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How the Positivity Effect Can Transform Your Life

Applying the new science behind hope, empowerment, resilience, and optimism.

Key points

  • Positivity is bidirectional. Putting good feelings into action increases positivity.
  • This so-called positivity effect creates a virtuous cycle; depression is a vicious one.
  • Surrounding yourself with positive people and experiences is one way to harness the power of positivity.

“And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.'" —Kurt Vonnegut

It has been said that positivity begets positivity. The positivity effect has been documented in studies dating back to the 1970s, and its effects can be seen in everything from social interactions to physical health.

The positivity effect is a psychological phenomenon whereby positive emotions and thoughts increase positive self-perceptions and improved self-esteem. This, in turn, leads to improved performance, which then reinforces positive emotions and thoughts. In other words, the positivity effect is a virtuous circle. When you put your positivity into action, the positive result fills you up. When this happens, we say that positivity is bi-directional.

Depression works in the opposite way. When depression robs you of your energy and promotes isolation, lack of motivation, and inaction, it creates a downward cycle. I do nothing because I’m depressed, and I’m depressed because I do nothing. The positivity effect creates a virtuous cycle—depression is a vicious one.

Positive emotions tend to broaden our thinking and allow us to see more possibilities (as researcher Barbara Fredrickson has suggested.) Whereas negative emotions narrow our thinking and responses. Positive emotions build resources; negative ones restrict them. When we feel or act threatened, we will fight, flight, or freeze—attack, run away, or play dead. Being negative leaves us with few options.

The positivity effect is a powerful tool that can help us navigate life's challenges more easily and gracefully and seems related to age. One curious finding from the pandemic is that it hit younger people psychologically harder than their parents or grandparents. The reason? As you age, you develop tools and tricks to cope with adversity, disappointment, and setbacks. You also know how to cultivate hope. According to research, the positivity effect is rooted in how our brains process information. When we focus on positive stimuli, such as happy memories or uplifting experiences, our brains are more likely to retain that information and use it to shape our perceptions of the world around us. This is because positive emotions activate the reward centers of our brains, which in turn release dopamine and other feel-good chemicals that reinforce positive associations. As a result, we are more likely to seek out positive and avoid negative experiences, leading to a more fulfilling and satisfying life. The key to all of this is being able to shift one’s perception. In my latest TEDx talk, I used this example to make the point.

Dan Tomasulo
An unlucky number? Or something else?
Dan Tomasulo

The two lines in the very center of this image can be interpreted as a very unlucky number 13, or the Letter B. They are simply two lines, but the context through which you look at them provides the meaning. Pessimists, and people with depression or anxiety tend to see negativity. It is as if their glasses are filled with dark gray. Their world is filled with threats and difficulty. But with a little bit of training and practice another way of seeing is possible. What is perceived doesn’t change, but how it is does.

Positivity effects are not limited to individuals—they can also be seen in groups. For example, studies have shown that happy people are more likely to help others and be helpful themselves, and that they are also more likely to cooperate with others. This is vitally important in work, medicine, education, sports, and entrepreneurship.

The positivity effect is a phenomenon that has been studied by many leading psychologists and scientists. It has been found that the more positive emotions and thoughts we experience, the more likely we are to have better mental and physical health, motivation, energy, engagement, better relationships, and greater success in life. By focusing on positive thinking and developing an attitude of optimism, we can enjoy a more fulfilling life and become the best versions of ourselves. By focusing on the positive aspects of your experiences, you can improve your mood, boost your self-esteem, and enhance your overall well-being. By intentionally focusing on the positive aspects of a situation, we can shift our mindset and attitude towards one of hope, empowerment, resilience, and optimism collectively known as “psychological capital” and conveniently spell out the acronym HERO.

Surrounding yourself with positive people and experiences is one of the most effective ways to harness the power of positivity. When you are surrounded by people who radiate positivity, it becomes easier for you to adopt the same mindset. You begin to see the world through a more optimistic lens and start to believe that good things are possible. Positive experiences also have a similar effect on our mindset. When we engage in activities that bring us joy and fulfillment, we are more likely to feel positive and optimistic about life. This positivity then spills over into other areas of our lives, making us more resilient in the face of challenges and setbacks. It's important to be intentional about the people and experiences we surround ourselves with, as they have a profound impact on our mental and emotional well-being. By prioritizing positivity in our lives, we can create a ripple effect of happiness and positivity that extends far beyond ourselves.

Being with positive people is one of the most direct ways to increase psychological capital and thereby the positivity effect. But what if they aren’t around when a difficult situation arises? You can begin with a simple sentence designed to challenge your perception. When a situation appears negative to you pause and say to yourself: “There is another way to look at this.” This sends your thinking down a different path—and is likely to be the beginning of helping to remove those dark gray glasses.


Tomasulo, D. (2023). The Positivity Effect: Simple CBT Skills to Transform Anxiety and Negativity into Optimism and Hope

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