy.

  • I’ve learned how to be happy.

  • I work hard at being happy.

If you read last week’s post on vulnerability you’ll understand I am referring to grit and growth mindset, which are the science-based reasons that inspire me to believe we all can thrive in motherhood.

Indeed, you can be happy too (or happier than you are now) if you want to be. That's why I want to tell you about HOW I've arrived at a place in my life where I can finally say,

"I'm happy."

Positive psychology (the science of happiness or what makes a life worth living) is the foundation of WHOLE in Motherhood: The 7 Choices I make to be a Resilient Mom. That's why in Choice #2, I'll explain what I've studied and why simply believing in the power of positivity is the foundation of my happiness.

This is why I choose to believe

in the power of positivity:

1. We can learn to be Positive.

Since I wanted to understand happiness, I found myself a student in the third graduating class to earn a master of applied positive psychology (MAPP) degree at The University of Pennsylvania.

The first privilege I experienced as a MAPP student was a lecture by Marty Seligman, who in his 1998 inaugural speech as president of the American Psychological Association called for the field of psychology to start looking beyond how to fix what's broken and start understanding how we can enhance what is normal or good. Two years later, the field of positive psychology was born, and today, there is an abundance of research that tells us specifically how to flourish in life.

You can learn more positive psychology in Seligman's 2008 TED Talk, where he explains why he shifted his focus from understanding how to make "miserable people less miserable" to understand how to make normal people happier. He was once best known for his work on Learned Helplessness, but he became passionate about increasing positive affect in his own life after his daughter insisted he needed to stop being such a grouch. Then he went onto write a book called Learned Optimism, and as the founding father of positive psychology, he's devoted his life to making the world a happier place.

Seligman's mission to understand happiness and bring positive psychology to the world is explained in Authentic Happiness, and Flourish reveals how his theory on happiness has evolved into a conversation about well-being. In Flourish, he posits there are five important building blocks of well-being and happiness he calls "PERMA":

  • Positive emotion (feeling good)

  • Engagement (being completely absorbed in activities)

  • Relationships (being authentically connected to others)

  • Meaning (purposeful existence)

  • Accomplishment (a sense of accomplishment and success)

Seligman's work has greatly influenced my motherhood experience (in a positive way). Therefore, my thoughts on how we can be WHOLE in Motherhood is based on PERMA, but what I want you to remember is that any of us can learn to be more positive if we want to be.

Now, I'll tell you why.

2. Positive Emotions can transform our lives.

When I experience a negative emotion, here is what I notice happens:

Fear and anxiety makes me constrict, avoid and shut down.

When I experience a positive emotion:

A hug from my child makes me feel warm, secure, and more open.

The influence and importance of positive emotions is exactly what Barbara Fredrickson explains with her Broaden and Build Theory. While negative emotions protect us, she explains how the positive emotions we experience initiate an upward spiral where happiness can become a reality. Things like joy, serenity, gratitude, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe, and love drive personal growth and flourishing.

Specifically, she tells us (video links included if you want to delve deeper):

If you read her book, Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the Upward Spiral That Will Change Your Life, you’ll learn how to see new possibilities, bounce back from setbacks, connect with others, and become the best version of yourself by harnessing the power of positive emotions.

3. Positivity is practical in motherhood.

Literally the same afternoon I completed my coursework to earn my master's in positive psychology, I saw two blue lines on a stick:

Enter motherhood.

For all my knowledge about ratios, authentic happiness, and how resilience works, I still tried to be the happiest mom EVER (and eradicate negativity from my life), because I wanted to be the most perfect mom ever (I was scared to death and I just assumed a perfect mom was a good mom).

This is NOT what positive psychology tells us to do: I was a flawed practitioner back then, but I've learned from my mistakes. Anyway, since serial happiness didn't work (enter postpartum anxiety and unhappiness), I've been determined to get this application of positive psychology in motherhood right.

For nearly a decade now, I've been contemplating mostly what is practical and easy in the trenches of motherhood.

That's right, I said "practical" and "easy," so I’m not going to tell you to try and engage in "serenity" because that is so not an easy positive emotion to channel in the chaos of motherhood.

I'm also not going to recommend you go on a week-long meditation retreat to Tibet to find your happiness....

I am a stay at home mom of four who has surrendered into motherhood, and still figured out how happiness works. I am practical so I lean on what's easy and abundant beginning with: Love and Gratitude.

The Takeaway:

1. Focus on the LOVE you naturally feel in motherhood.

Fredrickson's most recent book, Love 2.0: Finding Happiness and Health in Moments of Connection explains that even more than happiness and optimism, LOVE holds the key to improving our mental and physical health as well as lengthening our lives.

If love is our most powerful emotion, and it's abundant in motherhood, we need to leverage what we've got. When I lean on love, I find it's pretty darn easy to be positive because maternal love is natural and powerful:

A hug. A kiss….a moment of laughter with your kid….engage in it, really feel it. Hone in on it. Use it. Snuggle more and worry less. Trust and believe that emotion alone might be enough to offset what is hard.

A recurring theme in my writing is to "Just show up with love" and now you know it's Fredrickson's research on positive emotions is behind my insistence that, "Love is what always makes me strong enough and good enough in motherhood."

2. Bask in Gratitude.

I have written extensively about how gratitude sustained me in a difficult experience. Time and again, I find that simply searching for my blessings is enough to create that upward spiral of positive emotions Fredrickson's research tells us is possible and transformative.

Just in case you aren't convinced, I'll give you Seligman's 1 minute explanation of Three Good Things (which I lean on all the time). Then, I'll leave you with the though that gratitude is so powerful, just the act of searching for our blessings changes us for the better (even if you can’t find one, you are still a bit more positive than you were before this gratitude attempt). And my favorite gratitude book is Thanks! (How the new science of gratitude can make you happier) by Robert A. Emmons.

As hard as it is to be a mom, I consider it a privilege to be a parent and therefore on my worst days have four obvious reasons for gratitude because of the children who call me, "Mom."

Positive emotions alone are not enough to sustain an authentically happy life. We need things like meaning, hope, engagement, and to follow our calling. We must be self-compassionate and have a routine of self-care (especially in motherhood) and this is a sampling of what I will explore in the weeks to come.

Regardless, I think in any moment or situation, if we are aware of the power of positive emotions and how they can transform our lives, we might reach harder for them. At the very least, simply believing in the power of positivity is where my well-being began.

With love and gratitude,