Maximize Positive Thoughts and Emotions

How to cultivate more positive thoughts and feelings, while minimizing the negative
Maximize Positive Thoughts
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Whether you reach for a beer at the end of the day, start to scroll through social media on your lunch break or bite your nails when you’re bored, most people have habits. The thing about habits is we go to them automatically and unconsciously, so breaking them can be hard, even when we know we should. Negative emotions and thought patterns can also be habitual – the more often we think and feel a certain way, the stronger those connections become in our brains.

When we learn a new skill or language, our brains actually start to re-wire; new connections are made and the brain can bring in parts of the brain that weren’t being used before for a new task.

This is quite a recent finding and goes against the old idea that our brain patterns are set in stone, and is referred to as neuroplasticity (Davidson, Jackson & Kalin, 2000). This is why practice makes perfect – every time you work on a new skill, your brain works to make it easier for you the next time by making new connections.

Think of any part of your brain as a muscle – the more you use it, the stronger it gets. The same thing can apply for negative thinking; the more you turn to negative interpretations of events, the more entrenched these patterns get, and the easier it is to do in the future. If you’ve been thinking in a certain way for years it can feel almost impossible to start looking at things from a more positive, understanding, or loving perspective (Garland & Howard, 2009) – but the good news is that you can start to make the shift. The idea of shifting the way you think is even used to help people with anxiety or phobias, for example; Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) seeks to help people learn how to identify destructive thought patterns and to change them.

The idea, of course, is not to brainwash yourself into being happy all the time or to “train” yourself to like a bad situation. There are some situations that we simply need to get out of. However, if you have been practicing awareness and mindfulness and find that you often turn to angry, pessimistic, or self-defeating thoughts, it might be time to look at exactly what you’re saying to yourself and consider other ways of processing the situation. The goal is that, eventually, your “go-to” thoughts are not unnecessarily negative, but constructive and kind.

Here are some examples of automatic negative thinking that you may do every day, but be completely unaware of – and ways to challenge those thoughts.

  • “I’m such an idiot!” – This is typically when you’ve done something wrong, made a mistake, or forgotten something, but it can even be a reaction to when somebody else has wronged us and we feel stupid for trusting them in the first place. Where did this come from? Were you ever called stupid as a child? When you attack yourself for something that you could not have possibly predicted or known or a mistake that anybody else could have made, you’re showing a hidden belief that you should never make mistakes.
    • To challenge this thought – do you genuinely believe that you are not intelligent? How could you have acted differently to avoid this mistake, and is that a realistic expectation to have of anybody? What would you say to a close friend who had made the same mistake?
  • “It’ll never work/I’m sure to fail/there’s no point trying” – when we’re afraid of making big changes in our lives, it’s often easier to tell ourselves that there’s no way our dreams would play out, anyway. This can be the result of negative people in our lives, from the constant barrage of awful stories we’re told through the news or the unrealistic standards of physical attractiveness and success we’re shown.
    • Deciding that you’ve failed before you’ve even tried is a convenient way to avoid taking action. Ask yourself – exactly how do I know that it won’t work? What facts do I have to back that up? What if it doesn’t work out – what’s the worst-case scenario? What if it DOES work out? Sometimes the thought of success can be even scarier than the thought of failure, as it’s a plunge into unknown waters – at least most of us are familiar with a bit of failure.
  • “She hates me/Nobody likes me/Did you see the way he looked at me?” People are very social creatures, and the fear of being excluded by our fellow humans can terrify us. When your self-esteem is low, you can often interpret a cold glance or a short reply to mean that person doesn’t like you. When you assume they don’t like you, it might change the way you act towards them, which might actually end up with them not liking you!
    • Instead, think of times where that person has been nice or pleasant to you – perhaps they’re having a bad day? If they’re not a very nice person, think of how they act around everyone else – is it you they don’t like or are they just that way with everyone? How would you prove to a judge that this person didn’t like you? Also, if they don’t like you, why does it matter?

