We know there is benefit in positive thinking but what if you’re just not up to it right now? Are you doomed to a life of dissatisfaction and discontent?
No. But negative thinking pretty much guarantees it.
This post is about shaping your thinking to be ‘productive’, rather than labelling it as ‘positive’ or ‘negative’.
Last week, I looked at the seasons of happiness – in the ‘summer’, it’s easier to feel positive and in the winter, it’s easier to feel negative. This week, I look at how ‘productive’ thinking, particularly in the ‘autumn’ and ‘winter’ phases can dramatically improve your experience of those phases and the benefits you gather from going through them – benefits that ultimately contribute to your overall happiness.
Productive thinking involves:
- Directing your attention – there is always more to notice than the things you’re biased towards.
- Recognising and welcoming balance – in just the same way as seasons change, happiness comes and goes.
- Accepting all feelings – a life without any ‘negativity’ would be a life without progress. Our ‘negative’ emotions guide us and teach us. Accepting them helps you make the most of the learning they have to offer.
- Mind your self-talk – avoid wrapping your identity up with your thoughts, e.g. “I don’t have any willpower”. Instead, use your self-talk to create some space between you and your thoughts and cast yourself in the role of observer – “My thoughts weaken my willpower”
- Breaking the link between expectations and happiness – attaching your happiness to a specific set of circumstances does two things:
- Makes it more difficult to experience happiness at any other time
- Exacerbates feelings of discontent when you focus on the things that should be happening but aren’t.
Expectations are just resentments under construction.
According to Sonia Lyubormirsky, 50% of our happiness is genetic, 10% comes from our circumstances and 40% is affected by our thinking and actions.
So when it comes to happiness – particularly when it is absent – the best thing we can do is grab hold of that 40% and start making changes.
Direct your attention
This is the precursor of gratitude – generally associated with positive thinking. It’s a great place to make your thinking more productive and may eventually lead you to the end of the spectrum where feelings of gratitude come more easily.
There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.
Most of us are biased in our thinking – we are not seeing, we are interpreting. For example, if I believe I am unlucky, I’m much more likely to notice everything that proves this belief. If, on my way to work, I get stuck behind a large, slow vehicle with no chance to overtake, I might say “Typical! This sort of thing always happens to me! It’s just my luck!” I’ll notice the difficulty finding a parking space, the excessive time I have to wait for the lift and all kinds of other details. By the end of a day, I might have dozens of ways to prove to myself that I have terrible luck.
But if you count up all those experiences, they might total about 10-15 minutes worth of ‘footage’ from my day. What happened the rest of the time? Did I miss examples that disprove my theory about how unlucky I am?
Directing our attention in the opposite direction of our beliefs – particularly when those beliefs hold us back or cause us undue stress – can be an incredibly productive strategy for gathering more balanced information so you have more to work with in order to reshape beliefs.
Recognise and welcome balance
A happy and well-lived life does not have to be a perfect life. In fact, many of the happiest people have become that way after experiencing terrible tragedy and overcoming massive adversity.
Happiness is not permanent and the value of experiencing it comes only if it is part of a myriad of other emotions. Every time we push ourselves, change something, build new relationships and move out of our comfort zones, we’re likely to experience ‘negative’ emotions such as fear and overwhelm but if those things are associated with growth and learning, they are part of the overall experience of happiness.
When we experience severe lows in the form of anxiety or depression, that suggests we have fallen out of balance – possibly something to do with hormones and neurotransmitters, but often simply because we failed to maintain balance in our approach to activities and life.
In my case, I end up depressed and overwhelmed when I push myself too hard for too long without any efforts to stop and reflect. Eventually, my body forces me to crash and I have no choice but to stop. When this happens in ways that feel out of my control, it feels worse, whereas when I make an effort to maintain balance, even during the good times, I am able to sustain them for longer.
Accept all feelings
Feeling low isn’t fun but judging ourselves for our feelings only makes the whole experience worse.
Accepting the feeling helps you gain perspective. Using your self-talk to deliberately distance yourself from the feeling also helps.
Mind your self-talk
Instead of saying things like, “I don’t have any willpower” or “I can’t do that”, choose phrases that seperate your identity from the thought.
In the willpower example, “I don’t have any willpower” carries a whole host of beliefs with it, including, “it’s part of who I am” and “I can’t change it.” That puts you in a tough spot when it comes to moving forward. By separating your identity from the thought you create enough distance to consider changing your thinking. Your thoughts become things you can observe, consider and change if you wish. So you might change to, “my thoughts weaken my willpower.” Now you have something to work with.
Break links between the past, your expectations of others and your happiness
In much the same way as we have to accept our feelings, we also have to accept our past. It cannot be changed but it does not have to feature in today’s choices, nor does it need to feature in the direction our futures take.
In “10 Principles for a Life of Success and Peace”, Dr Wayne Dyer compares our past to the wake of a boat. He explains that our past has no more effect on our ability to move forward than the boat’s wake has on its ability to move forward. If the past holds us back, it is because we are buying into the illusion that we cannot free ourselves from it.*
It can also be helpful to break the links between your happiness and your expectations of others. Expectations have a way of locking us into a specific desired outcome. Once we attach our happiness to that outcome, we feel unhappy or unsatisfied with most other outcomes. Since life is unpredictable, a more useful strategy is to work out how to be satisfied in the absence of any specific outcome.
Footnotes and Disclaimer:
*Breaking the links between the past and your happiness may be challenging and could require the help of someone who knows how to walk you through that process but it is important to recognise that the link can be broken if you choose to do so.
I am not a doctor or psychologist. The ideas shared here are based on my experience and do not consititute therapeutic advice.