Dr. Ron Alexander sat listening to the record company executives and staff he’d been hired to help. They’d sought him out as a mindfulness expert and corporate consultant to help them improve marketing and sales. One major artist―a “diva” who shall remain unnamed―had followed her first two highly successful records with a third CD that had, so far, failed miserably. What could they do to turn things around?
As people made suggestions, Alexander took notes. The word no was used 76 times in response to a proposed plan. Yes―or any other encouraging word? Eleven times. “So over the next few weeks,” he told me, “we focused on what it would be like if, before anyone opened their mouth to respond, they went into a ‘yes state’ to engage what I call the open mind, a state of open possibilities.”
Yes Leads to Creativity and Problem Solving
Alexander, the author of Wise Mind, Open Mind, saw a big shift at the record company: From the top down, meetings had far less discord. “No is a constrictor,” he says. Ideas about how to turn the artist around began to flow, and soon, the majority of the responses were yes or “why not?” Divas don’t get on buses to go cross-country announcing call numbers on AM radio stations, the executives had protested weeks earlier to one unusual idea. By the end of Alexander’s process, this diva did. Within weeks, she’d sold close to a million CDs.
I’m not a record company executive (or a diva). But a few weeks ago I decided to count how often over several days my first instinct was to respond with some form of no. There were more than 76. A lot more. I said, “Probably not” to my 15-year-old’s idea that she and her friend could save their money for a year to buy a white Mercedes (seriously?), and no to her proposal that they take a bus trip to Las Vegas (seriously?). I said no to the idea of sitting down and playing the piano (I’ll sound bad; I’ll be judged; I’ll get frustrated); no to my husband’s that suggestion we grocery shop together (we’ll get more done if we divide and conquer), and no to the idea of joining a book club for parents of teens (I’m not a joiner; I don’t want to talk about my daughter’s “issues” with strangers). Thinking I was being helpful, I said, “Don’t” when my son professed to feeling guilty about something he hadn’t even been responsible for causing. When I was done counting, I was surprised that I, a “positive” person, was so, well, negative. Turns out, there are a lot of ways to say no. And a lot more reasons to say yes.
Saying Yes to Joining
Dr. Robert Bilder is a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles UCLA and holds a chair in creativity research. “Much of saying yes,” Bilder says, “is saying yes to another person. By acknowledging that you are going along with a plan initiated by someone else, you are strengthening or creating a bond with them.” The same neural circuits are engaged when we join groups, Bilder says, as when we fall in love. Oxytocin levels surge, which, because that makes you feel so good, has an addictive quality. When you say yes to another person, you’re engaging this reward circuit, making it more likely that the next time you’re asked to join someone, you’ll say yes.
Yes Broadens Your Outlook ― Literally
At UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, researchers study the neurobiology of positive emotions. Christine Carter, a sociologist there, has written about bringing up happy kids in her book Raising Happiness. “Your brain,” she says, “operates in a really different way when you perceive resistance or are resisting. When you’re positive or expecting a yes, your field of vision is actually larger.”
“When you are anxious, or perceive a threat (which brings about an extreme state of resistance),” says Carter, “your vision needs to narrow in order to focus.” When you’re not in this state of anxious resistance, “you’re able to take in more stimulus across the board, versus only being able to see what is right in front of you.”
Saying Yes to Adventure Re-creates Your Brain
Dawna Markova, a writer and inspirational speaker, works in myriad ways to help people “learn with passion and live on purpose,” including encouraging people to test themselves in outdoor adventures. She may be best known for a poem she wrote on the night of her father’s death.
“I will not die an unlived life,” it begins. “I will not live in fear of falling, or catching fire.”
Fear―of falling, or making a fool of yourself―is a big reason to say no to adventure. But neuroscientists know that when you expose yourself to new experiences―from learning to fly-fish to climbing giant trees―your brain releases noradrenaline and dopamine, and the exertion brings on endorphins. This makes you feel alert and better able to enjoy that moment and the ones that follow. And, when you take a flying leap into uncertainty (perhaps using a harness in the case of high-flying leaps), you train your brain to believe that you can. Your experiences literally re-create you.
Yes Is Good for Your Relationship
The simplest way to make relationships work, says Dr. John Gottman, considered the country’s foremost researcher into marriage, is to say yes as often as you can without sacrificing an important part of yourself in the process. (Gottman makes it clear that agreement is not the same as compliance, becoming who someone else wants you to be). In fact, he has even come up with a formula: For every no or negative thing you say, say yes or something positive five times. Yes, that’s a good idea. Yes, I can help you. Yes, I can make time this afternoon.
