Ever wonder if “thinking on the bright side” really matters? Well, it only matters if you want to lead a healthy, fit and happy life. Otherwise, it’s an empty, but very nice, slogan.
You see, positive thinkers, smilers, cope more effectively with stress. My experience tells me these healthy thinkers prevent stress from developing in the first place. They free themselves from conjuring catastrophic fantasies that lead to mental and physical stress. Recent research also points to the powerful impact healthy thinking can have on immunity. Not quite the latest fizz pill loaded with vitamins and supplements, but optimism leads to a stronger immune response than does pessimism.
The “polyester” thinking style, rather than the “linen” thinking style, i.e., resilience rather than wrinkling and crinkling in the face of tough circumstances, depends on rational, realistic thoughts. This, in turn, creates the kind of responses that enable people to “sing in their lifeboat,” in the face of challenging circumstances.
Optimism has been associated with healthier cardiovascular health, decreased levels of depression and even longevity. Great, but just how, specifically, do you learn to think this way? The Greek philosopher, Epictetus pointed the way, “People are not disturbed by things but by the views they take of them.” This means that an activating event (A), does not lead to an emotional consequence (C), but rather it is an individuals beliefs (B) ABOUT the activating event that creates the consequence. Leave out B and you’ve essentially decapitated yourself.
So, to think in a healthy way, catch, challenge and change your irrational (unrealistic, inaccurate) thoughts. Common irrational beliefs that lead to depression, anxiety and/or anger, i.e., unhealthy emotions, include the belief that you “must be approved of or loved by almost everyone,” that you “must be thoroughly competent at almost everything,” that “some people are ‘bad’ and must be punished severely,” that you/others/life should be a certain way and it’s terrible if you/they/life aren’t,” that “external forces control you,” and that “it’s easier to avoid than to face life’s difficulties.”
David Burns developed a brief lexicon of the types of mental filters and distortions worthy of searching for if you want to catch, challenge and change your erroneous thinking to become healthy.
1. All-or-nothing thinking: You look at things in absolute, black-and-white categories.
2. Overgeneralization: You view a negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.
3. Mental filter: You dwell on the negatives and ignore the positives.
4. Discounting the positives: You insist that your accomplishments or positive qualities “don’t count.”
5. Jumping to conclusions: (a) Mind reading — you assume that people are reacting negatively to you when there’s no evidence for this. (b) Fortune-telling — you arbitrarily predict that things will turn out badly.
6. Magnification or minimization: You blow things way up out of proportion or you shrink their importance inappropriately.
7. Emotional reasoning: You reason from how you feel: “I feel like an idiot, so I must really be one.” Or “I don’t feel like doing this, so I’ll put it off.”
8. “Should” statements: You criticize yourself or other people with “shoulds” or “shouldn’ts.” “Musts,” “oughts,” and “have-tos” are similar offenders.
9. Labeling: You identify with your shortcomings. Instead of saying “I made a mistake,” you tell yourself “I’m a jerk,” or “a fool” or “a loser.”
10. Personalization and blame: You blame yourself for something you weren’t entirely responsible for, or you blame other people and overlook ways that your own attitudes and behavior might contribute to a problem.
So here’s a template for you to work with in creating healthier thinking and healthier living:
A. Activating event you recently experienced about which you created upset or felt disturbed,
(e.g., “I was criticized.”)__________________________________________________
B. Irrational Belief or irrational evaluation you had about this activating event, (e.g., “I
MUST not be criticized.”)__________________________________________________
C. Emotional and behavioral Consequences of your irrational belief, (e.g., “Hurt and
D. Disputing or questioning your irrational belief, (e.g., “Why MUST I not be criticized?”)
E. Effective new thinking or answer that resulted from disputing your irrational belief,
(e.g., “Although I PREFER not to be criticized, nothing etched in stone states that I
MUST not be.”)___________________________________________________________
F. New Feeling or behavior that resulted from disputing your irrational belief, (e.g.,
“Great displeasure and controlled eating.”)__________________________________
It’s that straightforward. Sure, proper nutrition, exercise, healthy relationships, fulfilling work, good genes, pride in a sense of accomplishment, seeing meaning in life all help create rational thinking and mental and physical health. These all are anchored in healthy, rational thinking.
Next time you get into an emotional spin over something ask yourself the ultimate questions based on the T.H.I.N.K. model. Is what I’m thinking that’s creating this feeling True, Helpful, Inspirational, Necessary or Kind? If the answer is “no” to these questions, even just some of them, it’s time to change your thinking. Fast.
Burns, David. (1980). Feeling good: The new mood therapy. New York: William Morrow
Mayo Clinic. (2011). Positive thinking: Reduce stress by eliminating negative self-talk. Found online at http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/positive-thinking/SR00009
Segerstrom, S. & Sephton, S. (2010). Optimistic expectancies and cell-mediated immunity: The role of positive affect. Psychological Science, 21(3), 448-55.