People believe in the power of positivity. However simply forcing yourself to be happy does not always get the desired results. If you have tried pushing your thoughts into a positive place, but have struggled to keep a sunny outlook, you are not alone. Here are three strategies for even the most frustrated optimist.
- Aim for a Balanced Thought
It can feel incredibly frustrating to try to force yourself into a belief you do not actually think is true. Research indicates that positive affirmations might actually be counterproductive in some circumstances. In one particular study, researchers found that individuals with low self-esteem felt worse after being asked to repeat a positive affirmation for four minutes (1). The researchers hypothesized that these participants struggled to believe the positive statements and were, therefore, not encouraged by the affirmations.
An alternative to positive affirmations is called balanced thinking. With balanced thinking, an individual looks for evidence to support a negative thought (e.g., “I know I am bad at my job because my boss told me she was unhappy with my last report”). In addition, the individual looks for evidence that does not support the negative thought (i.e., “I got a lot of positive feedback from others at work about another report I wrote”). Lastly, the person tries to balance these pieces of evidence to propose a believable thought that is not altogether positive or negative (e.g., “I do not always do as well as I would like at work, but sometimes I do a great job”). When learning this skill, keep trying to find a balanced thought until you discover one that feels believable and improves your mood.
- Practice Mindfulness
Sometimes people try so hard to control their thoughts, they wind up caught in a mental tug-of-war. Mindfulness is a practice that involves not becoming too attached to any one thought. You can practice mindfulness by allowing your thoughts to enter and then leave your mind, envisioning the thoughts as leaves on a river, coming in and eventually out of your awareness. Take a break from trying to control your thoughts and look for peace, allowing acceptance of yourself, no matter what thoughts pass through your mind. A substantial body of research exists to support the benefits of mindfulness to both emotional and physical health. For more information, look here: http://marc.ucla.edu/body.cfm?id=22 , http://marc.ucla.edu/body.cfm?id=38.
- Practice Gratitude
Listing what you appreciate has been demonstrated to improve mood, self-esteem, social relationships, and health. For example, in one study, a group of participants were asked to list five things they were grateful for each day (2). After 10 weeks of practice, this gratitude group reported being 25% happier than their counterparts, who had been asked to focus solely on their problems each day.
Gratitude does not mean constant positivity. Gratitude can simply mean saying an internal thank you and pausing a moment to remember a time when your needs or hopes were met. You might try practicing gratitude or thankfulness each day. Consider listing at least three things you have appreciated. Try to vary your list and think of specific situations that led you to feel grateful.
Of course, strategies are never infallible. You may find these strategies to be helpful and still feel like you would benefit from speaking with a counselor. If so, please feel free to call us at Florida Counseling Centers to schedule an appointment to meet with one of our qualified therapists. We would love to help.
- Wood, J.V., Perunovic, E., & Lee, J.W. (2009). Positive self-statements: Power for some, peril for others. Psychological Science, 20(7), 860-866. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02370.x
- Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M.E. Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 377-389. doi: 10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.117