Positivity and happiness often seem to be some magical creatures that we often hear about but somehow never manage to get hold of. But guess what, positivity is actually a choice you can make, and you too can do it with a little practice. In our interview with cognitive neuroscientist and happiness researcher Erik Fernholm, you’ll find out more about the power of positivity, its importance and how you can get started with changing your mindset for the better. As part of his work, Erik has been exploring how positive relationships and communities can increase individual wellbeing, and he aims to help people grow and to make their days on planet earth count.
What is positivity and why is it so important?
One way to define positivity is that you want to be a positive person, and that is a good thing. Thinking that you have to be positive and have to be happy is pretty bad because it means that you’re not accepting your feelings. You can get anxious and stressed because you’re not accepting what you’re actually feeling. Positivity means being hopeful and optimistic, having a sense of being able to affect your world and make a change in a positive way. It also means appreciating this iterative, messy life and not only focusing on the negative aspects. It’s so easy to get stuck in issues that affect you and not being able to see beyond that. To think that there are positive people out there and you’re not one of them.
What are the benefits of positivity?
People who practice positivity have a strong immune system and live longer. If you can train yourself to be more grateful and thankful, even though life is not simple, you can focus on what you have and what you have accomplished. For example, a half-finished song is better than no songs. Positivity boosts your immune system and it will make you happier, which in turn will also make you more creative.
The average schedule of a musician is a bit bonkers. There are long recording sessions, late-night gigs, tours, things are a bit messy. With so much unpredictability, how can they start cultivating a positive mindset?
Positivity is truly a skill and it’s not something you’re born with. You can actually start practicing by doing small things, which will have a positive effect over time. Musicians live in a complex and unpredictable world, so it’s hard to have the routines that everybody else has. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t have any routines or you can’t have any control. The question is how could you make a meaningful change? By just doing something small, you’re not only doing the change itself but you’re also changing the narrative of your ability to have control over your life, which is even more important.
Are there any concrete tasks that musicians can do in particular that will help them do that small change every day?
Keep a journal of things that have affected you and that you’re grateful for. If you don’t understand what’s affecting you, you can’t really make decisions. This will only take 5 minutes a day. You can also do this together with your friends, which is a really nice way of deepening the relationship. Happiness is not about me, me, me… it’s much more about human connection, about not being completely free to do whatever I want. Musicians who become super successful are not happier than the Average Joe, but if they have great relationships, they are.
Today we’re overemphasizing happiness, and this is coming from a guy who’s dedicated most of his life to researching this. Don’t aim to feel good. Don’t just strive for happiness. Try to act in a way where you are both connected to other people in a deeper way and also proud of what you’re doing. Don’t focus on yourself and your emotions over your contribution and your connections to others. It’s a different perspective but much more meaningful.
This means that positivity in our relationships is just as important on both personal and creative level.
We live for high-quality relationships with people who are genuine and honest, who believe in us and accept us for who we are. This has a massive impact on your health and even your success and creativity. The safer you feel emotionally and relationally, the braver you are because you feel that somebody has your back. The quality of your relationships is the quality of your life.
More and more research is pointing to that nothing impacts creativity as much as your emotional state. This is the reason why you get all your ideas when you’re in a relaxed, positive emotional state. This allows you to take more risks and think about things in new ways. When you’re feeling stressed, anxious and scared, you think more about yourself and play out patterns that you know will work. When you feel safe and seen, you are neurologically much more creative. Like 400% more creative.
Why is it that humans thrive in a broader sense as part of a community? Is it purely because we end up with multiple deep relationships? Is it as simple as that?
We think of ourselves as individuals that are separate from our networks, like we have relationships with others. But research is showing the opposite: we don’t have a relationship, we are the relationship. What does that mean? One of the biggest predictors of your behavior is not your decision making, it’s the decision making of people around you. For example, if you are going to vote or not actually depends on if your friends are voting. You are inspired so much by the people you surround yourself with, everything you do is part of this embedded network of relationships that you’re part of.
Does this mean that if we’re looking into changing ourselves for the better, perhaps we should start with our environment?
It’s really interesting to think about what it means to change yourself. When you blame the external world for your unhappiness, it is actually coming from yourself and your way of interacting with the world. If you want to lead a more positive, happy and meaningful life, you should be looking much more into the people around you. You should also think about how you can contribute to other people’s lives and to the relationships that you have.
When you’re disconnected from your deeper needs of human connection, you start fixating on individual progress, as if that would fix the lack of human connection. Once you start fixating on having more money, being more famous, getting more listeners, you can never get enough. Even if it doesn’t make you happy, you still want more. This is the definition of addiction. That’s why we have to discover that giving is important and relationships are important because we have this individualistic and disconnected idea about happiness, which is often the root cause of depression.
Tell us a bit about your company 29k and what you’re hoping to achieve with it.
The goal with 29k is to create a community where people struggling with similar issues come together. We offer the best tools in the world for free to work with your problems, whatever they are – work or relationship issues, finding a more passionate meaning in life, etc. It’s an app so you just download it and you get matched with other participants who have the same needs as you do. The first program we built is 8-weeks long, and you go through it with six other people. You have a live video call once a week at the same time, and between the sessions you do some practicing. We’ve partnered up with the best researchers in the world and we are trying to give people more meaningful relationships in a real place where you can work with personal growth, together with other people.
If people are trying to find a community and let’s say they don’t have access to 29k or they prefer to see people offline, what are the best steps for them to take to try and find a new community? And what are the signs that this community may or may not be for them?
It comes down to knowing if you can trust someone. It’s important that they are honest and they’re not just using you. For example, when you’re getting some traction with your music, people might want to hang out with you because you’re popular. That’s a red flag. You want to hang out with people who are more like “I heard that you’re struggling with your music, let’s hang out!” Their intentions should be positive and good, they should want to see you grow. Today we have an individualistic focus, there is rivalry where people get defensive by others’ success, and they pull down each other. But there’s room for honesty here, you can transform the cynicism into something great.