And the “emotional coaching” we so often do to alleviate our partner’s or child’s suffering? Don’t tell someone not to feel something, as I did with my son, says Carter. Just encourage them to talk to you. Then listen.
Getting to Yes
When you say no a lot, your brain gets in the habit, literally paving more neural pathways and raising the speed limit on your knee-jerk “No!” response. Luckily, as brain scientists have realized, we can rewire our brains.
We have knee-jerk responses, Carter says, because it’s efficient. Our decisions come from two parts of the brain: a quick, instinctive reaction from the basal ganglia and the deliberate, considered response from our prefrontal cortex, which involves an energy-intensive process. Parenting, for instance, would be “too darn hard if you had to constantly weigh every decision and construct it from your prefrontal cortex.” The trick is changing what those efficient, low-energy knee-jerk responses are. With some practice, it can become just as instinctive to say maybe as it is to say no.
In the end, Markova says, what’s important is not so much the yes as the willingness to say it. It’s the pause. If your gut, your heart, or your head (all of which, by the way, are surrounded by neural circuitry) is screaming no, you might say merely say, “I don’t know. I’ll get back to you.”
Just being willing to say yes means you’ve removed the barriers to new people, experiences, and feelings. And after the pause? Sometimes you say no. If you’re female, there’s a good chance that right about now you’re thinking, but my problem is saying yes too much . . . yes to driving teens around town, yes to volunteering for anything people ask me to do, yes to taking on far more than my share of household chores.
No, Markova says, can be just as much as an affirmation of self as yes.
“Inside of yes,” says Ron Alexander, “You have to have the capacity to set boundaries, to have brakes. No is an essential part of a yes way of thinking. No, I don’t want to do that. No, I don’t like the way you’re communicating with me. It does lead to a yes. It leads to a woman saying yes to her self-esteem.”
Me? I said yes when my husband asked about grocery shopping, which turned into a funny date. I made new friends at the book club and learned I’m not the only one worried about my kid.
To my daughter’s plan to buy a white Mercedes, I said, “Why not?” To my surprise, this kid, who has “lacked initiative,” signed up for an online driving course, started studying for her permit, and lined up babysitting gigs to start saving money. All I did was pause and listen. And not say no.
The piano? I sound bad. I don’t care. It feels good to play music again.
But I still said no to the bus trip to Las Vegas. For now.
Dr. Ron Alexander’s Steps to Getting to a Yes State
Every day, take a mindful pause. It’s like taking your pulse. During this pause, identify three things: thoughts, feelings, and current beliefs. With each one, ask: Are they positive, neutral, or negative?
Take a negative belief, and pose an antidote. For example: I don’t believe I can pass this test. A positive antidote would be I am fully capable of passing this test. You may have determined, in your mindful pause, I feel anxious about this test.
If your body is in a state of anxiety, he says, “You have to shift your body’s physiology.” The quickest way to do that? Get on the yoga mat, take a walk, go surfing. “The physical exercise will shift the neurons in your brain,” says Alexander, and enable you to shift from no (I can’t) to yes (I’m capable).
Sample some guided meditations on Alexander’s site. Scroll down to listen to “Positive Antidote Remedies for Overcoming Negative Self Judgments.”
Great Yeses of History
Yes to Imagine and Giving Peace a Chance
John Lennon strolled into Yoko Ono’s art studio in 1966 and encountered a ladder. A sign at the bottom invited “Step Up!” He climbed, expecting the words at the top to read “Piss off!” Instead, he read YES. It was, he said, like the sun coming out. He credited it with an extraordinary shift inside himself, personally and musically.
Yes to Nonviolence
As the leader of Indian nationalism in the 1930s and ’40s, Mahatma Gandhi was convinced he could gain independence for his country without firing a bullet. How, Lord Mountbatten asked, did Gandhi expect the British to depart? “I expect you will just walk out,” he told the viceroy, who found the idea inconceivable. Gandhi simply did not see the no, and in the end, the British left peacefully and an international movement for nonviolent protest was born.
When No Means Yes
In a classic case of using no to affirm herself and half the population of her country, Susan B. Anthony said no: women will no longer accept having no rights. Despite having a great fear of public speaking, she stepped into a yes state and, with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, traversed the country giving speeches and appealing to the government to treat men and women equally. In 1869, she founded the National Women’s Suffrage Association, and went on to say, “Yes, I will vote,” in November 1872, for which she was arrested and convicted by a jury that had been instructed by the judge to return a guilty verdict. Though she was not imprisoned, she was ordered to pay a fine of $100, to which she said no (the fine remained unpaid for the rest of her life).