The Power of Yes

Positive words benefit the brain. As reported by Andrew Newberg, M.D. and Mark Waldman, thinking, hearing, speaking, and reading positive messages lowers stress and helps people respond quickly, deal with problems, live longer, develop satisfying relationships, be flexible, and become more caring.

An intuitive awareness of those recent scientific discoveries may have contributed to these historical events.

In March 1862 The Christian Recorder, a publication of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, published the adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never break me.” The intent was to teach “the child victim of name-calling to ignore the taunt, refrain from physical retaliation, and remain calm and good-living.”

The African-American theologian, Howard Thurman, a mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote:

Anyone who permits another to determine the quality of his inner life gives into the hands of the other the key to his destiny. If a man knows precisely what he can do to you or what epithet he can hurl against you in order to make you lose your temper, your equilibrium, then he can always keep you under subjection.

In the 1960s African Americans developed the mantras “Black is beautiful” and “I’m Black and I’m proud” to counter society’s conditioning. And hippies preached “peace, love, and happiness.”

Most notable political slogans have been positive, including:

  • Liberty, Equality, Fraternity

  • Peace, Bread, Land

  • We shall overcome

  • Make love, not war

  • The people united will never be defeated

Political movements have been most effective when they’ve focused on positive goals. Spiritual communities grow more rapidly if they are grounded in “contagious happiness.” The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale has sold more than five million copies and benefited Nelson Mandela while he was in prison (though Peale’s techniques were self-centered, accepted social injustice, and encouraged aggression).

Negative words hurt. As Newberg and Waldman report, merely flashing the word NO for one second triggers the release of chemicals that “interrupt the normal functioning of your brain, impairing logic, reason, language processing, and communication.”

In “Microaggressions Matter,” Simba Runyowa argues that routine verbal and nonverbal slights and insults, whether intentional or unintentional, often communicate oppressive messages that are based solely upon others’ relatively powerless status. They “serve to amplify feelings of alienation” and cause anxiety. These microaggressions “do not emerge from a vacuum. Often they expose the internalized prejudices that lurk beneath the veneer of our carefully curated public selves.”

At the same time, people sometimes become hyper-sensitive. As Runyowa wrote, “The internet, in particular, has contributed to an exhausting cycle of retributive outrage that spins the smallest error into a scandal.”

Dr. Joy DeGruy Leary, author of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, has researched the negative psychological impact of racism on African Americans. In a lecture on YouTube, she makes a point similar to Runyowa’s cautionary words. She says, “You can’t place everything on post-traumatic slave syndrome.” She argues:

As Black people we can ill afford to swallow whole what is called culture because there is poison in the cookie. The only way to get the poison out is for those who are living in this to be able to look at themselves and assess it with a level of dignity, a level of safety, that perpetuates a sense of well-being and healing.

Unfortunately, negative messages have a stronger and more immediate effect on the brain than do positive ones. Newberg and Waldman have concluded that to overcome the impact of negativity it is therefore necessary to “repetitiously and consciously generate as many positive thoughts as we can.”

By choosing to focus on positive words and images, individuals can counter the impact of negative words, reframe experience, decrease anxiety and depression, reduce the number of unconscious negative thoughts, flourish more fully, and act more effectively with greater compassion.

The neurologist Antonio R. Damasio says:

Interestingly enough, not all feelings result from the body's reaction to external stimuli. Sometimes changes are purely simulated in the brain maps. For example, when we feel sympathy for a sick person, we re-create that person's pain to a certain degree internally. Also,...extreme stress or extreme fear and even physical pain can be dismissed…. [Spinoza] understood this kind of practice as a way to reach an inner peace and stoic equanimity.

At the same time, realistic fear and accurate perceptions of injustice can help us correct external oppression that leads to internalized oppression. And it’s important to avoid microaggressions as much as possible.

Through it all, let’s keep our differences in perspective, respect one another, and focus on building massive movements that can reform public policies in a constructive manner. Let’s “keep our eyes on the prize,” the ultimate YES.