Honesty is interesting, and not always the most enjoyable trait to experience. It might hurt but you appreciate it if someone tells you that the song you made was awful. But here’s how you could maybe improve it. When it’s coming from someone you trust, it feels a lot better.
Exactly. We comfort each other so much because we don’t believe that a relationship can take our honesty. But if you believe that, then maybe you shouldn’t be such close friends. I would rather deepen a few relationships that I truly believe in, where we can be more honest with each other than have a lot of shallow ones. Life is long and if nobody’s telling you the truth, you’re gonna feel that pain later. By truly loving you as a friend and caring about you, I would rather give it to you now. Before the problem has grown out of proportion, like you released your album and it was shit. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m offering my opinion with warmth and humility.
When negativity becomes a natural thing in your environment, what are the effects of that?
One of the effects that everybody can relate to is being overwhelmed with stress and anxiety. You will start compensating with things that feel good in the moment, so instead of taking a walk or calling a friend, you will take shortcuts and probably start drinking, get angry and blame others. The reason why we blame is that it feels great. If you’re the idiot, then I’m not.
How can we avoid falling into this negative way of thinking?
When you’re having anxiety or when you’re feeling awesome, it’s not super simple to know where it’s coming from. Just noticing that you’re in a negative state before it becomes too late and being honest about your needs helps a lot. When you’re in a negative state, you’re more pessimistic, you’re less creative and more egotistical. It’s the same when you’re hungry. Avoid decision making when you’re hungry or when you’re tired and pissed off. Be aware and be curious about where the negative emotions are coming from and what’s the need behind them. Try to explore that to see patterns, this is where the journaling comes in the picture. Write about what affected you both positively and negatively, so you understand yourself better and you can start acting proactively. You can’t do that without being aware of what affects you.
What steps can we take to cultivate our community so it can be the best it can be and we can give back as much as we can?
You can’t have relationships if you’re not relating. We think about relationships as objects, as things we have. Like you and I have a relationship, but that’s not true. Relationships are a process, it’s us being in the present relating. Knowing that relationships are always creating moments, it’s good to try and see what is distracting you from connecting in this present moment. Mobile phones are the worst things that ever happened to relationships. We say we’re listening but we have our phones there all the time. Put your phone away when you’re hanging out with friends. You’ve never signed up to be available for everyone 24/7.
How can we become more aware of things that are distracting us? How to be in charge?
Noticing what is distracting you from being able to be in the moment is really important. First, try to reflect on how you’re using your phone. Then think about how you can enable the relationships that are great in your life, how to appreciate and nourish them. Be vulnerable, be honest, care about them and invest time into them. You might say that you know all this but the question is, are you aware? Are you aware that you haven’t called your mom for four weeks? Are you aware of which relationships are important to you?
A great exercise is to take 10 minutes every Sunday and write down the relationships you have on a piece of paper. Put yourself in the middle and draw your different relationships around you. How does it feel when you see that picture? Which relationships you feel aren’t getting nourished today? Which ones are getting too much time? Are you proud of how you’re distributing your time? If you do this every Sunday, every other Sunday or even just once a month, that’s amazing! The process of reflecting on what and who is important to you will in itself transform the way your relationships will be nourished or decided upon.
What are the best first steps for a music maker to take in order to cultivate a positive community?
It’s quite tricky because as we said life is messy, and as a musician, you’re probably trying to make ends meet. You need to make sure that you have many areas in your life that fill you up, that you have honest relationships that maybe are outside of your musical identity. Be wary of narratives like once you become successful and recognized, everybody will understand what a genius you are and then you’ll be loved. That’s a horrible story.
My father was a professional athlete, he was an Olympic discus thrower and he had that idea in his head. He sacrificed so much to become a successful individual. He passed away when he was 37 because of addiction to steroids and all that. It was really tough. So I think it comes down to surrounding yourself with individuals who have a healthy output on life and it’s not that they’re sacrificing everything to get something but they are actually alive.
In your experience, how can you find people full of life, people you can get energy from?
I was a professional kitesurfer when I was young, and I almost followed my father’s footsteps. When people wanted to hang out because I was a great kitesurfer, I knew that they weren’t honest, they wanted to be with me because they thought that I was cool. That made me feel more alone. What I then did was that I used that inner compass to find and prioritize honest people, people I would like to be influenced by.
We can find these communities in all sorts of places, then it doesn’t necessarily have to be music.
It could be, but you don’t have to put all your eggs in one basket. Because if it doesn’t work out, then not your entire life will be affected, which is healthy in itself. Life is quite long, and it becomes less serious if you think that one day you’re going to be 80 and you’ll look back. Stuff isn’t that serious, you can actually play a bit more. You need to pay your rent for sure, but you’re not going to starve. So let’s play with this and see where it takes you. If you don’t become the next superstar, that’s fine! Let’s have a blast!
Erik Fernholm has an academic background in Cognitive Neuroscience and Happiness Research. Combined with his experience as a keynote speaker, board advisor, and leadership developer, this has helped him to establish an understanding of why people do what they do, and how they could perform and feel better.
As part of his work, Fernholm has been exploring how positive relationships and communities can increase individual wellbeing. Together with Niklas Adalberth (Klarna) and Tomas Björkman, he has through a new non-profit built a way for people to practice growing together in a way that transforms their lives, and it’s all packed in an app called 29k. The goal is to make personal growth and change available and free for everyone to make their days on planet earth count. 29k is working with leading researchers and scientists from Harvard University and the Karolinska Institute.
➞ 29k website