It’s Sunday afternoon, the final day of my trial run as a positive thinker. The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and I am smiling behind my face mask. I am finally experiencing serenity. My thoughts, which are mostly about how to solve world hunger and the qualities I cherish in the people I love, occur to me in a calm and orderly fashion. I am not worried about the present or the future. I do not carry around guilt or shame attached to the past. I am not hungover. I am gently exuding positive energy and goodwill toward all of God’s creatures and receiving the same in return.
Just kidding. I’m inhaling a salad on a park bench while two men next to me talk about their recent rhinoplasties and thinking about how I’m going to reframe eavesdropping as “mindfully occupying the current moment.” But it’s a perfect sunny 60 degree spring afternoon, and I’m happy to be out test-driving my brand new attitude. For one week, I threw techniques to cultivate a positive attitude at the wall of my life to see what might stick. I went into the experiment hoping to come out with a slightly sunnier disposition—at least, as sunny as it could get without any professional or chemical assistance.
I am not a positive person. I’m not a downer per se, but my vibe is more “defensive pessimism”—when presented with a problem, my default coping mechanism is to work myself up envisioning the worst and then scramble to plan accordingly. When presented with a mild annoyance, my default reaction is to snipe and criticize—something that has been especially boring and detrimental during a pandemic when we’re all being huge, socially judgey bitches. I don’t want to say “Huh!” to myself when I see someone I went to summer camp with in 2009 visited their grandparents for Easter—and forgot to lint brush their pants for the ‘Gram. Why do I care? Free me from the shackles of my bad personality!
After one year of serious coping, I am run down and seeking relief. I’m tired of planning myself into a mental bomb shelter and freaking people out with my negative aura in the grocery store. Positive people seem happier than negative people; they seem like they’re always heading to the beach in a few days—imbued with energy and hopefulness and purpose. I want what they have, especially now that the good news of vaccination is slowly washing over the U.S. I thought a new mindset could ensure that I’m not a horrible, bitter jerk come summertime, when I expect to start comfortably socializing post-vax.
After doing some serious research (Googling “how to be positive,” “positive habits,” “how to have a positive attitude,” and “how to be happy” in rapid succession), I came up with a few habits I’d spend one day each focusing on. I also had a single through-line in my back pocket, one I’d already organically incorporated into my life: affirmations.
Most of the other tricks I tried have a little research and a lot of enthusiastic testimony to back them up, too—but are science and belief any match for my natural disposition? Might they be a match for yours? I’m positive there’s only one way to find out.
Day One: Meditation
I decided to start my positivity journey off with a practice most people are already familiar with: meditation. I’ve heard about the myriad benefits of meditation from Buddhist family members and super calm acquaintances alike for years, and I have stayed true to myself by totally blowing them off. I hate being bored, I’m not particularly focused, and I hate being alone with my thoughts—I can’t even go to sleep at night without listening to a podcast. According to the Mayo Clinic, regular meditation can be a major stress reliever, and can even help people manage symptoms of conditions like asthma, chronic pain, depression, heart disease, high blood pressure, or IBS. I was shooting for 30 minutes of guided meditation, but made it through exactly 3:32 of the first YouTube video I tried before I got distracted by my phone buzzing and opened my eyes. (It was a promotional email from Madewell.) I decided to aim a little lower. Acknowledging my own limits without judging myself—pretty positive thing to do, eh?
Inspired by the psychedelic pro-positivity Instagram account @afffirmations, whose creator I interviewed in February, I’ve found my daily affirmations to be a surprisingly grounding, pleasantly unhinged diaristic exercise. Plus, for what it’s worth, affirmations do have some scientific backup, including research linking daily affirmations to stronger neural pathways.
Since I do my daily affirmations at 4 p.m., I thought I’d pencil in my meditation session right after. This turned out to be a mistake, because a bunch of high schoolers practicing drumming in a nearby park made it a little difficult to envision warm, glowing light emanating from my body. I tried to tell myself that I wasn’t annoyed by the noise—who doesn’t love hearing teenagers play the drums? It was even a convenient excuse; my mind isn’t wandering to my to-do list because I’m undisciplined! Maybe I just have a drum-related chore my subconscious wants me to remember!
