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Positive Words

August 10, 2020

Dr. Louis Tay

When I was a kid, my mom would tell me, “Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can never hurt you.”

Her intention was noble. She wanted me to ignore negative comments from bullies or other kids who said mean things to get a reaction.

Unfortunately, good intentions can be misguided – and in this case, incorrect. Using it as a mantra failed me. It did not insulate from hurtful words. 

My experience squares with science. Research shows that pain-related words activate brain regions associated with the pain matrix! So perhaps a more accurate update of the old aphorism is, “Sticks and stones can break your bones, and words can bruise your brain.”

Words have such a profound effect. And in building relational and communal well-being, we need to be especially mindful of using positive words – and avoiding condemning, critical, condescending words – in our interactions.

As a case in point, relationship research by John Gottman revealed that successful marriages tend to have a 5:1 positivity to negativity ratio, while marriages heading for divorce have a 1:1 ratio. Researchers have argued about the exact positivity to negativity ratios – but they all agree that cultivating good relationships require a good deal of positivity (words and experiences). 

The next time you send an email, make a call, or converse with someone, think about ways you can use positive words.

  • Can you compliment something they did?
  • Is there some encouragement you can give?
  • Perhaps defuse a conflict by reacting with kind words and empathy?

Let’s all remember to use more positive words. They can make a world of difference.

Be well,

Dr. Louis Tay

Tay is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences. He has expertise in well-being, assessments, and data science. Check back each week for his wellness tip of the week!



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