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  • Writer's pictureThe Grateful Academic

Dialling up the positivity switch in our brains

Updated: Mar 17, 2023

Have you ever considered that the way we think about something, might actually be able to change how it feels? This blog is all about the power of positivity.


positivity / poz-i-tiv-i-tee / noun

the quality of having an optimistic attitude


The idea of a positive mental attitude has been part of my mantra for decades. I definitely like to think of the glass as half-full rather than half-empty, however I also realise I am a person quite driven by and affected by my emotions. This isn't a bad thing, but it can mean the emotions generated by my work can feel negative or overwhelming.

I attended a relaxation session the other day that was specifically designed for academics. During the session, the lead acknowledged that the likely feelings we might have brought with us were those of stress, overwhelm and challenge. They let us sit with those feelings just briefly and then encouraged us instead to channel joy, patience and gratitude. But they didn't just say be joyful, be patient, be grateful. What they did was really rather clever and for me a light bulb moment in managing the daily pressures of being a busy academic.

The technique began by encouraging us to think of a time when we had felt one of these positive emotions - joy, patience or gratitude - in our lives, whenever that might have been, and to focus on it.

We then had to imagine we had a dial or switch inside our brain where we could actively and intentionally 'dial up' this positive feeling, no matter what we were actually feeling in the present moment about our academic life.

To start with, this seemed unrealistic as my overriding feelings that week were fatigue, and time pressure. I had a very long to do list, none of which was making me feel much joy, patience or gratitude. In fact the feelings generated by my to-do-list meant I had very nearly skipped the relaxation session altogether!

I realised I had let my mind wander from the task.

I brought myself back to the moment.

The first step was easier. I could indeed imagine a time when I had felt these positive emotions. I noticed myself smile, it felt good.... but my mind soon wandered back to my to-do-list.

I refocused.

Then something really surprising happened. I took a deep breath and honed in on the imaginary dial in my brain to turn up my feelings of joy. To my surprise, as I concentrated very quickly my brain was flooded with images of things that made me happy; family, successes at work, the fact that spring is near, the warmth of the sunshine coming through the adjacent window. The thoughts were fast and a little mixed but they were flooding my mind, and drowning out my to-do-list for the first time in ages. It felt joyful and I was grateful for it.

This short moment of calm taken at the start of my academic day, stayed with me not just for the next few minutes or hours, but the whole day. I was more able to look at my to-do-list, and have patience not only with others but with myself. I was more productive, and that led to a cycle of feeling more positive.

Now in those moments of overwhelm, which will definitely still occur in my academic role, I have a short and powerful relaxation tool, where I can take a brief break from the task at hand, stop and dial up my joy, patience or gratitude, thus allowing me to carry out my day with more productivity and more importantly positivity.

Top Tips for channelling positivity

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