Michelle Gielan was a rising star at CBS News, anchoring two national newscasts and serving as a regular correspondent for The Early Show. Not long into her journalism career, though, a sobering thought hit her: She’d fallen into a negativity trap, framing news stories in ways that fostered fear and hopelessness in her audience.
So Gielan decided to shift her mindset. She began studying positive psychology, eventually earning a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania. After producing a popular series on the topic for CBS, she quit her job to cofound the Institute for Applied Positive Research in San Antonio. She now collaborates with prominent researchers in this emerging field.
We spoke with Gielan about her new book, Broadcasting Happiness: The Science of Igniting and Sustaining Positive Change.
Q & A With Michelle Gielan
Experience Life | What inspired you to explore positive psychology?
Michelle Gielan | When I was a journalist, I was told once — by a guy in a bar who was trying to impress me — that happy news doesn’t sell, that people want negative news, and that we’re addicted to negativity. That’s an opinion shared by many people, but in that moment I began to realize that news coverage doesn’t have to be like that.
In 2009, at the height of the recession, I proposed to CBS News that we run a series of stories about positive psychology. We wanted to talk about ways to foster more happiness in the midst of the economic collapse and not wait until it was over. We wanted an activated, wholehearted, solutions-focused approach to broadcasting news.
Those stories received our highest viewer response of the year. That’s when I realized we were on to something, and that it was really important for people to know, even in the middle of the hardest challenges of their lifetimes, that they could take positive steps to create change.
EL | You say that all of us are in some way broadcasters. What do you mean by that?
MG | We’re always broadcasting and transmitting messages about our moods and opinions. The things we communicate — and how we communicate them — are reflections of our outlook on a situation. They stem from the way we synthesize the facts we gather from our world.
How we project our mindset affects everyone around us. We’ve all been around someone who complains constantly, and we know how difficult it can be to stay positive as that person broadcasts negativity. What research is now helping us understand is how choosing to broadcast positive, optimistic, idea-generating messages — even during challenging circumstances — can fuel hope and inspire others.
EL | What are some practical reasons to communicate this way?
MG | We’ve found that broadcasting a positive mindset improves every business and educational outcome we can measure. You can influence success at work, in parenting, and in your relationships by changing what you broadcast — and not just by what you say. For example, thinking of yourself as a confident person changes your body language, which can cause people to see you as having more confidence.
Of course, you can’t just white-knuckle your way into optimism and try to act happy all the time. Instead, by seeing how positivity works in the world, and trying to cultivate it in how you behave, you begin to see happiness as a resource. Even simply thinking of happiness as a choice can have tremendous impact. When you act on that choice — when you choose it in big and small ways, again and again, and broadcast that to other people — it fuels positive action for everyone.
EL | How can we be positive without denying our authentic feelings?
MG | We’re hardwired to sense threats in our environment, which contributes to a negativity bias in our brains. But we can reorient our patterned thinking. We can train our brains to look for information that fuels a hopeful and optimistic picture of reality that can help motivate us — moving our focus from paralyzing facts to activating ones that create an empowered, positive mindset.
The goal is to achieve “rational optimism,” which is taking a realistic assessment of the present. When we approach a situation, even if it’s a serious concern, like cancer or climate change, we can identify the thought that’s stressing us out. Then we can list the evidence that supports the worrisome thought.
After that, we need to stretch ourselves and find facts that support a completely different story. We might focus on the positive work being done in cancer research or the action happening around climate change.
EL | Can’t someone broadcasting happiness be seen as naive, silly, or “too positive”?
MG | I hear this perception often, especially from women. They worry that if they’re upbeat and happy, people might think they’re not smart, or not grounded in reality. But some of the most successful people are also the most positive. Don’t confuse positivity with being a cheerleader. Some people have quiet charisma and can be positive and supportive without the high energy.
Consider when your boss says you did a really nice job on a project. Your boss is broadcasting happiness and might not be doing so in a dramatic way — just with an authenticity that creates a positive feeling in the listener. It’s about looking for opportunities to be positive, not about trying to force positivity.
EL | What if someone’s on the opposite end of the spectrum, and positivity is a struggle?
MG | Many times, when we’re feeling negative, there’s a tendency to pursue internal work through psychology. While this is a valid approach, I think by taking a more active, outward-focused path, we can reorient ourselves toward the positive and create a ripple effect. Helping a friend through a breakup, for instance, is not only good for our friend, it gets us out of our own head.
One habit that research has shown to be effective is what I call emailing positivity. Pick 21 people in your social network, and over the next 21 days send each an email thanking them for what they’ve done for you. It might be your coach from high school or a former boss. You could say simply, “Thanks for being so supportive of me.”
This exercise communicates to your brain that you have a meaningful and rich social support system, because you have these 21 strong connections. Research demonstrates that social support is the greatest predictor of long-term happiness.
EL | How has your own life changed as a result of positive psychology?
MG | I’m more aware, personally, of the effect that happiness has on every part of my life — in work, in family relationships, with friends, and even with the way I work out or what I choose to eat. Becoming more authentic and more focused on how I broadcast to other people has transformed how I project myself and my mindset. It’s not like I never feel unhappy or negative, but I think I’m more thoughtful in how I approach those feelings, and when those feelings do come up, I can see the effect they have across all parts of my life.