There is so much written by psychologists, mental health experts, and self-help gurus about the relationship between positive thinking and living a good life that the subject is almost cliché. But one wonders if this message has any impact at all. Recent reports show that depression and suicide rates have steadily risen over the past few decades. Yet research continues to demonstrate that positive thinking is beneficial in numerous ways.
Why is it so difficult to change your way of thinking? As a cognitive psychologist who has spent 15 years dedicated to helping people identify self-limiting thought patterns, as well as someone who has worked hard at changing my own thinking, I have learned a few things about what gets in the way.
Much of what is written about positive thinking and techniques to retrain your mind makes the process seem quite simple—you should be able to easily put a list of practices into action. And the simpler behavioral changes sound, the guiltier you feel when you don’t do them. When you think making a change is simple, there is a tendency to not fully think about the resources needed to do it, whether it's time, effort, or mental energy. When you try to do something that seems simple and you don’t succeed because you didn’t plan well, you end up feeling more discouraged than ever. The truth is that change is hard, and even making small modifications to our behavior is not easy.
You have to do something different to change a pattern of behavior. There are no exceptions to this rule. However, something I frequently witness when people are trying to improve their lives is an assumption that understanding is all that is necessary to create change. If you’ve ever read a self-help book or article, understood the message, and yet skipped over the exercises, you know exactly what I mean. This is the equivalent of going to the gym and having someone explain how to use a treadmill but then never getting on it. You don’t see improvement just from understanding; you have to apply the knowledge and take an action to see change.
Harsh self-criticism is a toxic form of emotional abuse that drags you down and prevents you from living the life you want. Most people don't realize that when we make decisions, we make them based on what we think is best for us at the time. Even when you make a decision that you know you will likely regret, you do so because you're in a frame of mind where you're unable to access the inner power needed to make a different decision. If you were, you would have done things differently. As the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20. But the truth is that we're only able to look back because of how far we have come. If you have the ability to look backward and recognize that you could have made a better decision, it is because you have grown to a place that enables you to see that. You may also have new information that you didn’t have at the time of the original choice. Self-blame is about looking backward at things over which you have no power to change, which generates an even more negative mindset and negative emotion. This cycle prevents you from benefiting from new insights, moving forward, and making better choices.
You cannot create a positive life with negative thinking. Negative thoughts lead to negative emotions; positive thoughts result in positive emotions. If you want to feel good and lead a happy life, the only option you have is to learn to think positively. I work with many people who argue for the “rightness” of the way they think. They are convinced that their negative view of the world is accurate and that positive thinkers are deluded Pollyannas who don’t face reality. They are convinced that positive thinking won’t work for them. However, all of these people are very unhappy, and it is their thinking that creates their negative emotions. There are no happy negative thinkers. If you want to be right, you can choose to think any way you want. If you want to be happy, you must choose a pattern of thinking that leads to positive emotions.
While changing any habit of thinking is challenging, the choice to think positively can have a profound effect on your life. It is worth the effort to do what you can to empower yourself to do the only thing that will make you feel good.
Dr. Jennice Vilhauer is the director of the Outpatient Psychotherapy Treatment Program at Emory Healthcare, the developer of Future Directed Therapy, and the author of Think Forward to Thrive: How to Use the Mind’s Power of Anticipation to Transcend Your Past and Transform Your Life.