The Power of Positive Thinking
We’ve all had those moments when we think we just can’t bear anymore. When it seems the walls are crashing down and we’re powerless to stop it.
“What now?” we wonder, “What else can I do?” Surprisingly, in these exact moments we have a lot more power than it seems. This is when our influence on our perception is apparent and tested. Our experiences can be greatly altered depending on how we perceive them and what meaning we give them. Essentially, if we can modify – even just slightly – our mindset then our entire experience will be transformed. What makes us feel desperation, grief, and hopelessness, can evolve into an opportunity for feelings of happiness, relaxation, hope, and even contentment.
Yes, there will most certainly be those days where it helps to give in and hide under the covers. Being “positive” and upbeat all the time simply isn’t authentic. Part of self care can include giving yourself that allowance to feel grumpy, indulge in that day where you just sit in front of the TV and eat that pint of ice cream. But when it overtakes you and acts as a barrier to living and partaking in life, it’s just not helpful anymore and a mind shift is needed.
The glass half empty vs. half full
Positive thinking requires you to pay attention to how your mind is reacting to stressful scenarios. Notice the labels and meanings you give these stressful moments. Something is only “good” or “bad” if you define it as so. The frequently used metaphor of the glass as half empty or half full is a wonderful illustration of this concept. Both are true but it is the perspective you choose that gives the same situation a label of good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, happy or sad.
Viktor Frankl spoke and wrote frequently about this point. As a psychiatrist his philosophy was molded by his experience as a Holocaust survivor. Frankl noticed that even in the camps a rich life and existence was possible if one can give meaning to these experiences in a way that’s satisfying and real.
“The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance. (Viktor Frankl) ”
Let’s understand what it means to partake in positive thinking. It is not simply forcing a smile on your face and declaring that everything will be just fine in light of tragedy and chaos (although some studies indicate that this can help, in my work with clients I haven’t found it to be everlasting). The essence of positive thinking is that you must believe it. You have to find the evidence that convinces you that there is something good in the situation. Merely telling yourself, “Everything will be ok” doesn’t usually cut it – it’s not particularly convincing.
To paint a picture of this point, I’ll take an everyday occurrence that I’m sure most of us can relate to. Let’s say today has been one of those days - the one when it seems that everything that can go wrong does. On the way to work you got stuck in the rain. Your clothes are soaked and you don’t have a spare outfit. You are late, the boss is upset, and there is an overwhelming pile of paperwork sitting on your desk. After you make it through the day, you come home to find your child sick with a stomach virus. You follow her around cleaning up the mess as she gets sick, but when you retreat to the washing machine to begin the endless loads of laundry you discover that it is broken. What can the positive spin possibly be to a day like this?
The key is to look for clues that there is some positive meaning or experience of the day. Some ideas are: “Well, I certainly learned that I can survive a day under such intense pressure” or “I discovered I have a skill of cleaning puke without a washing machine!” or “This definitely calls for a personal day tomorrow- a break I wouldn’t usually give myself but now I’ve earned it and I’ll enjoy it” or “I’ll definitely appreciate whatever tomorrow brings, it can’t be as bad as today” or “I may have come late to work today, but those extra few minutes spared me even more stressful work at the office.” Whatever perspective you choose, it has to be convincing, therefore support it with ‘evidence’. The glass is in fact both half empty and half full; it’s which perspective you choose that will influence your mood and mindset.
The above example is but a relatively small issue. Stressful? Yes. Life altering? Probably not. What about the mother who sits at her child’s bedside in the hospital; the father who just lost his job for the third time; the single mother who struggles to raise her children on her own while feeling misplaced in the carpool lane; the child who lost her parents in a terrorist attack and grapples with nightmares.
I will not attempt to belittle and degrade these hardships with a simple answer. However, I’ve noticed the experience of such painful circumstances can become more bearable depending on the meaning that it is given. Whether it’s “These experiences are shaping me into the sensitive and resilient person I am”, or, “The relationships I’ve formed from this experience are deep and will carry me through my life”, or even, “I’ve been given the opportunity to experience more pleasure in the small things in life than I ever thought possible”.
Of course this is not to imply that this will make someone who is going though unspeakable trauma ‘happy’ per se with the painful experience. There is no doubt that the distressing situation is not Plan A. The message is that while you are unable to change the situation, you are at least in the powerful position to give it an essence that is meaningful to you. This is a very personal process- remember the meaning you assign to your life’s experiences must come from you.
THE PRESENT PERSEPCTIVE
Avoid future tripping!
