Which Comes First: Positive Thoughts or Actions?

The science behind the complex relationship between emotions and behaviors hints that our actions can be more powerful than our thoughts.

Posted in , Nov 10, 2017

Thinking and acting positive

William James, the late 19th century Harvard psychologist who is regarded as the architect of modern behavioral science, was a pioneer in his idea that behavior can determine emotion as much as feelings can determine behavior.

In other words, when we feel happy, we smile. What James added to the conversation is the notion that when we smile, we feel happy.

For those of us who endeavor to walk a positive path through life, the idea could be posed as a question: Should we prioritize positive action over positive thinking?

Few would argue the two are an either/or proposition. Thinking positively about our value in society, for example, certainly makes us more likely to take action to help those whose lives we can support.

But what about this idea that our behaviors can dictate our emotions? Decades of scientific studies have connected the two, creating a body of research that supports the idea that if we “act as if,” a positive, healthy emotional life will follow.

This morning, an opportunity presented itself for me to try a little (unscientific) experiment on myself. I was finally sitting down to organize a ream of paper in my office. The task required examining each sheet, deciding where it went, and putting it in a pile, in a folder or in a recycle bin. Just a few minutes into the dreaded task, I noticed my brow furrowing, my posture hunching over the papers and my breathing going shallow. My behavior accurately reflected my feelings about the project.

Remembering James, I decided to add a behavioral shift to the process. Each time I picked up a new piece of paper, I took a deep inhale, and made a little “yay!” sound (working at a home office comes in handy for such experiments), as if to celebrate the milestone of being one step closer to completing the project.

After a few minutes, I noticed two things. First, the action of picking up a paper and letting out a little “yay!” had become a rhythm; I didn’t have to consciously decide to do it anymore. And second, while the project hardly became a joy-fest, I truly did feel more calmly engaged in it. I even started to believe my own message—each paper sorted was a step toward the finish line. The pile got smaller and smaller.

Next time I’m feeling glum, I’m going to take a moment to notice what my body is doing to express that emotion—then ask it to do something different, to see how it feels. Chances are, it will feel better.

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