There are obviously tons of thoughts that go through our heads every day, and these are just a few examples. But on a serious note, if you find that negative thoughts are really overwhelming you and you suspect that you may have severe anxiety or depression, I would recommend that you seek professional help as well. A psychotherapist or counselor might be able to help you work through some of the reasons behind your feelings and thoughts.

So how can you start to cultivate more positive thoughts and feelings, while minimizing the negative?

One way is to look at your surroundings and to think about what kind of messages you’re taking in on a daily basis.

When we’re surrounded by negative people or messages, it can be even harder to break free. Take, for example, the news: does the news make you feel uplifted, good about the world, or full of hope? Or is it more likely to fill you with anger, fear, or a sense of defeat? Other media can be just as bad, for example, social media and magazines that fill our minds with ideals that we can’t live up to, causing us to feel that we’ve somehow failed because we aren’t successful or attractive enough.

Watching the news can skew the way we see the world; if the news is telling you that the world is a dangerous, horrible place, you might become less likely to trust people or take risks. News stories that play up the emotional trauma that a victim has been through increases our thoughts that the same thing might happen to us, even if it’s statistically very unlikely (Aust & Zillmann, 1996), while watching negatively-skewed news bulletins can increase anxiety and sadness, as well as making people more likely to catastrophize their own worries (that is, to overplay them to an extreme degree) (Johnston & Davey, 1997).

If you watch a lot of news, your go-to thought when faced with a new opportunity might be to assume that it will go wrong; to turn to fear and dread because you’re so used to hearing that the world is dangerous and untrustworthy. I’m not saying you should bury your head in the sand and avoid the news completely; for some of us, it can be important to be aware of what’s happening in the world and to be prepared for possible danger.

The problems happen when you dwell on news stories for the entire day rather than focusing on what’s in front of you, or if you don’t stop and ask questions – for example, could the story you’re reading be biased, untrue or exaggerated? How statistically likely is this to actually happen to you? If you do like to keep up to date, recent studies show that taking some time to relax after watching/reading can bring your mood back up to normal, while jumping straight into another task can keep you in a state of anxiety (Szabo & Hopkinson, 2007).

You might not be aware of the impact that the media has on how you think about the world and your own life. For a few days, try to jot down your feelings every time you’ve watched TV or read the news. Do you find that the results are more negative than positive?

If you feel angry, depressed, or afraid afterward, try to ask yourself why you feel that way. Be mindful of the emotions flowing through you and let them pass, but curiously ask yourself whether the world is really as bad as it is being portrayed. Look for ways to relax or remind yourself of the good things in the world before moving on to something else.

Maximizing Positivity Through Positive Relationships

Another way to reduce the amount of negativity in your life is to consider the influence of the people you spend your time with. Are they people that encourage you and provide a safe, loving, supportive atmosphere where you can explore your full potential? Or are they criticizing, pessimistic, fearful people who you can’t show your true colors to for fear of what they might say?

Almost everyone knows at least one of those people who, as much as you may love them, can suck the fun and enthusiasm out of any situation. You take them along to a party; they spend the whole night complaining and make you feel guilty if you talk to anybody but them. They never tell you that you are doing good, but are keen to point out anything you do wrong. They never seem to have anything nice to say about anyone else and you spend most of your time listening to them complain about their boss/co-workers/partner. If you had a new, exciting idea, you would worry about telling them because you know their reaction would be to find fault and tell you how silly you were being.

Think about it; are there any people in your life who you feel emotionally drained after spending time with, rather than uplifted?

Unfortunately, sometimes the first person that comes to mind is a parent or your partner, and the closer a person is to us the harder it can be to admit the damage they might be doing to us.

