The Power of Positivity

by Jeremy McCarthy

In 1998, the film Sliding Doors told the story of a woman (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) who, in the beginning of the movie, is seen racing for a train. As she reaches the platform, the storyline splits in two, tracking two very different versions of her life, one in which she catches the train, and one in which she misses it. We all have these “sliding doors” moments in our lives, where a small decision, a chance encounter or a random piece of luck (good or bad) can send our lives spinning off in new and different directions.

A “sliding doors” moment in my own life was when I stumbled onto a website about positive psychology in 2007. I already had a bachelor’s degree in psychology but I had lost interest in the field because I found it too negative. I had originally been drawn to psychology because of an interest in human motivation and performance. But studying psychology as an undergraduate, I found the focus was on the negative aspects such as stress, mental illness and depression.

Years later, a serendipitous Google search would take me to the website from the University of Pennsylvania Center for Positive Psychology. It was the first time I learned there was a field of research that was focused on the positive aspects of human well-being. Positive psychology was the study of happiness, gratitude, character strengths, accomplishment and flourishing. It was the psychology I had always wanted to study.

Ten days later, I had already submitted my application for the master’s degree program in Applied Positive Psychology at UPenn. The education that I received changed my approach to just about everything in my life: my work, my health and my relationships.

In particular, I have often wondered how this fork in the road might have shaped the family that I have today. At the time I was learning about positive psychology, I was dating the woman who has since become my wife and the mother to my two children. Would our relationship, marriage and family have evolved as it had without my studies in positive psychology? It is hard to answer this question.

During my research, I was learning about the importance of positive relationships. I was learning about the power of gratitude and the practice of appreciating those relationships. I was learning about practices designed to increase positive emotions including love. And I was learning communication strategies that help build intimacy in relationships. Within two years of graduating from the program, we were married and had our first son. Maybe our relationship would have evolved regardless of this education, but I’m not so sure.

Over the years, working in wellness, I have had other people share their “sliding doors” moments with me. People can think back to a specific book they read, a conversation they had, or an epiphany they experienced that suddenly changed their life in dramatic and positive ways. In actuality, we never really know how our life might have gone if circumstances had been different. But we all have experienced how seemingly small things can make a big impact.

The lesson I take from this is one of opportunity. We never know when the next big shift might occur. At any moment we could make a new discovery, a new decision or a new commitment that sends our lives in a new and better direction. The ending of our story is not written in stone. We have the opportunity to rewrite it as we go.

And every interaction we have with another person is not only an opportunity for us to change our own lives, but to change theirs as well. We never know how some simple words of support or encouragement can nudge someone on to a new life that they might not have achieved without you. In this sense, we are all far more powerful than we ever imagine ourselves to be.

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