Happiness in this World

Reflections of a Buddhist physician

How to Reduce Negativity

How pessimism is like nail biting.

In one sense, the battle to be happy is a battle against negativity. Bad things happen all the time but how we internalize them, how we react to them, is what ultimately determines their final effect on us—and over that we have simultaneously more and less control than we realize. More, because we assign the meaning of events, not the events themselves, even though it feels as if that meaning is somehow assigned for us. Yet less, because we can rarely simply decide when confronted with a negative life event that is is, in fact, actually positive. To do that, we have to find a way to actually believe it, and that requires a process of continual self-reflection and attitude training; a program designed to strengthen our life force, so to speak.

And a willingness to attack our negativity at its root. Though we all have negative selves, there seem to be only two basic reasons they appear: one is as a result of a lack of self-confidence, or belief that we can solve a particular problem; the other is simply out of habit.

Habits are defined as actions that occur automatically in response to specific triggers, or cues. Such cues can be external (arising from our environment) or internal (arising out of our own thoughts and feelings). We bite our nails, for instance, when we feel nervous. We shut off lights upon leaving a room. Or we complain when things go wrong.

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Complaint, in other words, often comes streaming out of our mouths without our conscious awareness. We actually become conditioned by previous repetition to think pessimistically when obstacles arise. We just don't realize that by allowing ourselves to focus on the negative, to be negative, that we dramatically increase the likelihood that we'll continue to do so—which then often prevents us from mustering up the confidence we need to see an obstacle as a challenge and actually surmount it.

So what can we do to break this cycle? If our negativity stems from a habit and not a genuine lack of self-confidence, we can, in fact, extinguish it like any other habit: by vigilant self-monitoring. While studies show the best way to overcome temptation (for example, chocolate) is by avoiding it altogether, they also show the best way to break a bad habit is noticing each and every time we do it and consciously making ourselves stop. Interrupt yourself in the act of nail biting enough times and eventually you won't have to think about it: your hand will cease to rise to your mouth of its own accord.

Similarly, when negative statements reflexively come out of your mouth, notice it and interrupt yourself, even if mid-sentence. Eventually, the automatic impulse to be negative will fade.

Unfortunately, however, no shortage of triggers of negativity will ever exist. For this strategy of thought stopping to work long term, therefore, would likely require us to consciously monitor ourselves indefinitely—which, for most of us, would likely be far too exhausting. The solution to this problem may be to not only consciously interrupt our negative thoughts but to consciously substitute positive ones so that we're not just aborting a bad habit but programming a good one—one that with repetition over time may eventually become as automatic as the one we're trying to abolish.

 

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to visit Dr. Lickerman's home page, Happiness in this World.

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.

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