According to a study by Gable, Gonzaga and Strachman (2006), one of the stronger predictors of how long a romantic relationship will last is how they react to your good news. Imagine that you rush to this person, excited because you’ve finally been offered a new job. Does this person:

  • Get very excited, congratulate you and offer to go out and celebrate?
  • Seem quite happy for you, but otherwise don’t make much of a big deal out of it?
  • Seem completely disinterested?
  • Say something like “well, you’ll just have to work a lot of extra hours now” or “What if your new boss is horrible?”

According to the results of the study, couples who reacted to each other’s positive news with the first kind of reaction – active and constructive – generally were more likely to stay together than those who reacted in any other way. This could apply to any relationship – when you feel supported and encouraged, and you believe this person is excited for you, it can give you the confidence to grow and try new things. However, if you feel that your achievements will be met with indifference, criticism or pessimism, it can stop you from even trying.

Through mindfulness, note your own reaction to the way these people talk to you; you might find that every story your friend tells you about her boss is actually fuelling your belief that most people are nasty and vindictive, which in turn might make you less trusting and less likely to take chances. The thought of striking out and trying something new might even lead you to feel tightness in your stomach as you imagine all the discouraging things your friend might say.

It can be hard because things aren’t always as easy as cutting out negative people from your life – sometimes these are people you have a long history with, who have supported you in the past and mean a lot to you. It’s especially hard if these people are your family. You might find you have a lot of negative people in your life and that cutting them all out could make you feel very lonely. I don’t suggest that you cut people out, however you could try reducing the amount of time you spend with them or changing the dynamics of the relationship.

If you feel you might be surrounded by negative people, one question to ask yourself is: why have I attracted so many into my life?

There are plenty of encouraging, enthusiastic, positive people out there, but the vibes we give out determine the type of people who want to hang out with us. If the energy that you’re giving out is negative, pessimistic, or judgmental, it’s likely that others who share this mindset will be drawn to you – misery loves company, after all. If you’re passive, weak, and have low self-esteem, you might also find that you draw bullies into your life – those who enjoy having a sense of control over others and look for it in the easiest places.

The happier a person is, the more likely they are to have a large circle of friends, a romantic partner and a good social support network, according to Lyubomirsky et al. (2005) – of course, if you already have these things you’re more likely to be happy, but it’s a two-way relationship. The more positive and happy you are, the more likely it is that like-minded people will want to be your friend. According to the researchers, this means that if you start working on getting the most out of your life and relationships today, it will make you feel happier – which in turn will attract more and more high-quality relationships into your life (making you even happier).

So – the more you work on your well-being using other tips and techniques in this program, the more likely it is that encouraging, loving people will see you as the kind of person they want in their lives. As for your existing relationships, there are a few possibilities – your new-found positivity could have a great influence on your friends and encourage them to start thinking about things a little differently, too.

Sadly, sometimes people will see you change into something outside their comfort zone and start to distance themselves from you; a friend who has thought of you as his “partner in misery” could feel very threatened or jealous to see a happy, successful new you and start to distance himself from you. At the same time, the more your attitude starts to shift, the more you might find that you don’t really want to spend time with someone who never stops complaining.

Before you write off anyone in your life as negative, try to shift the way you talk to them.

As your awareness grows, you can start to notice the bad habits you’ve fallen into – there might be a friend you meet for coffee, where you automatically start to gossip or complain about people you know because it’s how you bond. Once you realize this and find yourself gossiping, try to shift the conversation a little – for example, share a piece of good news that you’ve heard about somebody and express that you are genuinely happy for them.

Perhaps when your friend says something unpleasant about a person, try to balance it out with something nice about them; or just move the conversation somewhere else. This might confuse your friend a lot at first, but over time they might start to get the message that you are not just a sounding board for their complaints.

Talking is important, and it is important to talk about your problems with a trusted friend or counselor.

The danger is that we sometimes talk about our problems with a negative person who does more talking than listening, who seems as if they are not really taking in what we say but waiting to give their own opinion. This can increase the feeling that nobody is really listening to you, which can make you feel lonely. Even if you do have a good, patient friend who listens, it’s important not to overwhelm that person with your issues.

