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For a More Meaningful Life, Nix the No

Saying yes is hard, but it points the way to a bigger, fuller life


by Janice Holly Booth

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Some situations in life beg for a no—wearing a red dress to a funeral, kissing a perfect stranger on the lips (unless it’s Brad Pitt)—but habitual naysayers lose far more than they gain by nixing new opportunities. 

Although saying no often feels safer than saying yes, there’s a significant cost that you may not even realize: you stay stuck with what you have. PR and media guru Peter Shankman, author of Nice Companies Finish First: Why Cutthroat Management Is Over and Collaboration Is In, says “There are times to say no. The problem is…the majority of the times we’re saying no, we’re saying no for the wrong reasons.” He believes we say no because it’s easier than saying yes: “Saying yes opens a world of doors and potential that saying no shuts down. Saying yes…opens up connections for you that would otherwise remain closed.”

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Overcoming the habit of saying no isn’t as simple as just forcing yourself to say yes. Many of us weigh the pros and cons of a decision, but it turns out that this tried-and-true method often backfires. In fact, scientists say that humans are hardwired to have a bias toward negativity when comparing the pros and cons of a decision. People tend to recognize risks before identifying opportunity and they place a higher premium on potential losses than they do on equivalent gains. They react more strongly to negative stimuli than they do to positive ones. So if evaluating plusses and minuses doesn’t always work, what does?

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Ryan Babineaux, Ph.D and John Drumboltz, Ph.D of Stanford University, and co-authors of the book Fail Fast, Fail Often, suggest using a “One Yes Trumps Three No’s” rule when considering whether to do something new. As you develop a list of pros and cons, they say, give each positive reason three times as much weight as each negative, and assign extra value to any activity that is likely to introduce you to what they call “happenstance”—new experiences, learning, perspectives, people or places. It’s saying yes to the happenstances in life that make living richer, more interesting and way more fun.

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Another way to enforce a positive response is to do what Babineaux and Drumboltz call “jumping on a springboard”—taking a step that will catapult you to action, like buying an airline ticket to China before you’ve thought the whole trip through. Interestingly, the most effective springboards are those that involve commitments to others. “Although it is easy to be indecisive and wimp out when it comes to [ourselves], most of us will hold firm when we make a promise to others,” say the authors. So the next time someone suggests you audition for Survivor, don’t say yes, say “Hell, yes!” and watch what happens. With practice, no may become the least-used word in your vocabulary.

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