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Three Tricks From Psychology That Could Improve Your Life

Research shows how to get out of mental ruts and improve your mood.

Key points

  • Positive daydreaming can improve your sense of well-being and break you out of your mental ruts.
  • Holding onto negative memories, even briefly, can make you feel worse about yourself.
  • Thinking about times you've been successful increases your resilience.
Photo by Elizaveta Dushechkina from Pexels
Source: Photo by Elizaveta Dushechkina from Pexels

Scientists are now able to tell us startlingly specific things about how our brains work. Recent research details ways to use our brains to improve our lot in life, whether it’s thinking happy thoughts or getting rid of negative ones. It turns out that we don’t have to passively accept what our brains think about. We can sculpt our thinking, in effect, and have it produce better cognitive effects. Three recent examples caught my eye.

First, positive daydreaming is something we can learn to do and indeed get better at with practice. Why would we want to? Well, if you remember the study that found that people would rather have an electric shock than simply sit on their own with their thoughts, we’re not very good at positive daydreaming. The activity improves our sense of well-being. And it can insulate us, to an extent, against the tendency just to think about what we lack and what we wish we had, two forms of daydreaming that mostly make us anxious, envious, and grumpy. Creating space in your brain for positive outcomes is a very good way of making it likely that you will have such positive outcomes in the future.

The secret to positive daydreaming is first to imagine a future accomplishment, something that makes you happy. It might be a graduation, a promotion, a move to a new town. Or a successful presentation. Then, you need to practice the technique. The third tip is to avoid making specific plans, but rather just to enjoy the accomplishment, already complete, already won. Bask in the glory of it. And finally, pick the right time. Don’t try positive daydreaming when you’re already in crisis mode, late turning in a project or assignment, or nervous about an upcoming talk. Try it when you are relaxed, taking a walk in nature, for example.

The amygdala is the part of the brain that processes emotion and memories. The stronger the emotion, the stronger the memory. It’s how we develop a fear of public speaking, for example. We have a bad experience, the amygdala flags it as painful, and so the next time we try, we are already anticipating pain, making it more likely that the second attempt will go badly, too. Or, even if it goes well, we’ll remember the one small thing that went wrong, and continue the cycle.

Working on establishing a good positive daydreaming practice can counteract this tendency to create mental ruts around the things that go wrong in our lives. The mental ruts then perpetuate the negative perceptions and tendencies.

Another recent bit of research shows that recalling negative memories leads to feeling worse about yourself and having less satisfaction in everyday life. So the act of letting go of negative results, setbacks, or experiences is important to accomplish. If not, you will increase the likelihood of longer-term damage to your psyche. Again, this ability to rebound is particularly important for performers such as public speakers. You need to be able both to create room for positive experiences, to increase their likelihood and frequency, and to recover quickly from the inevitable less-than-perfect occasions so that they don’t become habits.

Finally, a third study showed that recalling examples where you have been successful (“self-efficacy” in the jargon of the study) increases your resilience, giving you more mental muscle to get through difficult times.

Science now gives us a number of ways to finetune our mental performance; it’s up to us to make use of these emerging techniques to be the best we can be.