Can Positive Emotions Impact Racism?

June 19, 2020

It’s hard to know what to say.

The events of the past weeks, starting with George Floyd’s horrific death, have been painful to watch. Yet the sadness and heartache and uncertainty we feel pales in comparison to the lifetime of pain that so many in our country have felt and experienced due to continued, ongoing, persistent racism in our country.

As my husband and our CEO at AGL: Coaching for Good says, words are simply an approximation for meaning. They get us close to the meaning in our hearts, the emotions in our souls. So while it’s hard to know what to say, I am compelled to say something, especially today as our black friends -- and hopefully all of us -- find some light in the midst of the darkness to celebrate Juneteenth.

Last year, after experiencing a difficult family loss, there were surprisingly few people who asked us how we were. How we were processing. How we were coping. Surprisingly few people know how to approach someone in grief. Eventually, we realized why.

*There is no good way to grieve. *

Grief is messy. It’s hard. It sucks. Everyone processes it differently. And it’s impossible to “grieve well.”

But more than anything else, what we wanted… needed… was for people to show up and say “I am willing for this to be messy and I’m sorry if I say the wrong thing but I’m here.”

That’s what I want to say today. To all our black friends who are hurting, today and every day you experience racism:

We see you. We hear you. And we are so, so sorry. We are sorry that it hurts. We are sorry it has hurt for so long. We are sorry for anyone—myself included—who has been insensitive to the continual grief you experience when white people do horrific things to black people. We are sorry when we haven’t listened. We are sorry you haven’t been heard.

It’s hard to know what to say, but we see you and hear you and we stand with you.

And in the midst of the hardship and the grief, we also celebrate with you the days worth celebrating.

Can Positive Emotions Impact Racism? In the midst of a range of emotions, my hope today is to offer something that may sound like I am silver lining that which should never be silver-lined. It is not my intent to gloss over the grief or ignore the pain. Yet there is remarkable power in positive emotions to change the way we think, believe, feel and behave, even when it comes to something as big as racism.

AGL: Coaching for Good is a team of coaches who believe in the power of coaching. To be clear, not the kind of coach your mom’s aunt’s neighbor decided to be after realizing she “likes makeup and talking to people.” Our team is full of qualified, trained, and certified professionals, credentialed by multiple organizations, including the International Coach Federation. As co-founders and owners, Edward and I hold the highest credential in our field and have spent the last decade studying neuroscience, positive psychology, and the power of the brain to do remarkable things.

With that context, we hope to start a conversation around this question: could positive emotions have an impact on ending racism?

Now this is important: I am not saying that we can change systemic racism by being Pollyanna. I am not saying that these issues are simple or straightforward. Just the opposite, in fact.

What I am saying is that we need a new brain. We need a new way of thinking, doing, and being better. We need to listen to understand and be willing to change our minds from time to time. We need to see things from another’s perspective. We need to break down our limiting beliefs about ourselves, our world, and others.

For those who are grieving… I realize it sounds naive and perhaps callous to say “change your emotions.” Know this: your grief is real and your feelings are real and now is the time to feel them. Yet in the midst of the grief, positive emotions offer a way forward. A way of feeling ALL of your feelings, including love for yourself and those around you and hope for the future.

For the rest of us who are processing what to do next... to the ones who say “I don’t know what to do, but I realize my thinking is off.” Or “I don’t know what to do; do I really have to do anything?” Or “I don’t know what to do; can anything really make a difference?”

Here is a thought to start with: YOU have the ability to change your brain and rewire your thoughts and feelings to combat racism, and cultivating positive emotions is where it all starts.

“What Good Are Positive Emotions?” The idea that positive emotions have a profound role to play in the brain has been around for a while. But not so long as you might think.

30 years ago, psychology was just beginning to explore the possibility that positivity could impact the brain.

22 years ago, a thought leader and primary researcher into positive emotions, Barbara Fredericksson, wrote her first article about the need to explore the power of positive emotions, because no one was doing it yet.

Today, we know through neuroscience, brain scans, studies, and research that positive emotions are the single biggest indicator of wellbeing in every area of your life.

That means that for every way we know how to measure human thriving, positive emotions make a difference.

Yet we aren’t talking about how those emotions can show up and make a practical, tangible difference in our everyday lives.

Flippant or Essential? A big reason positive emotion work isn’t mainstream is that it can feel flippant. It seems like a jerk move to say “oh, you’re going through these big, hard, negative emotions? Try some positive ones, I hear they’re good for you!” Brene Brown calls this “silver lining it.”

But positive emotions aren’t flippant. Studies done over the past few decades show us that when the brain is focused on positive emotions, it creates an effect in the brain called “Broaden and Build.”

Simply put, the brain broadens to become more inclusive, consider more possibilities, and see more connections and inter-relatedness in the world. As a result, we can move to building consistent, positive, creative solutions to the challenges we see in the world.

Sounds nice, doesn’t it?

Broaden Our Minds to Build Positive Solutions In an article entitled “What Good Are Positive Emotions?”, Barbara Frederickson started asking how positive emotions could make positive change in our own lives and the world around us.

In that article and in the years of studies that followed, the results were profound.

People who experience positive emotions use more inclusive categories and see more connections and inter-relatedness in the world, as opposed to narrow thinking and exclusive categories.

People who experience positive emotions demonstrate more interest, curiosity, and exploration in the world around them rather than limiting beliefs about their experiences and fellow humans.

People who experience positive emotions develop positive social networks, express gratitude, and help others in need rather than isolating themselves from others or alienating social groups.

People who experience positive emotions broaden their perspectives, allowing them to see both the big picture as well as understanding individual thoughts and perspectives rather than getting stuck in an “us vs them” mentality.

As we look at the conversations and struggles of the world around us, I hope we can all agree that we could use more inclusion, interconnectedness, curiosity, helping others, and broadening perspectives in the world.

Now What? “That’s all well and good,” you may be saying. But people have died and are dying and I’m arguing with my family and friends and neighbors and people aren’t listening. What good ARE positive emotions? What difference does it make in something as big and systemic and challenging as racism? How do positive emotions impact me?

Here is what I would offer you:

If you see people posting “Black Lives Matter” and wonder “don’t all lives matter…?”

If you are asking yourself, “do I really have white privilege?”

If you’ve never celebrated Juneteenth before and aren’t sure how it fits…

If you feel torn because you think George Floyd was unjustly murdered and also that violent protests are bad…

If you’re confused because you’re a majority individual and you don’t think that means you’re inherently racist and you also don’t know for sure that you aren’t…

If you’re struggling with grief and anger and rage and your tendency is to push it aside or justify it so you can function in your normal life…

If you want to do something and you just don’t know what to do…

It’s time for a new brain.

Positive emotions are just the start. It doesn’t mean avoiding the negative emotions. It doesn’t mean we stop feeling grief and outrage at what has happened. But if we are going to start thinking in new and better and different ways, we need a new brain.

Our team of trained neuropositive coaches can help.

But whether you start with us or somewhere else, start today. The world needs you. The world needs us. We all need to rewire our brains to do better and be better.

The world needs more positive emotions.

Start developing positive emotions today with AGL: Coaching for Good! Schedule a call here!