Develop a mastery response rather than focus on the negatives and life will start smiling on you, says Peter Dingle PhD
There are many things around us that influence the way we feel and ultimately influence our behaviour - it may be something on television, something someone has said, even the way in which something is said or just "something in the air". Identify the positive things in your life and put more time into them or add new things you enjoy to the list. Identify the negative things in your life and reduce these or the amount of time and effort put into them.
Media has a powerful effect on all of us and can be incredibly negative. Seeing violence on the news and in the movies reinforces negative states of mind. Our ancestral mind was not designed to see destruction and devastation every night of the week. Most of the media, the news and the current affairs programs, work on approximately one positive program to nine negative ones because they know that negative stories sell. This daily barrage influences our thoughts, feelings and behaviour. Even worse, imagine the powerful impact such reporting has on the developing minds of our children.
For weeks after 9/11, adults and kids walked around in a zombie-like state, not because of the gravity of the situation - thousands of people die every day in equally ghastly or even worse situations. What made 9/11 worse was that the media repeated the scenes over and over and over again, hundreds of times and each time our spirits sank a little lower. Watching this type of coverage, the thinking mind exposes us to a constant bombardment of more negative news.
The more negative things we bring into our lives, the more negative we feel and the less control we have. In a study on the link between mood and perception, people were shown ambiguous drawings. Their mood would determine whether they would consider the drawing to be happy or sad. The pictures did not change, but people's interpretations did. When they were feeling good they saw the pictures more positively and would identify more with the people they interpreted as being positive. When shown the same faces, children who had been abused reported more faces showing anger or fear compared to children who hadn't been abused.
In another study, in which adults were asked to recall their childhood memories after watching videos, sad videos prompted them to recall more sad memories. Happy videos caused them to recall happier times. Similarly, research on attitudes has shown that if people focus on negative memories or negative words, or phrases or facial expressions that make them frown, they are more likely to continue feeling negative. Put simply, by focusing on negative images and words such as "I can't," "I don't," and "I won't," you become more negative. The opposite is also true and by using positive words and expressions you can lift yourself into a positive frame of mind.
One study asked people to read aloud many sentences containing words that cause the lips to purse together with the sound "oo," which mimics a frowning facial expression. These people registered greater dislike for what they read compared to those who read similar stories but without the scowling facial expressions. Our own facial expressions can influence how we feel and, in turn, influence our perceptions. So smile! It's good for you!
Find positive people, places, programs and pictures and surround yourself with them rather than the negative images on which our society seems to thrive. Illness past the age of 70 is correlated with thoughts individuals had during their younger years. More illness is associated with negative thoughts and better health with positive thoughts.
You can change your conditioning through developing a positive attitude. This doesn't mean you have to become a super-optimist; you just need to recognise and chip away at self limiting conditioning. The benefits of being optimistic include:
* Better health
* Higher productivity
* A willingness to meet new challenges and take risks
* Better career
* Longer life
Make Life a Journey
The metaphor for making life a journey is appropriate. When I was younger I spent four years hitchhiking around the world, going to new places and seeing and learning new things. As a result I learnt there are three parts to appreciating travel. The first is the anticipation, the excitement and the preparation. The second is the actual travel. While it was great, it also had its tough times like getting kicked off the train and stuck at the French border at 1 am on a cold night because I did not have the proper visa. It was a cold sleep in the park that night. And then there is the third stage, looking back over the trip and reminiscing, "Wasn't it great? They were such great experiences."
More recently, I had been dragged through the Western Australian media so that my personal and professional reputation I had built up over 25 years was in tatters. Well, at least until all the facts and truth came out. But by then it was too late and it did not seem to make the mainstream media, and nor did they apologise. While the experience of it was probably the worst thing that had happened in my life, one year on I can see some fantastic lessons in it for me, and new directions in my life that I now have. Not that I wish it on anyone or want to go through it again, but in retrospect I can see how it has helped me grow and was just a part of my journey.
You can't change the past, but you can change your attitude toward it. How you see the past has already been filtered through your emotional brain so you tend to remember the feelings associated with the past. However, we have a choice to see some positive and good in everything and to learn from even the most negative experiences, despite how tragic they were for us. Focusing on negative feelings will not make you feel any better, but will make you feel worse. Focusing on some positive aspect does not ignore the past, but it helps you move on in a positive direction.
Making life a journey is about seeking the positive and dispelling the negative in your life - appreciating things, not depreciating them; asking what can you learn from an experience, even if it was a major negative incident. A friend of mine recently received a letter from someone she was fond of who was highly critical and angry toward her. Instead of saying "I don't deserve that" and getting really angry and sending off another angry letter she said, "Some of this may be true..." and asked herself, "So what can I learn?" Within a couple of hours of receiving the letter, it became something that helped shape this person for the better rather than something that could have devastated her.
Through the pain of our experiences we have a choice to find the lesson, the positive side to it.
Yes, I know there are some devastating events that affect us all. But you have a choice. Even if a loved one has passed away ask what would they want you to do. I found a lot of strength in changing my life to make it more positive to do the things my best friend wanted me to do, but I was too busy to do. I still have a lot of pain, but I also have pleasure from my actions borne out of a tragedy.
For many people the brain remembers the failures, not the successes. We need to learn from the failures without berating ourselves. You can develop a mastery response or a helpless response. If you are really upset with your situation, go to any ward of a children's hospital. This will put things in perspective. Take time to appreciate what you have today because many others in the world do not have it and you may not have it tomorrow.
Learn from your failures
We can learn from our failures. The smart person learns from her successes and failures. In success you learn what to do; in failure you learn what not to do. Failure is feedback on precisely how you can improve; it is a source of information for future efforts and is absolutely essential for learning. It is a message to try another way. It is only when you accept failure that you can succeed. Use it as a guide. Failures enable us to readjust and get back on track.
Alexander Graham Bell founded the Bell Telephone Company when Western Union Telegraph rejected an offer to buy his patent. Remember that behind every great success are numerous failures.
Reflect back on some of the issues in your life and make them into lessons for you to become a better and more effective person. Lesson for the day: every day there are lessons to be learnt.
Dr Peter Dingle is a researcher, educator and public health advocate. He has a PhD in the field of environmental toxicology and is not a medical doctor.