Ever feel like you have a lot more in common with SNL’s “Debbie Downer” than you’d care to admit?
Don’t feel bad; negative thinking affects all of us at some point or another. That’s because negative experiences have double the impact as positive ones in terms of how well we’re able to recall them.
In other words, it’s naturally easier for our brains to dwell on negative experiences and thoughts than positive ones.
But a habit of negative-thinking can take its toll on your well-being and stress levels.
Fortunately, you’re not doomed to live your life in a purgatory of pessimism. You can reprogram your brain to think more positively.
Positive thinking doesn’t just eliminate the problems that come from negative thinking, it’s also proven to make you happier and more successful. It may even help you live longer!
So if you struggle with pessimism, here’s how to turn that inner Negative Nancy into Positive Pauline:
1. Be Aware of Your Thoughts
The problem with negative-thinking is you’re likely so conditioned to negative thoughts that you have them without even realizing it.
This is where a meditation practice can be really helpful. Meditation, despite what many people think, isn’t about emptying your mind. It’s about observing your thoughts, rather than getting caught up in them.
(If meditation concepts confuse you and you could use a teacher, the Headspace app is excellent for teaching this skill!)
Journaling your thoughts and feelings can also really help you gain clarity on where your negative thinking stems from. Start by reflecting on the situations that trigger your negative thoughts.
Figure out what it was about these situations that causes your negative thoughts. Then think about how you can either avoid that trigger or mindfully change your response the next time you encounter it.
2. Lighten Up
If it’s a “laugh or cry” type situation, then laugh! That ability to laugh at yourself and find humor in difficult situations is one of the most empowering ways to zap negativity and build resilience.
If you’re able to dial back your ego and not take yourself too seriously, you’ll find this is an effective and fun way to bring more positivity into your life. It’s not about laughing at yourself in a depreciating way, but in a kind and forgiving way.
A couple of months ago, I was cutting open a bagel when the knife slipped and I put a deep cut in my finger. My spouse had to take me to the hospital and we spent the afternoon in the ER, waiting for a doctor to come and stitch me up.
Normally, I’m pretty anxious in these situations because I’m not great with blood, hospitals, or needles. But instead of letting the anxiety and negativity take hold, I made jokes with the nurses and the doctor about my clumsiness. It made the whole experience much less stressful.
3. Shift Your Viewpoint on Challenging Experiences
Dr. Alia Crum is a psychologist and expert on how mindset impacts health and happiness. In one fascinating episode of TED Talks, she illuminates the power of a positive mindset.
In one of her examples, a group of employees were presented with either one of two videos about stress.
Half the employees watched a video about the positive effects of stress and how they make you more energized, alert, and productive. The other was a video about the negative aspects of stress.
Those who watched the two video clips about the positive effects of stress reported fewer negative thoughts, a higher level of engagement at work, and even fewer physical health problems.
Challenge your viewpoint on things that you’ve come to consider negative and ask yourself if there’s an upside or silver lining. Because chances are, there is.
Even the toughest situations can become a life lesson, whether that’s how to avoid future failures or how to get through certain times in your life.
4. Practice Gratitude
I talk a lot about practicing gratitude and there’s a good reason; it works.
Gratitude is all about appreciating the present. It can be as simple as stopping to appreciate something that’s happening in the here and now, whether that’s the sunshine coming through your window or the purry snuggles from your cat.
As simple as it sounds, it can take practice, especially if you’re caught up in a whirlwind of negative thoughts. This is yet another area in life where a dedicated meditation practice can really help.
If meditation isn’t really your thing but you’re looking for a structured approach to developing gratitude, Tamara Levitt has a five-session masterclass on the subject via the Calm app. The podcast-like class helps you cultivate a mindset of gratitude through rewiring your negative thoughts and uncovering the hidden blessings in life.
5. Be Careful What You Feed Your Brain
Who you hang around can affect your outlook on life. If you’re constantly hanging around negative people who are always complaining and miserable, some of that is bound to rub off on you.
Surround yourself with positive, encouraging people more often and it becomes a lot easier to reprogram your mindset for positivity.
That goes for the media you consume as well. I’m not saying that you can never watch a gritty drama ever again, but if you’re struggling with negative thoughts, maybe opt out of “13 Reasons Why” for the time being and watch something like “The Good Place” instead.
6. Honor Your Emotions
Emotions aren’t ice cream cones: You can’t just cover up a flavor you don’t like by pouring on rainbow-colored sprinkles.
It’s important to understand that having a positive mindset doesn’t mean you won’t feel difficult or overwhelming emotions. There’s a big difference between thinking positively to work through life’s challenges, and using phony positivity to try and suppress emotions you don’t want to deal with.
For example, if you lost someone and are grieving for them, you shouldn't try to mask that by forcing positive thoughts, i.e., pretending you’re alright when you’re not.
It just doesn’t work like that.
Remember that emotions in and of themselves are not positive or negative. They are a normal part of being human. And you need to recognize those emotions before you can work through them.
Positive-thinking doesn’t need to be difficult. In fact, just realizing that you need to address your tendency to think negatively is already a big step towards making a change.
It’s definitely worth pursuing this facet of personal growth as a positive mindset can dramatically change your life for the better, whether it’s achieving better health, reaching your career goals, or forming better relationships.
Be patient with yourself and practice, and you’ll find your mindset shifting to a genuinely happier and more positive place!