Prosilience #25: Creating Lift
The art and science of positive energy spirals
I’ve been captivated by the idea of “lift” lately. The idea has come up in many different parts of my life, and in each case it describes something energizing and wonderful.
In Irish music, lift describes an intangible element that creates a sense of motion and flow, inspiring you to tap your foot and maybe even get up and dance. (Here’s how one musician describes it: “If the music has lift, it will make you feel like you're being raised from the floor and set down gently in the next spot, only to be raised right back up again and moved along.”) One big difference between a tune being played by a beginner and an experienced performer is this sense of lift. Just for fun, here’s a video by musician Tijn Berends that might give you a sense of what I’m talking about.
In sailing, lift describes the way the flow of the air across the sail propels the boat forward—and also how a slight shift in wind direction can help you head more directly to the place you’re trying to go. In a sailboat race, it’s a lovely sensation to feel the movement of the boat when it is lifted toward the windward mark.
As a verb, the term “lift” means to raise something up to a higher level. As a noun, it indicates a force that causes upward motion. There are many everyday examples of how this word is used—elevators, advertising, and even prayer—but I find that the music and sailing examples capture something that also includes a little bit of magic.
What comes to mind for you when you think of lift? What recent experiences have you had in which you had a sensation of rising to a stronger, healthier, and/or more productive state?
As I continue to explore the idea of resilience as a verb, it has become clear that the flow of energy in our minds and bodies tends to move in spirals. Because of the way our brain, gut, heart, and nervous system communicate with one another, one event, feeling, or sensation often leads quickly and often automatically to another one.
Some of these movements are downward spirals, in which a feeling such as anxiety or fear can lead to a sense of physical tension, a release of stress-related neurochemicals, an awkward interaction, thoughts of hopelessness, etc. When these spirals begin, they can create an energy drain and a sense of downward motion. Many mental health issues, including depression and chronic anxiety, are manifestations of patterns of interrelated symptoms that have become self-sustaining.
Spirals can also move in a rising direction. This happens when a feeling such as joy or satisfaction leads to other positive experiences—a meaningful conversation, a sense of relaxation and ease in the body, release of oxytocin and other anti-stress hormones, and thoughts of hope and possibility. Although positive spirals can become self-sustaining as well, leading to high and relatively stable states of well-being, this is somewhat more difficult to achieve. It turns out that our systems are wired to pay more attention to negative information than to positive information, so it’s easier to start a negative spiral than a positive one.
I think of “creating lift” as intentionally doing things to start positive spirals in ourselves and others. In a previous post I wrote about microboosts and gave examples of ways to get things moving in the right direction. Neuroscience research supports the idea as well—this book (The Upward Spiral) outlines strategies for reversing the course of depression by taking small, simple steps to intentionally break negative spirals and begin more positive ones.
Can you think of a time when you observed yourself moving into a negative spiral? How did it start, and what were some of the elements that combined to drain your energy? Have you observed this pattern in others?
Can you think of a time when you observed yourself moving into a positive spiral? How did it start, and what were some of the elements that combined to create “lift” in your sense of effectiveness or well-being? Have you observed this pattern in others? Are there things you have intentionally done to initiate positive spirals in yourself and/or others?
If you aspire to create lift in your own life, or to increase lift in the world around you as a parent, colleague, friend, leader, neighbor, community member, or citizen, one place to start is to pay attention to the balance between positives and negatives. This balance can show up in the interactions you engage in, the feedback you receive or provide, the information you take in or share, and many other aspects of day-to-day activities. Researchers have found that across a wide range of situations including marriage, employee creativity, and even agriculture, having positives outweigh negatives is a predictor of various desirable outcomes.
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The bottom line is that it’s worth taking the time to intentionally bring more positive emotions and interactions into the world. These can help people (including ourselves) slow down the pace at which negative symptoms create downward energy spirals, they can disrupt negative patterns that have begun to form, and they can initiate new spirals that move upward. Active positivity can take the form of generative questions, encouragement, appreciation, laughter, and a wide range of other actions.
Because human energy is the fuel for resilience, the more we can take steps to create patterns that lift and strengthen energy and break up patterns that drain and weaken energy, the better able we (and those around us) will be to weather the range of challenges we encounter.
How might you gauge the balance of positivity and negativity in a situation? What examples can you think of where a well-placed hug, encouragement, or compliment helped you shift gears? How might you focus your team, family, or community on active positivity?
But Not Too Much
Of course, positivity is in the eye of the beholder—so one important part of this process is to really understand the people around you, paying attention to what is meaningful and valuable to them, rather than just randomly throwing out happy thoughts. It’s important to acknowledge the reality of difficult circumstances, value the many facets of human experience, and encourage people to work through difficult feelings and situations. We need to remain grounded in reality.
Sailors and musicians know this too. Sailboats need keels that balance the forces of the wind on the sails and keep the boat moving forward rather than sliding sideways or flipping over. Music needs a steady tempo to keep things stable rather than speeding up and spinning out of control. And kites need tails and strings to keep them from flying off into the sky.
Creating lift is an art and a science…with a little bit of magic. Start paying attention to the places you see it and feel it, and to the ways in which you can become one of the forces that inspire upward motion.
What are your favorite ways of staying grounded and stabilized while also moving upward? What do you notice in others when you deeply connect with the things that light them up and bring them joy? How might you become more intentional about creating and experiencing lift in your own world?
I hope you’ve enjoyed this issue of the Prosilience newsletter! See you in a couple of weeks for the next installment.
Skeptical? You’re not alone. Early research in this field focused on finding a specific positivity ratio that served as a “tipping point,” and made unrealistic claims of precision in the ideal ratio. However, the general idea that (up to a point), counterbalancing our tendency to focus on the negative by actively seeking to increase genuine positive interactions and feelings has both common sense and data behind it.