Meditation did not suffuse my body with calm but a few minutes after I stopped my 10-minute positivity sesh, one of my roommates texted me and asked if I wanted a cookie because she was popping a few in the oven. OK… attracting the energy I put out into the world much?
Day Two: Gratitude journaling
Gratitude journaling feels a lot like the next Pokémon evolution of affirmations. I tasked myself with writing about ten individual things that I am grateful for—affirmations are more of a “What am I actively freaking out about right now and how do I best lie to myself,” whereas gratitude journaling felt calmer and more reflective.
Another bonus? It’s super easy: an explanation on the benefits of gratitude journaling from the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley recommended spending 15 minutes once a week for at least two weeks in a row to see benefits like “more gratitude, positive moods, optimism about the future, and better sleep,” and said that journaling less—three times a week—might actually be more helpful than doing it daily. Fortunately, “low lift” is my middle name.
I tossed a solid ten minutes toward the people and things that make my life worthwhile, and it was a nice interruption to my daily soundtrack of worries about what my face actually looks like to other people, whether I’ll ever do anything interesting again, and whether my spouse will let my parents move in with us when they can’t live alone anymore. You know, normal, everyday worries.
After I gratitude journaled, a few things happened indicating I was indeed too blessed to be stressed: I remembered to water my plants and noticed that my orchid is en route to blooming again, and my mom texted me a picture of an owl.
While the gratitude journaling hit perfectly, on this day I also experienced my first positivity stumble: I typed out a whole extremely negative tweet about Major, Joe Biden’s dog who keeps biting people, and about the Twitter users defending him in CNN’s comments section. I stopped to reflect and spiked the tweet, but still dropped it into a group chat instead.
Oops! Sorry, Major. Sorry, positivity.
Day Three: Wake-up/bedtime yoga
No discussion of positivity would be complete without it: yoga, preferably at the crack of dawn. I do not rise with the sun, not even for content, so in the name of keeping a uniform wake-up time I opted for a little pre- and post-work yoga instead.
Normally, I do not like yoga. In fact, I kind of hate it. Pre-pandemic, I’d take the occasional yoga class because it technically checked the “exercise” box but didn’t actually tire me out. It never took, however, for one big reason: the lie-down portion of a yoga class where the instructor tells us to be proud of ourselves for accomplishing the Herculean feat of “doing some yoga” made me actively pissed, dissipating any calmness I’d accumulated over the previous, say, 25 minutes. You have no idea whether I “deserve this time” to “be with” my body, I’d grouch, eyes closed, brows knit together in anger. I could be a horrible person. You don’t know anything about who I am or how I move through the world.
This week, though, I swore I’d set those thoughts aside and focus on the “big breath in, big breath out, feel that s t r e t c h !” of it all with the help of pandemic all-star Yoga with Adriene. Despite a pretty restless night of sleep, I popped on her 11-minute “Wake Up Yoga” after rolling out of bed at 8:45 (a solid 40 minutes before my alarm usually goes off) and found it… fine. A little dull, and a little short. It didn’t change the course of my day or anything, but I did feel a little boost that let me push coffee back until around lunchtime—one of its purported benefits, according to Johns Hopkins medicine.
Did I carry the stress relief, balance, and flexibility yoga can grant its practitioners throughout my entire day? No, I did not. I had a series of positivity stumbles throughout the day, including but not limited to getting mad when Dunkin Donuts did not have the donut I’d ordered on the app, and making fun of a certain vice president’s daughter’s reaction to paparazzi attention with friends.
Adriene’s most popular “bedtime yoga” video, however, was a 20-minute banger that let me really commit to getting into the zone. I was skeptical of moving my body a bunch before bed time—especially after a shitty night of sleep—but the class involved a lot of lying down, to prepare me for the real thing later. I even automatically returned her class-ending “namaste,” something I have never been able to bring myself to do in person because it usually makes my skin crawl. Was I… changing? Become softer and nicer?
