Updated: Feb 15, 2020
It's easy for me to get negative. Partly, this is a remnant of a difficult early life. It's easy when we've known significant unhappiness to fall into a habit of seeing life through a lens of difficulty, and this can lead to thoughts like "I never get anything right!" when we've made a mistake, or "I'll always be alone" when we're feeling lonely. The thing is, these things are not True. They are cognitive distortions resulting from inner pain and they can lead us to believe our emotions are Facts about us. When I notice myself saying negative things to myself, or finding things to complain about all day, that's a Red Flag for me. When I notice it, I reach out for help.
When I'm feeling negative, I count on my friends or my therapist remind me to practice Gratitude. When people are in pain, our vision can narrow until it focuses solely on our pain, making our pain seem like our entire reality. It becomes easy to believe the negative messages we're telling ourselves, and that the narrowed view we are experiencing is All There Is. What's really sad about this limited view is that it convinces us that Hope is absent. Our thoughts and emotions feed into each other and can draw us into a feedback loop of negative thinking and negative emotions.
So, what can we do? Practice Gratitude. Practicing this radically opposite viewpoint has the capacity to completely alter not just our thoughts, but our emotions, body sensations; our entire outlook. It restores hope. Gratitude lifts our eyes. We begin to see what was hidden from us by our pain blinders. There is a large body of research to support the idea of having a formal practice of Gratitude. And I do mean Practice. This could mean keeping a Gratitude Jar* or a Journal**, or daily recording Three Good Things**, to shift our focus from what we're suffering, to what is working.
Writing down what we have to be grateful for might sound trivial, but the fact is that making a conscious effort to shift our focus can have a profound impact on our mental health and resilience. If you find yourself, as I sometimes do, falling into a pattern of negative thinking, I invite you to start a practice of Gratitude in your life. Just five minutes at the end of the day will begin to transform your perspective.
I have been interested in Gratitude research since I first read about the Three Good Things study conducted at U Penn (more on this later). I recently came across this video which delightfully introduces the concept of Gratitude as a function of Wellbeing:
This video, titled "An Experiment in Gratitude | The Science of Happiness" explores impact of gratitude on volunteer subjects. Experimental subjects were asked to think of a person who was very influential in their lives, write a letter to them to tell them of their positive impact, and then call the person and read the letter to them. I hope you find this as inspiring as I did.
* How to make a Gratitude Jar: Take a clear jar or vase and find a prominent location for it, where you will see it daily. At the end of each day, each member of the household writes something that went well that day on a slip of paper. They read it aloud and then drop it into the jar. As the jar begins to fill, it becomes a tangible reminder that many things, in fact, did go well. On a difficult day, take a look in the jar for encouragement, or make your own family tradition!
** Gratitude journal: This could be on your phone, on a notepad, or in a beautiful, bound journal purchased for this purpose. Keep it handy to jot down moments of gratitude. It's amazing to look back days, weeks, even years later.
***Three Good Things. I first heard about this in a study conducted by Dr. Martin Seligman as part of the Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania. Study participants were asked to record 3 things that went well at the end of each day. They could be very small things. At the end of a week, participants were interviewed and most of them found this practice so helpful, they chose to continue. At the end of six months, participants reported a significant increase in their sense of happiness.
My own clients, when I've given this assignment, have often felt irritated initially, and reported that at first, they found it challenging to think of anything positive at the end of the day. Then, after a few days, they found themselves looking, throughout the day for "some darned thing to write down for Lina." After a few more days, they realized that the practice of "looking for good things" so they'd have something to write down on their homework, had translated into noticing good things were occurring throughout the day. This awareness eventually translated into an altered view of their circumstances overall, and an increase in positive mood and Hope.
I hope you give it a try. If you find this helpful, or have more questions, shoot me an email and let me know how it went.