5 facts about positive affect for 2021

After the unrelenting negativity of 2020, we may need a refresher on the benefits of a positive affect.

5 facts about positive affect for 2021
Credit: Antonioguillem / Adobe Stock
  • 2021 won't reset the ills of 2020, but for many it's become a symbol of a fresh start.
  • A positive affect is contagious, correlates with better health, and leads to more supportive social connections.
  • However, positivity must be balanced with realism if it is to improve our well-being.

    • The year 2020 was an unrelenting nightmare of negative stimuli. The coronavirus hit early and, in coastal cities like Seattle and New York, hit hard. Daily news reports tallied a death toll that today accounts for more American lives lost to coronavirus than battles in World War II. Unemployment reached unprecedented levels just as schools rushed to implement remote-learning contingencies. Then there were the violent displays of racial inequality, the revelations of America's devastating health gaps, and widespread disasters that hit with devastating force. Oh, and it was an election year, a time customarily reserved for bickering and the revocation of goodwill.

      Many of us know that 2021 won't bring miraculous change, like a hard reboot of America's fractured systems and growing cultural distrust. But with New Year's quickly approaching, we also can't help but revel in its symbolism, a fresh start to a new (hopefully better) year.

      After the fusillade of negativity that was 2020, though, we may need some help rerouting our mental circuitry toward positivity. Here are five helpful reminders of the value of sporting a positive outlook backed by science—and not self-help quackery.

      1. Positivity correlates with better health

      It's difficult to say whether a positive outlook nurtures health, success, and life satisfaction or if people who are healthy, successful, and satisfied maintain a positive outlook for, well, obvious reasons. While establishing a causal relationship has been difficult, research does suggest that happiness, extraversion, and optimism—the traits of a positive affect—influence beneficial life outcomes as much as it is a byproduct.

      A longitudinal study published in Psychological Science found that enthusiastic, cheerful people experienced less memory decline with age. The researchers tested nearly 1,000 middle-aged and senior U.S. adults and found a strong association between having a positive affect and a stronger performance on the memory test.

      As study authors Claudia Haase and Emily Hittner, an associate professor and a Ph.D. graduate at Northwestern University, respectively, said in a release: "Our findings showed that memory declined with age. However, individuals with higher levels of positive affect had a less steep memory decline over the course of almost a decade."

      Preliminary research looking at the broaden-and-build theory suggests that a positive affect not only helps people cope with stress but makes them more psychologically resilient to future stressors. And studies have found that a positive outlook boosts immune responses while reducing the likelihood of heart attacks or other coronary problems. (Though, again, it is unclear in the literature whether positive people make healthier choices or if the positive affect influences these boons).

      2. Positivity is contagious

      The emotional contagion phenomenon describes the tendency for us to acquire the emotions of the people around us. Hanging out with happy, enthusiastic people, researchers have discovered, makes us happier and more enthusiastic ourselves, leading to windfalls such as less stress and increased energy. Of course, the phenomenon works in the opposite direction, too. Our minds can become the harbors of others' misery.

      "Just as some diseases are contagious, we're found that many emotions can pulse through social networks," sociologist Nicholas Christakis told Harvard Medicine in an interview. Unlike a real disease, however, emotions don't have to be transmitted through contact. They can infect our minds through social networks and even online.

      A study out of the University of Chicago found that researchers could alter people's opinions of a product by simply revealing peer evaluations. Sharing the negative opinions of others turned previously positive opinions sour and entrenched the already negative ones.

      As Christakis added later in the interview, "Rather than asking how we can get happier, we should be asking how we can increase happiness all around us. When you make positive changes in your life, those effects ripple out from you and you can find yourself surrounded by the very thing you fostered."

      3. Social connections support positivity

      If emotions are contagious, then it stands to reason that positive social connections support personal positivity. And that's exactly what the research shows.

      In 2019, the American Psychological Association published a meta-analysis surveying two decades of longitudinal research. All told, the report analyzed more than 47,000 participants across 52 studies looking at the effect social relationships had on self-esteem. The researchers found that social relationships, social support, and social acceptance helped develop positive self-esteem throughout people's lives.