Day Four: Problem-solving “therapy”
Procrastination is a decidedly negative habit, often undergirded by anxiety. It’s also something I do every day of my dumb little life. In my positive vision of the future, that would change—so I tried a little DIY problem-solving therapy (can you tell I’m not seeing a professional right now?) to work my way there.
Based on a single blog post I read, problem-solving therapy seems to be a relatively broad umbrella set of tactics all based around the idea that deliberately building your skill set for identifying and methodically solving ‘problems’ is good. I decided to apply this during the 30-minute chunk of time in which I would knock out all the administrative tasks I’d been stalling on. I updated my insurance information with my dentist; activated a credit card; and paid off a bill related to lab work for something that rhymes with “QTI”—all things I’d been avoiding for at least a month. I even walked to my neighborhood Walgreens (the location that has replaced the grocery store as “my personal Hell” thanks to serious understaffing and a general fucked vibe) and felt tenderness for humanity when I watched one woman let another go ahead of her in line because the latter was late for work. I caught myself smiling on the walk home.
My good mood, however, did not last. After my Walgreens trip came perhaps my most humiliating stumble so far: I read a tweet out loud to myself, said “Shut the fuck up!” and muted the user. The tweet: “What is your ‘10/10 would recommend’ album?” a question so glaringly inoffensive that my knee-jerk reaction really took the wind out of my sails. I tried to do a little 10-minute positivity meditation when I clocked out of work as a gesture of atonement. It was even more boring than the first time I tried it.
Day Five: Positivity role models
Five days into my positivity journey, it was clear that I had a long way to go, and, as such, I needed to consult with the famously positive people who came before me. I started with a trifecta of videos that gel with my positive vision. First, this video of professional bowler Pete Weber winning a bowling championship and yelling, “Who do you think you are? I am!” in blind, quasi-coherent triumph:
While Weber might seem like a sore winner to the untrained eye, he is someone who clearly has a positive vision of himself. He also seems like he does affirmations. I love and admire him.
Next, this video of Snoop Dogg giving a speech in front of his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame:
I would also like to thank Snoop Dogg for this gratitude blueprint, and I would like to thank myself for my excellent taste in motivational videos.
Finally, this video of professional football player Marshawn Lynch having an awesome time at an Applebee’s and a Dave & Buster’s in Buffalo, New York:
I hadn’t seen this video until it popped up on my Twitter feed earlier this year, and I found Lynch’s guileless enthusiasm extremely aspirational. Some day, I too would love to be unable to decide if I prefer the ambiance or the decor of somewhere decidedly normal.
While these men bolstered me, I knew there was one positivity icon I’d be remiss not to spend some time with: Marianne Williamson. Williamson is a former presidential candidate, current and longtime spiritual thought leader, and the author of tomes such as A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles and Everyday Grace: Having Hope, Finding Forgiveness and Making Miracles. Considering the fact that she’s been criticized for… uh… a lot of stuff, the fact that those critiques have not once penetrated her apparent Kevlar armor of positivity is remarkable, if alarming.
Luckily, Williamson has ample resources available on her website and her YouTube channel, which is rife with book readings, online courses, and guided prayers or meditations, plus a few Zoom forums with various political figures. I opted for a couple of guided prayers, including one from May 2020, cryptically titled “A prayer for healing…”
As someone who was raised Catholic, I am a sucker for ultra-religious drama—I find it very beautiful, a little bit funny, and basically impossible to take seriously. Being guided in prayer by Williamson felt familiar—but while listening to her smoky tones, I found myself drifting like I used to in any other religious setting. I walked out of the exercise more positive than ever that I don’t have what it takes to experience ecstatic faith.
Still, I had a good day, because another, major factor was also in play: my fifth day of positivity was also a company-wide day off, which meant I whiled away the rest of my hours running errands, working out, planning and cooking dinner for my boyfriend, and watching a few deliciously mindless episodes of reality TV—basically, all of my favorite homebound activities.