  • When you’ve become used to offloading onto one person, it can be hard to realize that you might be making things worse for yourself by dwelling and ruminating on the negative, and you might be burdening your friend with a lot of negative thoughts in the process.
  • When you find yourself veering down a negative path, try to bring yourself back to the present moment and find something positive to say about it. Positive does not have to mean sugar-coating the situation; it can mean looking for a solution, rather than dwelling on how bad things are.

Think of the research by Gable, Gonzaga, and Strachman (2006) – how do you react when your loved ones share the good news with you? If you find that you don’t show much emotion, perhaps because your immediate reaction is jealousy, resentment or worry about what could go wrong; try to question your thoughts and look at why this might be and how you can start to show more support.

While it’s good to look out for the interests of your friend – perhaps holding back on the champagne when she tells you she’s marrying the guy she met last night – there are times when celebrating and relishing their good news will strengthen your relationship and encourage their happiness and growth.

Imagine your girl-friend just managed to get a promotion. How do you react?

  • You might find yourself feeling jealous – she’s going to be spending even more time in the office, away from you. You might worry about her; did she do the right thing? What if she hates it? What if you end up having to listen to her complain about all the extra responsibilities?
  • Instead of dwelling on the worst-case scenario, think of how you’d like her to react to your successes, and treat her in that way. Challenge your automatic reactions to it – if she IS away more often, what extra activities does this give you more time for? Perhaps you can pick up a new hobby. There might be downsides to the promotion, but what are the positives?
  • As you arrange the celebratory dinner, she might seem confused – it might be new and alien to her if she’s used to you focusing on the negative, but hopefully, your enthusiasm will rub off on her and come back to you the next time you have good news.

As well as capitalizing on your loved ones’ successes, Sonja Lyubormirsky in The How of Happiness suggests a few techniques for strengthening your relationships. She focuses on romantic relationships but these tips can apply across the board.

Firstly, she suggests making time to talk to each other every week – for couples, she recommends at least five hours a week of talking to each other. That means actually talking, in person, with no distractions; going out to dinner, and actually making eye contact, rather than scrolling through your phone during the starter.

She points out the dangers of unhappy relationships – depression, stress, anxiety, and impaired health – and suggests that such dangers outweigh the risks of taking a little time off from work every now and again to nurture your relationship. In other words, set aside time specifically for being with the people you’re closest to, commit to that time and promise each other that you will talk to each other rather than simply occupying the same space while you look at phones or tablets.

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References

  • Aust, C. F., & Zillmann, D. (1996). Effects of victim exemplification in television news on viewer perception of social issues. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly73(4), 787-803.
  • Davidson, R. J., Jackson, D. C., & Kalin, N. H. (2000). Emotion, plasticity, context, and regulation: perspectives from affective neuroscience.Psychological bulletin126(6), 890.
  • Garland, E. L., & Howard, M. O. (2009). Neuroplasticity, psychosocial genomics, and the biopsychosocial paradigm in the 21st century. Health & social work34(3), 191-199.
  • Gable, S. L., Gonzaga, G. C., & Strachman, A. (2006). Will you be there for me when things go right? Supportive responses to positive event disclosures.Journal of personality and social psychology91(5), 904.
  • Johnston, W. M., & Davey, G. C. (1997). The psychological impact of negative TV news bulletins: The catastrophizing of personal worries. British Journal of Psychology88(1), 85-91.
  • Lyubomirsky, S., King, L., & Diener, E. (2005). The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success?. Psychological Bulletin,131(6), 803-855.
  • Szabo, A., & Hopkinson, K. L. (2007). Negative psychological effects of watching the news in the television: Relaxation or another intervention may be needed to buffer them!. International Journal of Behavioural Medicine14(2), 57-62.
  • Pic: https://www.flickr.com/photos/petrolly/30439182084/