      "For the first time, we have a systematic answer to a key question in the field of self-esteem research: Whether and to what extent a person's social relationships influence his or her self-esteem development, and vice versa, and at what ages," Michelle A. Harris, study author and psychologist at the University of Texas, Austin, said in a release. "The reciprocal link between self-esteem and social relationships implies that the effects of a positive feedback loop accumulate over time and could be substantial as people go through life." Harris added that the effect did not differ significantly across the studies analyzed, suggesting a robust finding.

      4. We have a bias toward positive language

      Researchers at the University of Vermont wanted to test the Pollyanna Hypothesis, the idea that there is a universal human tendency to—feel free to whistle along—look on the bright side of life.

      To test it, they asked the native speakers of ten different languages to rate individual words on a 9-point scale. Nine equaled broad-smiley face, while one was for deep-frowny face. For example, among English speakers, "laugher" rated a happy 8.5, "the" a neutral 4.98, and "terrorist" a depressing 1.3. The researchers then gathered a data set containing billions of words from 24 sources in those languages, from books to tweets, websites to music lyrics, and, of course, news stories.

      An analysis of the data showed that humans typically use language to imbue a, in the researcher's words, "usage-invariant positivity bias." Every one of their 24 sources rated above the neutral score of five across all ten languages. Though it's certainly not true of all songs or novels—no amount of data massaging could turn "The Road" into anything other than a bummer—the researchers found that overall humanity "use[s] more happy words than sad words." Counterintuitive as it sounds, Twitter really is a gathering of the Pollyannas.

      5. Positivity is not a self-fulfilling prophecy

      Do these findings mean we should give ourselves over to the cult of positivity come 2021? Should we ignore every one of life's difficulties, view every rain cloud as a cotton-candy-laced fantasy, and use positive thinking to ween away our every foible until we become new-age Übermenschs? Absolutely not. Without realism to serve as ballast, positivity can become a flight of fancy that drifts us over dangerous territories.

      One study compared people's financial expectations in life with their ultimate outcomes over 18 years. They found that participants who set realistic expectations based on accurate assessments of their situations had higher well-being than those who set unrealistic expectations based on overly positive attitudes. Crucially, realists had a higher well-being score than pessimists, too.

      "I think for many people, research that shows you don't have to spend your days striving to think positively might come as a relief. We see that being realistic about your future and making sound decisions based on evidence can bring a sense of well-being, without having to immerse yourself in relentless positivity," Chris Dawson, study author and associate professor of business economics at Bath University, said in a release.

      Positivity must also be measured against a realistic accounting of our emotions. Sometimes, life just sucks. It isn't fair. We lose the people we love, our hard work goes under-appreciated, and we struggle to traverse the paths that others seem to bypass. To just think positively and assume everything will be fine is what psychologist Susan David calls the "tyranny of positivity." Rather than ignore these parts of our life, David suggests that we should accept them.

      "Difficult experiences are part of life. They are part of life's contract with the world. They're part of our contract with the world simply by virtue of being here," David told Big Think during an interview. "It is really important that as human beings, we develop our capacity to deal with our thoughts and emotions in a way that isn't a struggle, in a way that embraces them and is with them and is able to learn from them."

      Positive realists don't ignore life's hardships and challenges, nor do they let the negativity bias worsen such struggles. They approach both rationally and with measured expectations. When remembering a year or period in their lives, they may also choose to treasure its positive qualities. And after a year like 2020, we can all be forgiven if, in 2021, we err on the bright(er) side of life.

      A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

      An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

      Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
      Surprising Science
      • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
      • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
      • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

      The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

      Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

      "It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

      The Barry Arm Fjord

      Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

      Image source: Matt Zimmerman

      The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

      Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

      Image source: whrc.org

      There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

      The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

      "This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

      Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

      What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

      Moving slowly at first...

      Image source: whrc.org

      "The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

      The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

      Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

      Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

      While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

      Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

      How do you prepare for something like this?

      Image source: whrc.org

      The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

      "To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

      In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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