The Power of Language

Using positive language instead of negative language can greatly impact our mindset, well-being, and productivity by activating motivational centers in the brain and reducing stress.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Grace Louie

In difficult conversations with friends, it is common to come across a tough topic and hear your friend say, “I can’t do it”. These negative words may not seem like a big deal, but encouraging language can significantly improve our well-being and mindset. Research shows a psychological phenomenon where humans tend to think about negative things more than positive things, which is formally known as negativity bias.

Negative language often includes blame and negative connotations to tell one what not to do using the word “not”. On the other hand, positive language informs people what they should do. Choosing which words to use can have a profound effect on brain function. Positive words increase cognitive reasoning and strengthen our frontal lobes, the parts of the brain that spring into action to encourage motivation. Part of the frontal lobes is the motor cortex, which is in charge of directing bodily movement. Most of the brain’s dopamine-sensitive neurons are found in the frontal lobe. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter, plays a crucial role in triggering sensations of reward and motivation. 

Studies support the usage of positive language over its counterpart. For example, in a study under Positive Psychology, scientists observed the impact of using positive words in a sample of adults aged 35 to 54 years old. Every night, the participants were told to write down three things that went well that day along with an explanation. After three months passed, their levels of happiness rose while their feelings of depression declined. By concentrating on positive ideas and emotions, the subjects enhanced their overall well-being and the functionality of their brains.

In other instances where positive language is used, the parietal lobe, involved in the processing of self-awareness, can undergo changes due to neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s neural networks’ ability to grow and reorganize. The brain is regulated by the nervous system, which controls various aspects of cognition, emotion, and bodily functions. When individuals constantly use positive language, whether in self-talk or during interaction with others, neural pathways associated with positive emotions and self-perception strengthen. The continuous reinforcement of positive neural pathways leads to increased activity in the parietal lobe when individuals engage in positive self-reflection, activating neural pathways linked to self-perception and social cognition. Viewing oneself in a positive light enhances one’s perceptions of others, as they begin to recognize positive qualities in everyone. On the other hand, a negative self-image causes suspicion and doubt towards others.

The use of negative words prevents the production of crucial neurochemicals to manage stress. Worrying is innate since it protects us from potential threats to our survival. So when thoughts of negativity fill our brain, the amygdala becomes more active, triggering the release of stress-inducing hormones, such as cortisol, throughout our system. The amygdala is known as our brain’s fear center—it detects danger and plays an essential role in processing emotions. This small part of our brain activates our fight-or-flight response when we feel threatened. The term fight-or-flight represents the choice to either fight or flee when faced with a dangerous environment, triggering our body to respond to this stress. The release of stress hormones from negative words disrupts the logic and reasoning processes in the brain by preventing normal function. Exposure to excess levels of cortisol results in reduced blood flow and oxygen supply to the brain, leading to decreased cognitive function. Consequently, the brain has a hard time accessing necessary information for making logical decisions, making everyday choices more difficult during times of stress.

The use of positive language can be observed in customer service workers as they help customers. Instead of expressing limitations with statements such as “I can’t help you,” customer support staff utilize phrases like, “Let me find someone who can help you.” Although these phrases hold essentially identical meanings, the choice of wording plays a significant role in shaping the conveyed message. 

In a school setting, when teachers encourage students and use positive reinforcement, students are far more motivated to learn. A study by the Journal of Language and Linguistic Studies separated students into a control and an experimental group. One teacher used positive language in a lecture for the experimental group, while another teacher didn't use positive language in a lecture for the control group. The results of the study showed that employing positive language in the experimental group lectures enhanced the students' knowledge, skills, and desire to learn. A nurturing classroom environment provides enthusiasm for collaborative learning, leading to an overall positive impact and allowing students to comfortably express their ideas and eagerness to learn. 

Subconsciously, we pick up on the differences in our word choices during normal conversations. According to research conducted by cognitive neuroscience expert Luis Castellanos, hearing positive words makes us pay more attention, be more creative, and try harder at tasks. Castellanos’s data shows that positive language serves as a way to enhance happiness and productivity. During the study conducted by his team, the reactions of a group of individuals to positive and negative words were recorded by using encephalograms, which are images of the electrical activity of the brain. They observed that the brain reacted more when exposed to positive words, which resulted in an increase in creativity and attentiveness.

So the next time you write in your journal, instead of mentioning everything that went wrong that day, try to focus on the positive aspects of the day, even if they’re small, such as simply waking up. Redirecting our attention to the positives, instead of the negatives, is important for improving our mental well-being. Language shapes thoughts, which in turn impacts our emotions. Switching to positive language enhances mood, promoting confidence and a cheerful attitude. Moreover, these individuals inspire others and create welcoming environments by radiating positive energy. In some situations, selecting the right words in a conversation can potentially turn a difficult situation or conversation into a positive one. While positive language isn’t about eliminating negative words, responding to unpleasant news with reassuring language can be incredibly impactful.