The other day I was bounding up the stairs to get something I’d forgotten when I had this realization: Although getting older, I am still healthy enough to climb stairs with ease—in fact, I enjoy it! Suddenly I felt deep gratitude for my good health.
“Gratitude” is a mental attitude I want to cultivate. So it occurred to me…Why not use every instance of stair-climbing as a cue to evoke and savor that wonderful inner feeling of gratitude?
It worked. As I continued to link “gratitude” with “stair-climbing,” I found that the “gratitude attitude” would pop up automatically in other situations, especially those involving physical activity like walking or gardening.
Deliberating setting up a cue—like stair-climbing—to trigger a desired emotional state—like gratitude—l was a new idea for me. True, I had often used cues to trigger a behavioral habit or action, like blocking the stairs with the laundry basket so I couldn't possibly forget to carry it down to the laundry room. This time, though, I began to think about how I could use cues as signals to a more positive mental outlook. I came up with seven great ideas that work for me. Adopt them for yourself or use them to imagine how you could create your own cues for positive mental states.
But first…what IS a cue?
Clues to Cues: First Steps
A cue is a signal that reminds your brain to activate a particular emotion, action, or thought.
Without thinking about it, you probably use cues all the time to activate the mental states you need. For example, if you know you are going to meet up with a manipulative person, you will probably activate a mental state of wariness. Or, if you are about to visit a sick friend, you might naturally feel a caring concern as you enter his home.
But you can also deliberately choose cues to create helpful and happier mental attitudes. To do this, you could identify one positive mental state you would like to cultivate or strengthen. Some possibilities:
Got it? Then you’ve done two important things:
Now you just need to do this:
3. Choose your cue.
Cues to Use
Almost anything can serve as a cue, as long as it triggers the thoughts or emotions you are trying to evoke. My 7 ideas are below. Notice that even unpleasant mental states or sensations can sometimes be used to activate pleasant ones.
1. Use a pleasant sound as a cue for a positive mental state. We live next to a church. I find that I can link the sound of the church bells to one of my goals—a calmer mind. So when I hear those bells, I take a few deep breaths, relax my body, and clear my mind. Ah, much better!
2. Use an unpleasant sound as a cue for a positive mental state. BLLLT! That’s the unpleasant sound announcing that my partner has a message on his phone. At first I felt startled and then annoyed when I heard this grating noise. But my partner is hard of hearing and needs a loud sound that will get his attention. So I decided to make lemonade out of lemons and use the harsh jangle as another cue for a calmer mind. Deep breath, calming self-talk…Ah, much better!
3. Use an object as a reminder. Fellow PT blogger Toni Bernhard shares an unlikely cue to the mental habit of “kindness” in her wonderful book, How to Wake Up (reviewed here). When she leaves the house, she uses the cue of her hand on the doorknob to remind her to approach other people in a friendly and open-hearted way. What a beautiful way to cultivate a positive mental attitude and a worthwhile value!
A piece of art, a gift from a loved one, a photo of loved ones—any or all of these could become cues to the positive mental state of loving. I cherish a mug with hearts on it that my partner gave me 20 years ago for Valentine’s Day. While others might see it as just a cheesy mug, I feel the love every time I use it!
4. Use a time of day as a reminder. To build feelings of happiness, take one minute in the evening for the classic “Three Good Things” exercise. Just think or write about three things that went reasonably well that day. In one research study, participants who wrote down three good things each night for just one week boosted their happiness levels and reduced feelings of depression for 6 months!
I adapted this exercise to promote self-confidence and a spirit of learning, re-labeling it “The 3 Growth Things.” For each “good thing” that occurred during my day, I figure out if I just got lucky or if I did something that helped create that positive experience. Recognizing my own role in my happiness is empowering. If there was a significant event that I did not handle well, I thought about what I might do differently next time, thereby changing a mistake into a learning experience.
5. Use a negative state of mind as a reminder to activate the positive state of mind that you seek. This sounds impossible and, yes, it can be a challenge! But with a little practice, you can do it. For example, you are probably all-too-familiar with your critical inner voice. When you hear it making harsh judgments about you (again!), deliberately counter that voice with self-compassion. Possible self-talk: “It was a difficult situation. Maybe I didn’t handle it the way I wanted to. But anyone can make a mistake. And now I know what to do.”
6. Use your body as a cue. Sitting up straight is not only good for your spine; it could be a wonderful cue for the mental states of “assertiveness,” “motivation,” or “determination.” In fact, one study showed that practicing good posture could increase your willpower. Likewise, standing up could be a cue to become more alert. Deliberately smiling could be a cue to put your troubles in perspective; the act of smiling in itself will trigger a happier mood.
7. Use an activity to create a positive mental state. I mentioned stair-climbing. Two more popular activities, both well-researched, are singing and—wait for it!—dish-washing. And of course many people use meditation or prayer to evoke a more hopeful or calmer mental state. (For more stress-reducing activities, click here.)
The practice of setting up cues and using them regularly may seem like a small contribution to your mental health. Yet you will discover that these small actions lead to many benefits. Paying attention to your personal cues may help you "wake up" to the present moment. Positive mental states can lift your mood, give you energy, and provide you with much-needed infusions of happiness or calm on a daily basis. Used enough, you may even be able to create a new mental habit. Eventually you may find that you've built up reserves of positive emotions in your mind and brain, reserves on which you could draw during tough times.
After a while, you may habituate to your chosen cues. If your cues lose their power to trigger positive emotions, try new cues or focus on different mental attitudes. Cues have their limits, but they are good ways to add gratitude, contentment, and calm to your daily routine.
Do you ever use cues to trigger a better mindset? How has it worked? Please share in Comments.
© Meg Selig, 2016
If you enjoyed this blog, check out these:
"Change Your Painful Habits With a Mindful Review of Your Day," by Toni Bernhard
Three good things. Seligman, et al.
Posture and willpower. APA, "Strengthening self-control"
I'm the author of Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success.To see a list of my blogs, click on the word "Changepower" at the top of this article. To follow me on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn, scroll down to my photo and click on the icon(s) there. Thanks to all my "blog friends!"