A positive upward spiral is an idea in positive psychology. In essence, it is the opposite of a negative downward spiral.
This idea gripped me some years ago after a motorcycle accident. I was hurrying to see clients one morning, travelling through Ascot Vale in the rain, when suddenly I had to brake hard. On wet tram tracks. In twenty years of motorcycling I had never had an accident, but now I was flying through the air. Everything slowed and I felt like a collection of parts falling out of the sky: there’s my knee hitting the ground, I think that’s okay, there’s my shoulder hitting the ground, I don’t think that’s okay, there’s my head hitting, we’ll see….
The pain in my neck was too great for me to lift myself off the wet, freezing asphalt, and so I was lifted onto a stretcher and carried off in an ambulance. Once at hospital I was ordered not to move, for fear of spinal damage, and spent hours in a neck brace receiving scans. As I lay there I faced one of those nightmare scenarios: “Life could be very different from now on.” It’s a terrifying prospect.
This was an important moment of choice, which I will always remember. As that fear descended on me I could, for a passing second, feel within a profound freedom to choose my attitude. To adopt the spirit in which I would apprehend my new situation. And so I chose. I told myself that whatever was reality now, simply was reality. That I would live with it and create a good life regardless of what that looked like. Despite the fear, I made a fundamental choice about how I would respond from this moment onwards.
After all those scans and hours of lying there, waiting, it emerged that I was okay. I was in a lot of pain, but I would heal. In the days, weeks, and months after, I chose to carry forward the momentum of that decisive moment, to choose life as it came, and make the best of things on a moment-to-moment bases. This was not always easy; there has been trauma and abuse in my family and I have had to struggle against a tendency to deep melancholy throughout my life. But in the light of that choice that day, a lot of things slowly changed for the better. And I began to notice something: it seemed that each positive change I made led on to others. And from those on to further others. It was as though, taken altogether, they created a kind of high pressure system, where each improvement impacted the whole by lifting everything further. It was a positive upward spiral.
I thought about that experience this morning, sitting there with my coffee and reading these words by Eric Greitens:
That is exactly how I learned about a positive upward spiral. It is an idea within positive psychology, with solid research behind it, in the context of Barbara Fredrickson's wonderful broaden-and-build theory. I got the concepts from her - I read about it before the accident - but the empirical evidence which convinced me of her theory and taught me its skills, was my own experience. Sometimes you have to get your hands dirty. You have to experience the pain or fear. But through that you can develop deeply valuable ideas about how life works. Tried and tested in yourself. And you develop strengths and abilities you didn't realise you had.