“The ultimate freedom we have as human beings is the power to select what we will allow or require our minds to dwell upon.”
Have you ever noticed how your mood is affected by the people around you? Recently I have been having more meetings and conversations with people. I noticed that one day my interactions left me feeling drained. I found myself ruminating on a particular conversation in a way that was not really helpful. The next day was the opposite. Everyone I spoke with was positive. I felt energized and grateful after being with them. One day, I had allowed the negative tone of others to blanket my mind and it started to cloud my thinking. The next, I enjoyed the contagious power of positive interactions. Has that ever happened to you?
Whether facing everyday conversations or life altering circumstances, we all need to continue to work on training our minds. Studies have shown that positive thinking can improve both our physical and mental health. It can lead to a longer life, better cardiovascular health, lower rates of distress or depression and better coping skills in daily living.
BJ Miller is a hospice and palliative care physician. An accident at college left him without both of his legs and part of one arm. Reporter, Jon Mooallem shares, “So, instead of regarding his injuries as something to get over, Miller tried to get into them, to see his new life as its own novel challenge, like traveling through a country whose language he didn’t speak.”* Through his work, BJ Miller shows people to live fully into their last breath. He says we can change what we hope for. He has learned to change his thinking about his body, his situation, and the way he lives his life and helps others do the same.
When you train your mind to think positively, it’s not about ignoring unpleasant things or keeping your head in the sand. It’s about choosing what you will focus on and framing how you will choose to understand things. Positive thinking leads to optimism. It doesn’t mean that everything will always be great. To be human is to know suffering and to experience failure and disappointment and more. But we can train our thoughts. Instead of why me or not again we can ask what can I learn from this or what good can come of this. Negative thinking often leads to doubt, fear, or anxiety while positive thinking leads to possibility.
Rosamund and Benjamin Zander explain, “Often, the person in the group that articulates the possible is dismissed as a dreamer or as a Pollyanna persisting in a simplistic ‘glass half-full’ kind of optimism…However, it is actually the people who see the glass as ‘half-empty’ who are the ones wedded to a fiction, for ‘emptiness’ and ‘lack’…are abstractions of the mind, whereas ‘half-full’ is a measure of the physical reality under discussion. The so-called optimist, then, is the only one attending to real things, the only one describing a substance that is actually in the glass.” **
There are 3 simple steps you can take to train your thoughts.
1. Notice. Become aware of your thoughts and identify when your thinking is negative.
2. Stop. When you notice negative thinking, stop it. Don’t allow it to linger or become a pattern that takes over your mind.
3. Redirect. Turn the negative into a positive. For example, you may think, “I don’t know what to do. This is so hard.” Redirect your thoughts, saying, “I can do this. I have made many good decisions. I don’t need to have all the answers today. What is the next thing I can do?”
It also helps to hang around positive people, stay open to humor, and practice self compassion. The simple act of being kind to yourself can make a huge difference.
As a person of faith, there is something else I can hang on to. Robert Durback wrote, “To be human is to be structured in hope.” This kind of hope is more than a goal to realize or a positive feeling, it is an assurance that all of life is in good hands. We can keep going, trusting things will work out because God has promised to be with us and deliver us.
“To be human is to be structured in hope.”
“Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious — the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not to curse…Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies.” Phil 4:8-9, The Message.
* From “One Man’s Quest to Change the Way We Die.” New York Times Magazine, January 3, 2017.
** From The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander