Saturday, August 14, 2010

Cultivating Positivity

A large part of my adventures in awareness involves monitoring my thoughts. Thoughts, feelings and behaviors are all intertwined, and can have a profound impact on daily functioning and overall wellbeing. Often times, people in distress will try to change their feelings directly, thinking "I shouldn't feel this way." But in fact these kind of thoughts only perpetuate negative feelings. Rather than just feeling bad, you feel bad about feeling bad.

One rule of the thumb I try to live by is: "There is no such thing as a 'wrong' feeling." Whatever you are feeling, you are entitled to it.  What matters is how you react to your feeling. In other words, even though you cannot control the way you feel, you have control over what thoughts and behaviors you generate in response to your feeling. This doesn't mean it's easy to change your thoughts and behaviors, but over time improvements can be made. Ultimately these improvements will lead to more permanent changes in automatic thoughts and emotional reactions.

Changing feelings takes time. But in the moment, you can chose what thoughts to think.

However, there is an exception to this. Just like emotional reactions, we have automatic thoughts (thoughts we cannot control), and often times these thoughts are negative. Whether they are about ourselves (I'm no good," "I can't do it."), about others ("she thinks she's better than me," "he doesn't care about me") or about the world ("life's unfair," "there's no hope for humanity."), everyone has them. Some just happen to have them more than others. While an automatic thought cannot be "rid of" it can be redirected and balanced. Rather than ruminating over these automatic negative thoughts, you can transition to positive ones. Look for the silver lining, give people the benefit of the doubt, attune yourself to positive posibilities and find evidence that contradicts your negative thoughts. Cultivate positivity.

But why is positivity important?

Positive thinking has been shown to have beneficial effects in several areas of life. Below I have included an excerpt from about the impact of positive thinking:

Researchers continue to explore the effects of positive thinking and optimism on health. Health benefits that positive thinking may provide include:

  • Increased life span
  • Lower rates of depression
  • Lower levels of distress
  • Greater resistance to the common cold
  • Better psychological and physical well-being
  • Reduced risk of death from cardiovascular disease
  • Better coping skills during hardships and times of stress

Sounds pretty good, right? So, why aren't more people optimistic? These are the reasons that seem most likely to me:

1) The brain has evolved to notice the negative. Preventing potential danger or threat is more critical to survival than delighting in the joys of life.

2) Socially, negative events are more interesting to talk about. If you don't believe me, watch the news.

3) Many people assume that their feelings=reality. If you are feeling sad, angry, threatened etc, it is easy to interpret the situation in a way that is congruent with these emotions.

4) Negative thinking can be used to avoid situations that are scary or uncomfortable. For instance if you believe "I can't do it" then you never have to try, thus avoiding possible failure or rejection.

5) Negativity may be an ingrained habit learned early in life. If those around you engaged in negative thought patterns, you probably learned to think this way also.

5) People are generally afraid of breaking away from their point of view or seeing the world as uncertain or ambiguous. Entertaining positive thoughts requires you to consider that your perception of reality might not be accurate. Scarrrryyyyyyy.

6) Sometimes positive thinking "doesn't work." Many people try to think positive but still end up feeling bad or making poor choices. As a result they give up on positive thinking.

6) Positive thinking takes work! Cultivating positivity takes time, effort and awareness.

Although positive thinking takes work, I would argue: it's worth it! My chosen experiment for the week is: to see the positive in others. My hope is that by doing so I will have better interactions with others, improved quality in my relationships, and a better self-concept. 

One situation that I have noticed where negativity towards others creeps in, is in the face of ignorance. I am extrememly irritated by ignorance, in fact I might even go as far to say I loathe ignorance. When people make (what I perceive as) misinformed comments, irrational generalizations, intolerant judgements, overconfident assertions, or state opinions as fact...I get so angry!! This is particularly true when I may know more about a given subject and my voice is not even heard. As a result I may harbor negative feelings towards a person or make negative judgements about their intellect or integrity.

On some level I think its okay for me to hate ignorance, but I still want to try to give people the benefit of the doubt. Above all, I do not want to let my emotional reaction to perceived ignorance to negatively affect my relationships or personal conduct.

Despite my motivation to make this change, I know finding the silver lining in this type of circumstance will be especially challenging for me. Some other negative thoughts that I want to direct myself away from include:

1) Assuming someone thinks negative things about me (e.g. thinking I'm stupid, boring, annoying, etc.)

2) Thinking that someone is trying to intentionally piss me off or snub me

3) Thinking that someone perceives themself as "better than me" in some way

4) Labeling or judging people (e.g. that person is dumb, lazy, conceited, selfish, attention-starved, ignorant)

5) Interpreting annoying or distressing behaviors as "intentional"

6) Thinking that someone has ulterior motives when they are doing something positive

7) Interpreting lack of positive attention from a person as an indicator of their dislike of me or that they "don't care."

These are just a few of the many examples of negative thoughts that one might have in regard to another person. My goal is to try an experiment in Positive Sentiment Override (e.g. always giving someone the benefit of the doubt). To do so I will utilize my positive filter, focusing on the most positive interpretation of the person/siutation that I can given the evidence that is presented to me.

Perhaps at times my positive interpretation will be false, but if the situation is ambiguous, what advantage does it give me to assume the negative without first gathering more information? During this experiment I will pay attention to the challenges and drawbacks of interpreting others positively, as well as the benefits. I'm hoping for mostly benefits.

"If you dislike someone, the way they hold their fork will make you furious. But if you like them, they can turn their plate over in your lap and you won't even mind."
--John Gottman, Ph.D, famous couples therapist & researcher
If you're interested in watching a short video about How to Practice Positive Thinking watch here !

My cavaets to "positive thinking." Positive thinking should NOT be used to:
  • Ignore or avoid problems
  • Assume that things will "work out" without putting in effort or using good judgement
  • Invalidate someone's feelings (i.e. not empathizing & acknowleding their negative experience)
  • Perpetuate irrational beliefs (e.g. "I'm going to win the lottery")
  • Disregard or "get over" your own negative feelings without properly addressing them
  • Discount facts or scientific evidence
  • Avoid getting help when you need it (assuming that positive thinking is all you need)

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