It was dramatically easier to affirm that “I love relaxing and I’m great at it” and “my life is the perfect mixture of work and play” without looming deadlines, the urge to look at Twitter “for work,” or the Slack notification sound anywhere on my radar. Eliminate all of those (or, eliminate the fact that I need to work to eat) and I believe that I would be spending a lot more time exuding a warm and brilliant light, à la the queen Marianne.
Day Six: Smile a lot
According to VeryWellMind, there are a lot of medical benefits to frequent smiling, including mood elevation, immune system boosting, and even pain reduction. I did not anticipate having a very busy day six, since it was a weekend and I spend my weekends working on side projects and hanging out with my boyfriend inside, due to having no other options.
I have to be honest: This was probably my best day, but that has absolutely nothing to do with positivity and everything to do with the fact that the weekend is, simply put, better than the week. I did not notice any demonstrable difference in this specific Saturday thanks to a little extra smiling at the computer screen, except my face muscles got a little sore and my lips got a little chapped (does a frozen smile equal mouth-breathing for anyone else? Haha, me neither.) I believe the takeaway here is that it is actually more difficult than usual to change how positive one is, since being locked indoors neuters some of humanity’s most tried and true tactics, like smiling at each other. I just didn’t have the same opportunities to test my brand-new attitude as I would navigating a crowded subway, staring down a barista, or yelling at a guy to get the fuck away from me at a bar.
The biggest change I did notice was that I was not even mildly resentful about having to do something for work while not technically getting paid—a condition I normally avoid like the plague. I was actually a pretty good sport. Normally, I am a horrible sport. Progress, I think!
Day Seven: Appreciate the weather
As my positivity week came to an end, I was at a little bit of a loss with how to cap it all off. I didn’t feel bad, exactly, but I didn’t feel closer to impenetrable optimism, either. Luckily, it was super nice out which felt like a little bit of a free space on the Positivity Bingo board. I went for a protracted walk outside, inhaling deeply and dramatically as often as possible. I said hello to anyone who said hello to me. I actively smized at anyone who didn’t. I experienced the sun hitting my skin and thought actively about how nice it is to have skin and be in the sun.
Then I bought a salad and sat down in the park and did not mind my business at all when the two men I mentioned at the top of this story started talking about (I swear to God!) their respective nose jobs, how sore they still were, but how much easier breathing was now.
Being positive on purpose, constantly self-correcting, made me feel self-conscious in a way that was slightly counterintuitive. Being positive should not be… stressful. Instinctively positive people don’t spend time thinking, “What would a positive person do right now instead of what I’m doing?” They’re not performing. I definitely was.
Instinctively positive people are also still people, which means that like me, they’re impacted by external events. During my “positivity week,” I finally found out when I’d be eligible for the COVID vaccine, which made me feel amazing and more hopeful about my future than I had in months. The next day, yet another high-profile incident of anti-Asian violence in New York City was caught on camera and went viral on Twitter, which made me feel distinctly hopeless. I don’t believe that carefully cultivated positivity could have come close to that vaccine high, or warded off that existential low.
I do believe, however, that anyone determined enough could build a positive mindset slowly, habit by habit. But would doing so be “worth it”? Depends on how much free time you have, and how important being a “positive person” is to you. Even though all of these tasks were technically short, the mental load of anticipating them—plus correcting any thoughts in my head that verged on rude, ungrateful, selfish, passive aggressive, catastrophizing, jealous, spiteful, or judgmental—ultimately stressed me out. The exercise often made me feel like my instinctive reactions were “less than,” just because I’m not thrilled that, let’s say, nobody I live with took my psychic hint to do the dishes already, because we are very obviously out of forks.
I could see myself gratitude journaling again, or maybe throwing on a yoga video and striking some poses at home before then—but I know I’ll shut it off before the instructor thanks me for being there. That affectation still pisses me off, and I’m positive there’s nothing wrong with that.