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Positive Thinking: Changing Your Thoughts for a Better Life

As the pace of modern life has increased to an all time high, it is more important than ever to take care of your mental health through practicing stress reduction, optimism and gratitude. Optimism has been scientifically proven to improve your immune system, prevent chronic disease, and help cope with stressful events. Gratitude is directly related to optimism and studies have shown that grateful people have healthier better moods, receive ample support from friends and family, and show decreased levels of stress and depression. Recent research indicates that optimists and pessimists approach problems differently based on how they perceive a given situation.  As you might guess, pessimists and optimists see different results when trying to solve these problems, and the optimists are the ones better at solving conflicts and producing successful outcomes.  Which one do you want to be?

Positive thinking has sometimes been associated with people that are ignorantly blissful and out of touch with reality.  This false connotation completely dismisses the work that people put in to practice mindfulness in order to reframe situations and therefore change their perceptions.  One can be highly positive without being blind to the realities of the world.  There is also a distinct difference between having a healthy amount of skepticism and being pessimistic. 

You may be thinking, “If I have to work for something then I must be doing something wrong right now.” Being happy and optimistic is not evolutionarily natural to us, it is a skill that we must cultivate and work towards every day. It is the same concept as working out at the gym every day to build strong muscles.  So what does it take to think positively and what happens when you think negatively?

Studies have shown that negative thoughts create a viscious downward spiral whereas positive thoughts create the opposite effect. For example, people who are depressed have a negative view of themselves and their lives, and these negative views lead to more symptoms of depression.  It takes some effort to make a change from negative to positive thoughts.  No one volunteers for being depressed, but they can choose to put in the work to develop positive thinking habits.  Check out the exercise below to see where your trajectory of thoughts is leading you.

Automatic Thoughts Exercise

“Automatic thinking” is a concept that has been around for awhile. We all have outside events that trigger our minds to think a certain way without us knowing that it is going on or knowing we have a choice in how we feel or respond. The Automatic Thoughts Questionnaire (ATQ-30) created by Hollon and Kendall in 1980 and also Ingram and Wisnicki in 1988 gives examples of positive and negative automatic thoughts that occur in peoples’ minds without them consciously knowing. These thoughts steer how someone feels and reacts to a given situation. For this exercise, note any thoughts that have come across your mind. You can even print out this text, copy and paste it into a word document to edit it or circle what thoughts occur in your mind. If nothing jumps out at you, keep these examples in the back of your mind and come back to it in a day or two. You might find you are more aware of your thoughts and can better pick out what has occurred in your mind. Begin by circling or noting which thoughts often come across your mind below:

Group 1 (Negatives)

“I can’t get things together.”
“What’s the matter with me?”
“I’m a loser.”
“My life is a mess.”
“I’ll never make it.”
“I feel so helpless.”
“There must be something wrong with me.”
“My future is bleak.”
“I can’t finish anything.”
“I feel like I’m up against the world.”
“I’m no good.”
“Why can’t I ever succeed?”
“No one understands me.”
“I’ve let people down.”
“I wish I were a better person.”
“I’m so weak.”
“My life’s not going the way I want it to.”
“I’m so disappointed in myself.”
“I can’t get started.”
“What’s wrong with me?”
“I wish I were somewhere else.”

Group 2 (Positives)

“I am respected by my peers.”
“I have a good sense of humor.”
“My future looks bright.”
“I will be successful.”
“I’m fun to be with.”
“I am in a great mood.”
“There are many people who care about me.”
“I’m proud of my accomplishments.”
“I will finish what I start.”
“I have many good qualities.”
“I am comfortable with life.”
“I am a lucky person.”
“I have friends who support me.”
“Life is exciting.”
“I enjoy a challenge.”
“I’m so relaxed.”
“I’m happy with the way I look.”
“I take good care of myself.”
“I deserve the best in life.”
“I have many useful qualities.”
“I won’t give up.”
“I state my opinions with confidence.”
"I am grateful."
“Today I’ve accomplished a lot.” 

Did you identify with more thoughts in group 1 or group 2? Are you satisfied with your results? If not, what would you like to change? Try drawing a box around the ideas you would like to adopt. Take the negative thoughts circled in group 1 and come up with an opposite statement to counter that thought.  The opposite might already exist in group 2. For example, when you are feeling overwhelmed you might have the negative automatic thought “I feel like I’m up against the world.” This can be reframed and replaced with “I enjoy a challenge” or “I’ve accomplished a lot.”  One small perspective change to the same situation can completely change the trajectory of your thoughts and therefore, little by little, change the trajectory of your life. How powerful is that?  

Tips to increase positive thinking every day

Try something new

Studies have shown that when you try a new activity, be it playing a sport, attending an event, exploring a new place outdoors, joining a club, taking a day trip, or any other healthy new adventure, the mind is given the opportunity to bring in new thoughts now that you are in a fresh environment. Because you are doing something your brain isn’t used to, it is almost shaken up and it easily looks for new input to take in to settle back down.

Read an inspiring book

People have found that when you are exposed to new ideas, the possibilities seem endless and you feel more hopeful. When you see that something can be done and someone overcame adversity to do so, it shows you that you can overcome your own daunting obstacles and be victorious as well.

Meditation

Studies by countless people such as Barbara  Fredrickson’s publication Open Hearts Build Lives: Positive Emotions, Induced Through Loving-Kindness Meditation, Build Consequential Personal Resources show that a daily mediation practice resulted in increased mindfulness, purpose in life, social support, decreased frequency of illness and other benefits.

Apps such as Headspace or Calm are a quick and easy way to start meditating. These apps track your progress, offer guided meditations and make the practice so enjoyable that it will be easy to do daily!

Journaling

Journaling has been a hot topic in the past few years, and for good reason.  Journaling allows one to release or at least become aware of thoughts continuously running through the mind that might otherwise go undetected and eventually leave to stress or mental health issues. Writing down your thoughts and feelings allow you to bring awareness and therefore actions to what is going on in your life and how you are responding.

Play!

People in modern society have no problem working themselves into the ground, only stop when they physically have to.  Playing is part of our nature.  Animals burn valuable calories and risk being seen by predators in order to play because it is hardwired into their instincts.  Squeezing in a few minutes of time to freely express yourself or be completely carefree is extremely good for your health.  Being playful reminds us that life isn’t all about work and no reward, we can be joyous as the little children around us every day. As you play more you will find you bring this attitude to every day situations to lighten the mood. Be a kid again, even for just a few minutes.  It is nearly impossible to stay stressed and frowning as you run through a sprinkler or play a practical joke on someone.

Remember, every little step in the right direction counts. Making positive thinking a habit requires hard work, commitment, and consistency, but it is well worth it. The quality of your life and relationships will greatly improve as you begin to create the life you’ve always wanted through reshaping your perspective.