Positive Thinking: Dosage Instructions
How to maintain a positive outlook without getting lost in your thoughts
So, I’ve been thinking.
That’s it really. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking.
Good things, mostly. Fun ideas. New solutions. Expected future experiences.
However, I’m feeling a little frustrated.
My head hurts, and I’ve noticed that as soon as I can think of a thought that feels good, two negative ones emerge and punch me square in the face.
Why We Insist on Thinking
Our minds need to keep us safe and well.
But rather than taking the role of nurturing parent, they’re more like a resentful older sibling who takes great pleasure in pointing negative things out to us.
Things that we lack, like I’m not pretty enough.
Things in excess, like He’s too loud.
Bad things about the future, like This will cost a fortune.
Bad things from the past, like I made such an idiot of myself last night.
This thought torture is an unfortunate by-product of our brain’s ‘negativity bias’.
If we spot the danger, we’ll be ready for action and therefore have a better chance of staying alive in the wild.
Well, that’s the idea.
Except the closest most of us get to the wild these days is going a few weeks without shaving.
In many modern societies, there’s often absolutely no benefit to all these painful, demotivating and anxiety-fuelling thoughts.
So we have to do what we can to overcome this negative propensity.
To keep our chins up.
To keep our thoughts up.
For example, we might have a three-step method:
Step one — Notice negatively-charged thoughts.
Step two — Pause. Take a deep breath.
Step three — Think a better thought.
Maybe we’ve even got a morning ritual to help us along.
You wake up and intentionally decide that today you will steer the ship of your mind.
Five things I’m grateful for…
One thing I’m most looking forward to doing today.
I hate my job but hey, isn’t this sunrise beautiful!
This is all good stuff. It’s called being in control. Taking responsibility.
However, if like me, it still feels as though you’re on a never-ending, emotionally draining rollercoaster, this strategy may need a tweak.
The Counter-Productivity of Positivity
As with most things, positive thinking is imperfect. It’s like a bucket with holes. Helpful, but kinda not.
There are undoubtedly many components to this, but what sticks out most to me is that it keeps us in mind-mode.
And mind-mode is all about judgment.
Good, bad. Pain, pleasure. I like it, I don’t like it.
If you’re not convinced, try going ten minutes without judging something or someone. For most of us, it’s impossible.
Furthermore, the more we’re in our heads, the less we’re in our bodies. Therefore, our capacity to notice what’s happening in the present moment, as told to us through our senses, shrinks.
Essentially, the more we think, the less we feel.
Here’s an example.
Imagine you’re sitting on a park bench.
If you’re watching the birds with a diffused focus whilst recounting a conversation that you had with someone, you can’tactually be noticing how it feels to be sitting on the bench.
Or how your feet like the sense of stability offered by the ground beneath.
This is because our attention is limited.
If you’re thinking, you’re not truly seeing the birds. You’re not able to spot the crazy flecks of metallic blue in their feathers.
Nor are you able to find the humour in the way the little one keeps pecking at the big one, who looks very bothered.
You also miss the opportunity to delight in the cool wind against your face. Or feel a visceral sense of gratitude at your three-year tobacco abstinence, as you smell the cigarette smoke of someone walking by without even the slightest craving.
You choose; thought or sensation. It’s not a fair exchange.
Thoughts are like a friend watching a film with you who’s constantly asking you what’s happening (that’s me). Just shut up and watch, then you’ll know!
When we think, the detail that only our senses can truly appreciate gets blurred. We’re exchanging the purest peace, satisfaction and richness for words.
In addition to missing out on the good, thinking makes us more vulnerable to low moods.
Because the thinking brain isn’t moderate in its approach.
It doesn’t just generate one or two pretty little thoughts and let us float off on a fluffy pink cloud for the rest of the day.
The brain is a tireless, thought-generating machine. And since it’s designed to alert us to danger, the thinking mode will inevitably lead to negative thoughts.
So you might be trying to help yourself with positive thinking, but if you’re always doing it, you’re probably overthinking.
‘’Brooding over something is the real problem, not the solution’’ — Mark Williams
To use an analogy, imagine you’re thirsty and need a glass of water.
Turning the tap on is helpful for filling an empty glass so that you can quench your thirst.
However, if you were to leave the tap on after the glass had become full, you wouldn’t be more hydrated. In fact, you’d just cause a mess that you’d have to clean up.
In the same way, positive thinking helps us to meet a need — like the need to gather the motivation to move forward in the face of a challenge.
However, staying ‘up there’ (in the head) all day is not going to do us any good. We’ve got to hop back in the elevator and go down to the ground floor. Back into the body.
If we’re thinking at all, we’re vulnerable, because negativity is what our minds tend toward.
A Balancing Act
Awareness creates choice, and choice is our roadmap to happiness.
So now we’re aware of the pitfalls of positive thinking, we can decide how to best move forward.
Here’s what I’m thinking (I’ll stop thinking after this):
- Notice when you’re attaching meaning, judgments and me-centric, thoughts to things. Consciously decide to let go of them.
- Let in positive thoughts — aka what the wisest part of you feels is true. Just don’t dwell on them.
- Shift your attention to what you’re sensing in the moment, as often as you can during the day. Feel the thing you’re touching. See the thing you’re looking at. Hear the thing you’re listening to, exactly as it is. Everything really is ok in this moment.
- Lastly, don’t take the bait. Often, out of nowhere, a pesky positive thought will try to disturb the peace of true presence. Notice it, thank it, and then return your attention to feeling.
A Conclusion to Our Conundrum
The power of positive thinking is undeniable. It’s a wise thing to do.
However, all forms of thinking can potentially lead us down a dark road, and therefore must be balanced by feeling.
What we really want to grow is not a positive mindset but rather, non-judgemental awareness. This is the doorway to our innate ability to be happy for no particular reason.
It’s certainly better to think positive thoughts than negative thoughts. But outside of designated thinking times, it’s best to think nothing at all.