The power of negative thinking

negative thinkingIn The Power of Positive Thinking (originally published in 1952), Dr. Norman Vincent Peale talks about how focusing on your woes is bound to inflate them.

“If you or I or anybody think constantly of the forces that seem to be against us, we will build them up into a power far beyond that which is justified. They will assume a formidable strength which they do not actually possess.”

His example? A depressed man who said he had nothing left in his life. When questioned, it turned out that he had loving family and friends, integrity, and faith.

I’ve certainly experienced this – like most human beings. When I missed a flight recently, it felt like the worst day of my life. I forgot that I had an understanding family across the ocean in the States, and a kind fiancé who went on a futile mission to fetch my passport in time. There have also been instances when I feel overwhelmed by the huge weight of stress or fear, only to realize that the circumstances don’t warrant it.

It turns out that if we focus on something, our brain often distorts the perception of everything else. Inattentional blindness is when our eyes zero in on one thing and become blind to the rest of reality – a gorilla included. Under the availability heureistic, we judge probabilities based on how easily we can think of examples; because the media (and our attention) has focused on plane crashes rather than car crashes, we believe they’re more likely to happen to us.

For me, the solution is to pause and figure out the reasons I’m feeling down – and not just let the emotion grow into this big, unidentified, mysterious glob. For Peale, the solution is (unsurprisingly) positive thinking.

If “you mentally visualize and affirm and reaffirm your assets and keep your thoughts on them, emphasizing them to the fullest extent,” he writes, “you will rise out of any difficulty regardless of what it may be.”

Photo by Flickr user Sean MacEntee

Lessons from Dad: “Don’t say no to yourself”

Ray Newman.JPGWhen I didn’t think I would get into a top conservatory, my dad encouraged me to apply. “Don’t say no to yourself,” he said. 

When I was afraid to ask a friend a big favor, my dad told me to try. “Don’t say no to yourself,” he said.

When I didn’t think I would get a writing job…you get the idea.

Among the nuggets of wisdom that my eccentric, intellectual, lovable father has passed down to me, this is one I find myself coming back to again and again. I’ve been known to offer this advice to others, even as I strive to consistently put it into practice in my own life.

In popular culture, this advice usually goes by the name of “Ask for what you want.” But “don’t say no to yourself” goes beyond that, encapsulating the what to do and the why to do it all in one phrase. Don’t say no to yourself, because there are plenty of other people who will gladly say no to you. Don’t say not to yourself, because if you say no to yourself, who do you expect to say yes?

My dad followed his own advice in 1979: he walked into a radio station in New York, asked for his own radio show, and got one. At the time, his qualifications consisted of 20 years of being a lawyer, not exactly relevant to the broadcasting field. He got a job that became a passion, a job that he still reminisces fondly about today.

If you think of the whole big range of possibilities available to you in the world, saying no to yourself just closes off avenues that may lead to your happiness. So say yes to yourself, and at least you’ll know you’ve done everything you can to get where you want to go.

A little mind trick to stop negativity

stop negativity I’ve recently become a subscriber to Headspace’s guided meditation app (hugely recommended), and I love the way Andy Puddicombe sets you up for a meditation. After you remind yourself of your personal reason for meditating, he asks you to reflect on the people in your life who could benefit from a happier, calmer you.

That might be your family, or your friends; it might even be the cashier at the grocery store. The point is to realize how your mood affects others, and give yourself a little extra boost of motivation to stick with the practice.

I think this same trick can be applied to pull yourself out of a negative mood, something I have lots of difficulty with. Something bad happens, a rush of negativity washes in, and I literally don’t feel strong enough to resist it. The world has been unfair to me; why should I have to put in extra effort to be positive on top of that? Sometimes I gather my facial muscles into a smile, but it doesn’t take long for my real emotions to peek through. I know being negative isn’t helping the situation; I know I’m wasting precious moments of my life; but being positive just feels impossible.

One night this sort of thing happened, and someone close to me looked into my eyes with a face of pain and sadness. I saw that my negativity was spreading – as negativity does – and I immediately stopped. I felt terrible. I literally said, “Fine, I’ll be happy” (and in my head added, “for you”).

For me at least, the desire to be positive isn’t yet strong enough to overcome negativity. But love is. Love, and wanting someone else to be happy, and not wanting to cause them pain. So when you’re feeling negative, try looking into the faces of those around you and asking yourself if you want to bring them unhappiness.

And this works both ways: if someone around you is negative, you can try to subtly appeal to their feelings for you. I have a relative who is often negative, and sometimes I’ll say, “I’ve had a stressful week and I really want to relax – can we just be positive?”

That said, I call this a “trick” because I don’t think it’s a long-term strategy. Friends and family can come and go, and you don’t want your motivation for self-improvement to go with them. And you definitely don’t want to become resentful of them for not appreciating all the hard emotional work you’re doing – “I’m doing this for you!” – when in fact you’re just making yourself happier.

But as a quick fix, it can train your brain that it is possible to be positive. It can help you see and experience – not just “know” intellectually – that positivity is the better path. And in the future, it can give you the strength to be positive for your own sake.

Photo by Flickr user PhineasX