In 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