Life coach Maryam Ghouth explores the subject of positive thinking and the importance of celebrating life’s small successes…
‘Positive thinking’ is a phrase that is tossed around like a trendy craze everywhere we go.
Found in books, on television shows, in conversations and on yoga mats it is as au courant as quinoa and acai berries.
When you are heartbroken, enraged or just caught up in one of the many struggles of life, it sounds rather unreasonable to be expected to swing from low to high at the snap of a finger, as though it were a sound-activating light switch.
But perhaps there is some merit to adopting a more optimistic outlook on life.
Before we get into the mechanics of positivity, let us first understand what it means to be positive.
Positive psychologist Martin Seligman frames positive thinking in terms of our explanatory style. In other words, how we explain why events happen to us.
He argues that people with an optimistic explanatory style tend to give themselves credit for successful outcomes, react to problems with a sense of confidence and high personal ability, and see negative events as temporary.
It is not the relentless cheer to life, being in denial of the pain we experience, naïve to the threats we face or unrealistic when making decisions. It is about calling to mind supportive emotions that alleviate whatever is happening to us right there and then.
It sounds easy but why does it seem so hard in practice?
In his best-selling book Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom, author Rick Hanson suggests “the mind is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones”.
That does not sound very optimistic but the reality is we have a natural ‘negativity bias’ that serves critical evolutionarily adaptive functions. The brain gives more attention to negative experiences over positive ones because negative events pose the possibility of danger. The vigilant monitoring of negative information can lead to significant psychological distress. This repeated pattern reinforces negative memory that can become difficult to break out of; leaving residue that emotionally ‘scars’ us over time.
Understanding is the first step towards gaining control over our minds
Applying this understanding in practice entails being mindful of our thoughts by questioning their validity and recognising when there is a real threat and when there is not one. This does not mean we lose sight of the brain’s ‘high alert’ system. It simply means we consciously disregard threats that are useless. Ruminating over situations that have long gone will not serve us. Neither will panicking over ‘what ifs’.
Secondly, notice the good in your surroundings. We need to balance the unfair accumulation of negative memories by savouring the positive ones on the spot. They do happen, we just do not pay them enough attention.
Fred Bryant, a social psychologist and author of Savoring: A New Model of Positive Experience suggests that we do not always respond to good experiences in ways that maximise their positive effects on our lives.
He explains that savouring is being mindfully engaged, getting absorbed in the moment and being aware of our feelings during a positive event. A few steps to savouring an experience include giving thanks, viewing it from different angles, sharing it, shouting it out, sharpening our sensory perception of it and celebrating it.
Zooming in on these positive experiences can have a cumulative effect over time. The latest research indicates that due to the brain’s plasticity, the more we practice such activities the more we actually change its structure and strengthen brain areas that stimulate positive feelings.
This concept is summed up in the phrase attributed to Donald Hebb, a Canadian neuropsychologist who said: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”
In simple terms, each time you repeat a particular thought or action, you strengthen the connection between a set of neurons and groove the pathways. By repeating and reinforcing positive thoughts your brain will build up pathways associated with positive experiences and will embed them as a habit.
By extension you will be able to neutralise everyday meaningless threats with far more resilience and confidence.
There will be times when pain is undeniably grave and punching it out is only going to hurt more or come back to bite us at a later stage. But more often than not we concern ourselves with issues that do not really matter in the grand scheme of life and this is why it is important to note that how we respond to challenging situations is key.
Positive thinking does not remove struggle, beget the universe to bow down to us with an incessant stream of fortune, blind us from reality nor forbid us from feeling the multi facets of being human.
And while wishful thinking is a powerful motivational tool, repeating self-affirming mantras and visualising our successes alone are not going to just will our desired states into existence because ‘thinking’ cannot survive without ‘doing’. As the author ofThe How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want said: “Positive thinking has a role to play in a good life as long as it’s not empty.”
Just as important as the company we keep are the thoughts we keep. Adopting a positive mental style may not affect what happens to us but it can affect the way we feel about and react to what happens to us.
While we continue to explore ways in which we can cultivate positive emotion, we need look no further than the resilient nature of the brain – its plasticity.
Maryam Ghouth is a CTI accredited life coach and NLP licensed practitioner based between Dubai and London
Gulf Business ; 2 July 2016