I find it fascinating to watch an object rolling down a hill, gaining momentum exponentially. This phenomenon is one that I have observed not only with moving objects, but with emotions, thoughts, and behaviors as well. In my work as a clinical psychologist, and in my own life, I have seen repeatedly how momentum can play a role in people’s lives, in both positive and negative directions.
When we are caught in negativity, it can spiral quickly and lead to feeling stuck and overwhelmed, increasingly stressed, and sometimes even hopeless. The more we get caught in negative thoughts, the more those thoughts can prompt negative feelings, and in turn can affect behaviors in negative ways. When you are caught in negativity, think about how easy it is to engage in unhelpful interactions (like yelling at others) and unhealthy behaviors, and how difficult it is to do things that you know might be beneficial. On the other hand, the more we experience positive moments, the more that positivity can gain momentum, leading to more positive emotions, thoughts, and actions that further increase our positive momentum.
Creating authentic happiness in our lives is in no way about negating, dismissing, or ignoring the painful or difficult situations that occur. Life is filled with difficulties, and it is important to honor and be present with all of our feelings as they arise. However, it can be helpful to remember that we always have a choice about where we put the focus of our attention.
For many of us, it is focusing on the small day-to-day stressors that can easily spiral us downward into a negative mood (the traffic jam, the messy house, the unpaid bills, too much to do and not enough time, etc.). When we focus on these things in our foreground, to the exclusion of other things, we often miss the small moments that hold the potential for joy, connection, and meaning.
As you go through your day, or evening, take a moment to ask yourself, “Where is the focus of my attention right now?” If I notice I am rushing to my car focused on thoughts of “how am I going to get through such a long day with so much to do?”, this is an opportunity for me to shift the focus of my attention. Perhaps I might instead take a moment to bring my attention to the feeling of the sunshine on my face as I walk to my car, or to the friendly wave of my neighbor, or the thoughts of how I “get to” go grocery shopping today and buy healthy food to cook and enjoy. It may be true that I have so much to do today, but perhaps that is not the place I want to dwell.
If you find yourself feeling stuck in negativity, try one of the following to shift your attention in a way that can help create positive momentum and a greater sense of well-being in your day:
1. Start and end your day by focusing on one thing that you appreciate. It could be something very small such as the hot shower to start your day, or a warm cup of tea, or the hug of a family member before heading out the door. Put this in your foreground; make it bigger than the minor stress of the guy who cuts you off in traffic. Let the positive emotions of this experience register as a felt sense in your body that you rest your attention on for at least a minute or so.
2. Practice flipping the coin over, seeing both sides of a situation. See if you can discover opportunities within challenges. Start with small things. My frustration at the driver in front of me might just be an opportunity for me to practice and grow patience. My having to get up early might be an opportunity to notice the stillness of the world as the sun is rising. My waking up in the middle of the night might be an extra chance to practice mindfulness meditation as I allow my body to fall back to sleep.
3. Don’t try to “get rid of” your negative feelings. Instead acknowledge them, name them, and recognize that they are part of your human experience. Also be aware that they are not the whole of your experience, or the whole of who you are. Be compassionate with yourself! Sometimes, when I am really struggling with something, I try to remember to put my hand on my heart, take a few conscious breaths, and simply acknowledge “this is difficult, I am struggling, I will get through this.”
4. Think small. Bring your attention to something in front of you, in the here and now, and see if you can find something good in it. On the subway ride, notice the way someone gives up his seat for another passenger; in the office notice small ways that you make a contribution, or the supportive glance of a coworker; on the street notice the smile of the stranger that you pass.
5. Recognize that while you cannot control the initial thoughts that pop into your head all day long, you can control where you choose to focus your attention. Practice becoming aware of where your attention is resting, and if that resting place is pulling you downward, try putting that in the background and choosing a different place for your attention to rest. Our negative thoughts have a lot of power, but so too do our positive thoughts. As I am writing this, I am aware of some irritation as I just found out my plans that I was looking forward to were canceled unexpectedly. Rather than focus on my frustration, I choose to focus on the opportunity that this will bring, allowing me to have time for something else I would not otherwise have had the time to do.
This post was also published in PsychCentral's World of Psychology Blog.