Not only is it helpful to focus on positive thoughts, but it’s also important to avoid making a bad situation worse. One surefire way to sidestep this trap is to stop yourself from tripping on the possibilities of future hardships. Often when a situation is unbearably stressful it’s because you’re anticipating the grief it’ll cause in the future. You might be acting as if these horrible events will most certainly occur and begin to feel the stress in the present as if it’s actually happening now. It’s excruciating and quite frankly exhausting.
Typically a person interprets something as bad because of how he/she assumes it’ll turn out; how events will unfold because of today’s occurrences. But who are you to actually know what will happen? Unless you are a prophet and God has recently taken up personal conversations with you, you are clueless as to what tomorrow brings. This is quite a frightening yet liberating thought. If you are clueless and can’t be sure what the future will bring, the possibilities are endless- not just for the unpleasant but also for those amazing things that your heart desires.
Lost your job today? It’s painful, insulting, degrading, and scary. Yet you only interpret this scenario as intrinsically bad because of how you imagine future events will unfold as a result of it. “I got laid off today, I won’t be able to get another job, I won’t have money to pay for my children’s tuition, or the mortgage, I’ll lose respect from my peers, I’ll be embarrassed, I’ll be at home all day every day and feel depressed....” Keep in mind though, that other scenarios are just as possible. Now that you’re not working, other great opportunities can come your way. Tomorrow you can be your own boss and do whatever you please. You can sleep in, go to a museum, or spend more time with the children. Next week you just may meet someone at the grocery store in middle of the day (when you would typically be at the job you no longer have) and get the offer of a lifetime. You might even decide to change careers for something that is more fulfilling and with more success.
I’m sure some of you are reading this and rolling your eyes. I know this because I’d probably be doing the same. You may be thinking “I know from experience there is a slim likelihood that these positive expectations will happen.” But, ask yourself, are you really 100% sure of that? Do you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that tomorrow will bring you more angst and disappointment? No? Then for today I encourage you to live in the shadow of that doubt. Give yourself real hope and the incredible exhilaration that comes with it. Don’t you deserve at least that? And if tomorrow is indeed horrible, you’ll deal with it then. Today is difficult enough. You have plenty of problems on your hands to address; you don’t need to borrow more problems from tomorrow’s potential issues. Don’t trip on the possibility of some hardship in the future. It’s just not worth it.
Enrich your pleasure experience.
Now that you have some understanding of this concept, it’s time for another great exercise. Mindfulness is a skill that can help you to fully appreciate and experience the pleasurable moments you now notice. Mindfulness essentially is just paying attention. Pay attention when things go well. Notice when you are experiencing something pleasurable. In the midst of that terrible day, perhaps you notice that your lunch was really tasty and left you feeling satisfied, that you got a seat on the train, or that your children did not fight.
It’s virtually impossible for there to be a day when nothing goes well. Notice these moments, and when they occur really be present in them. Pay attention while it’s happening. Notice the physical sensations of tasting that yummy lunch, the relief in your knees and back when you take the seat on the train, the sound of your children playing together. Mindfulness will enrich these moments and make them just as – or even more – powerful as the stressful ones.
JUST FOR KIDS
Adapting positive thinking for your children
As a child and family therapist, whenever I come across a great idea or exercise I immediately consider how it can be useful for children. Children are concrete learners, so explaining the vague concepts of the meaning of life, interpretation of events, and perspective taking will likely just bore and confuse them. Instead, I like to put these ideas into action by using fun games. There are a myriad of activities to do with these concepts, but due to finite space I’ll share just two here.
When your child comes home from school and is complaining about his bad day, here are some ideas of how to help him adjust his frame of mind for positive thinking. The first response, of course, is to hear him out. Validate what he experienced that day and why it bothered him. Then introduce him to a new game. In this game he has a very challenging job that you are positive he can succeed at, he must be the ‘happy detective’. Tell him to look back at his day and find moments that were good; moments when he felt happy. Did the teacher smile at him when he got an answer right? Did he get to play with his friends at recess? Did he enjoy the snack you packed for him? Did he laugh at lunch time? Your child can even carry around a ‘Super Duper Top Secret Detective’ notebook where he can compile lists, descriptions, or pictures of these moments. It can completely alter his way of thinking and may turn into a game the whole family will partake in.
You can also teach your child mindfulness techniques. Help him use his five senses to illustrate how these positive moments feel. Have him describe what the lunch tasted like; the sounds of his friends playing at recesses; the feeling on the soles of his feet when running in the grass; the taste of his snack, etc. This activity will add even more meaning to the positive experiences he has already noticed.
Hopefully this article has given you insight and something to muse about. Techniques you can use today that will affect your mood, perspective, and sense of happiness. Try some of the games with your children and give me your feedback; I’d love to hear how they turn out.