“Kind words can be short and easy to speak but their echoes are truly endless.” (Mother Teresa)
I’ve always loved words. There’s a magic to the fact that we can take 26 letters, combine them into sounds with distinct and nuanced meanings, and then combine those into sentences, paragraphs, and ultimately powerful documents, essays, poems, songs, stories, or novels. We can use words to transact business, fall in love, and engage in deep conversation. We can use them to comfort, connect, instruct, inspire, and control.
I knew the first time I picked up a book that words would open up my world. Later, when I read Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Victor Hugo, Edith Wharton, Robertson Davies, Ralph Ellison, Saul Bellow, Jane Austen and Albert Camus, I saw how books could change not only my life but also the world. I can’t imagine a life where I don’t engage with words—my own words and the words of people who use them with far greater eloquence and wisdom than I.
Words, to me, are organized religion.
Sometimes we underestimate their power. Words can hurt or elevate. They can enlighten or deceive. They can, quite literally, alter our brains. Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, MD, in his book Words Can Change Your Brain, writes that “a single word has the power to influence the expression of genes that regulate physical and emotional stress.” He explains that positive and optimistic words—words like “love” or “peace” or “kindness”—can lower our stress, improve our health, motivate us, and build resilience. Negative words, on the other hand—words like “no” or “hate” or “stupid”—can release multiple stress-producing hormones and neurotransmitters; they can interrupt the functioning of our brains and diminish our logic, reasoning, and language capacities.
Writing for Psychology Today, Dr. Newberg, along with Mark Waldman, advises us to choose our words wisely. Negative words lead to negative thinking, which is “self-perpetuating, and the more you engage in negative dialogue—at home or at work—the more difficult it becomes to stop.”
Our negative talking influences not only our own mood, attitude, and health, but also those same characteristics of anyone listening to us. “The listener will experience increased anxiety and irritability, thus undermining cooperation and trust. In fact, just hanging around negative people will make you more prejudiced toward others.”
They caution parents: “…the same holds true for children: the more negative thoughts they have, the more likely they are to experience emotional turmoil.” But if we teach them to think and speak positively we can turn negative feelings and attitudes to positive ones. And, of course, we teach our children by modeling the speech and behaviors we want them to embrace.
Because our brains are wired for survival and self-protection they respond more rapidly and dramatically to negative thoughts and negative words than to positive ones. For that reason, Newberg and Waldman contend that “to overcome this neural bias for negativity, we must repetitiously and consciously generate as many positive thoughts as we can.” They cite several other psychologists and researchers who believe at a minimum “we need to generate at least three positive thoughts and feelings for each expression of negativity.” And “to really flourish,” the ratio of positive to negative should be five-to-one.
Those of us who love words and who recognize their power have an opportunity here…perhaps even an obligation: We can consistently model positive language and perpetuate positive expression and behavior. As incivility mounts across our country and across the world, and as many of us perceive our deepest values to be threatened, we are learning to be activists; we are choosing to be more vocal than ever. Let’s get it right. Let’s remember that words matter.
“I simply do not think that yelling, swearing, threatening or belittling will get you to the place you want to be faster than kindness, understanding, patience and a little willingness to compromise.” (Rachel Nichols)