If you want to develop a more positive, optimistic outlook on life, it’s important to understand how your brain can be primed to think in new ways by incredibly small changes in your environment. And there is an ever-growing body of research which supports this fact.

Picture the scene. You’re a university student participating in what you think is a linguistics experiment. You’ve been sitting in a room for a few minutes, arranging a selection of apparently random words into sentences. What you don’t know is that the experimenters don’t give two hoots about what sentences you form, and this is no linguistics experiment. All they are interested in is what you’re about to do next. Unknown to you, they’re going to measure how fast you leave the room.

You see, without your knowledge, you’ve been subtly influenced by the words you were arranging. A small number of those words were related to old age. Maybe one was “wrinkled”, another was “retire”. And because your brain processed those words, you are now about to walk measurably more slowly out of the room.

The psychologist John Bargh has verified this experimentally. Students who had been “primed” with a few words associated with old age walked significantly more slowly out of the room than students presented with neutral words.

Similar experiments have found that if someone hands you a drink to hold for a moment, the temperature of the cup will influence how much you like that person. You will typically feel emotionally warmer towards the person if they gave you a hot coffee to hold, rather than an ice cold soft drink.

Other experiments have shown that something as simple as having a plant in a room will make you more likely to come up with more ideas, or that sitting on a hard chair makes you less willing to compromise in a negotiation than sitting on a soft chair.

So the research is mounting up to confirm what advertisers have always known. The details really do matter. Food manufacturers know that changing tiny elements in the size, shape or colour of food packaging will make people more likely to buy it. The lighting in supermarkets, the aromas, the floor-plan, all these things measurably affect how likely you are to spend more money there.

So the thought I’d like to offer you today is this. It’s now clear that we are significantly influenced by subtle details around us. In which case… look around you. Right now.

How is your environment affecting your mood? How is your desk priming you to feel right now? Is it cluttered, and suggestive of being disorganised? Or is it ordered and efficient? Are there images around you that inspire you, or remind you of friends, family and personal goals? What about the colours, the lighting, your chair, your posture?

Studies have shown that if you sit with a more upright posture, or if you allow your face to form a relaxed, half-smile, you will, again, significantly improve your mood and your attitude to the task at hand.

These are all remarkable and interesting findings, but I believe the most important question is: “How can you put this knowledge to practical use?”

So here are three ideas to prime your brain to be in a more positive mood:

  1. Spend three minutes listing as many words for cheerful as you can. They can be synonyms, like “upbeat” and “happy” or just related words, like “giggle” and “high five”. Try this exercise with other topics, like “determined”, or “sociable”, and then notice the after-effects over the next few hours
  2. If you don’t tend to put pictures up of friends, family, or symbols of your goals and dreams, try it. If you don’t have a plant in your workspace, try getting one. Have a think about the colours and lighting around you. What changes could you make to subtly lift your mood?
  3. If you’re feeling stuck, use your body to prime your brain to develop a better attitude. Sit up straight. Form a little smile, or if you don’t mind your colleagues thinking you’re a bit eccentric, a huge cheesy grin. Look at a spot a little above eye level, and take a few, slow deep breaths. Retain some of that smile and upright posture as you return to your work, and notice how you feel different.

Remember: your environment is constantly influencing you, whether you’re conscious of it or not. So why not make it work for you?

Joseph Kao is the head of the hypnosis script-writing team for Uncommon Knowledge, for whom he’s co-authored such downloads as De-Clutter Your Life. He’s also a therapist, a psychotherapy trainer, and an actor, when he has any spare time.

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