Always look on the bright side of life?

If you’re not whistling right now I’m disappointed in you. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you need to google my title and find out why you should be whistling. It’s a silly song, but I like the premise, so let’s go with it.

I was recently in a session with a client, and I was congratulating them on how positive they were being today. It was a real improvement on previous sessions, but the response was to the effect of, “Well yes, but there will always be something else.” In other words, I may be in a good mood right now but something else will always come along to bring me down. This is a perfect example of someone stuck in a habit of being negative. That’s all that negative thinking is, a habit. It’s an all too easy habit to be in, and so many of us have this habit without really realising it. The nature of a habit is its unconscious, you don’t really know you’re doing it. You don’t make a conscious decision to do it, you just do it automatically. We all have them, whether its nail-biting, foot tapping, anything we might do when we’re concentrating or just being absent minded. A habit of negative thinking is just the same. Once a habit is unconscious, it’s harder to break, but to break it we simply have to bring it into the conscious. Noticing when we’re doing it is the first step to stopping. First, we notice what we’re doing, then we stop ourselves.

The benefits of changing a negative mindset are obvious. It’ll make you a happier person, right? I’m not saying you have to become a mindless optimist, bad things happen, if your house burns down and you lose all your possessions and your entire family, I’m not going to tell you to cheer up! However, day to day, if we make a conscious effort to change those negative thoughts to positive ones, who’s it going to hurt? You can change your entire outlook on life if you put in a little effort, you’ll be happier in yourself, which means you’ll be happier with the people around you, smile at a few more strangers, maybe your smile will brighten their day, and the potentially endless cycle can continue. It sounds horrendously cheesy, but it really is so simple.

Let’s take the CBT principal of acceptance. Let’s say you’re driving to work, or something very important for which you do not want to be late, but you’re stuck in a huge traffic jam. You can’t get out of it, you’re just going to have to sit it out until you get through it. You’ve got a choice here, you could get really stressed out about being late and being stuck. You could get really angry and frustrated, start beating your steering wheel and making yourself generally really furious, so by the time you get where you’re going, you’re fuming and distracted from whatever it is you’re there for, and just not in a good mindset at all. Your heart rate and blood pressure will be increased with a pure fury of it all! You might be annoyed all day about that traffic jam, because it inconvenienced you, it made you late and just put you in a bad mood. This could really ruin your day. What’s the other choice? Ah yes, acceptance. You’re in the traffic jam, can you magic the other cars out of your way? Probably not, can you magic yourself somewhere else? Again, I’m assuming not. So what can you do? Nothing. You just have to sit it out, as I’ve said. The traffic jam isn’t putting you in a bad mood, you’re doing it to yourself. Instead of ruining your own day over something you can’t change, have a go at practicing acceptance. Put the radio on, or something you want to listen to in the car, just sit back and ride it out. There’s no point getting annoyed. You can’t change it. Getting annoyed won’t change it. Stressing about when you’re going to get to your destination won’t actually get you there any faster, will it? When you get there, if you haven’t got yourself all stressed out, you’ll get there feeling good, feeling positive about whatever you’re there for, and you can get on with your day and put that traffic jam behind you instead of seething about it all day. You can be relaxed, calm and ready to take on your day without a simple traffic jam driving you into a frenzy, (no pun intended.) Which option sounds more inviting for you? Which one sounds healthier to you? I know the answer and hopefully now you do too.

Now I know some people look at me when I quote principals like above, and say things like, “That’s easier said than done.” Yes, yes it is, it’s really, really hard to change negative habits of a lifetime, but it’s not impossible. All we have to do is listen to ourselves, and then change what we’re hearing. It’s not easy. It’s taken me years to master my own negative patterns of thinking. It really is a battle of will, but if you commit to making the effort, it’s your own life you’re committing to change, and it will be so, so worth it. There are plenty of things in life we have no control over, but what goes on inside our own heads is something we do have control over. So next time you catch yourself thinking like my client, can you turn it around? Why not? If there will always be something to be negative about, surely there will always be something to be positive about?

I’m going to leave you with one more thing. Sometimes it’s hard to know where to start when changing a negative to a positive. On paper it’s easy, but in practice it takes… Well, practice! So here’s a little tip for getting yourself on the right track to positivity. Start with gratitude. Every morning when you wake up, or every night before you fall asleep, think of 5 things to be grateful for. They can be things that have already happened, but you can also be grateful for the future. This is where people usually say they can’t think of 5 things. Remember, they don’t have to be big things. You can thank the world for small things. Your morning tea or coffee, that tasty sandwich you had for lunch, the fact that you have food in your fridge, the fact that you have a job to go to, even if you don’t love it, be grateful for the money it puts in your bank. Do you see? Once you start, it’s easy to find things to be grateful for. With gratitude will come an overall increased positive outlook. Starting or ending your day with gratitude can be a habit you can work to form. Essentially what you’re doing is the opposite of how we started here today. To break a negative habit, we bring it from the unconscious to the conscious, so to form a new, positive habit, we start it in the conscious until the unconscious takes over. Just give it a go. Nothing to lose, no?

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