Mindfulness, meditation and gratitude are buzzwords that we hear all the time, particularly in relation to happiness. But what do they really mean?
The prevailing belief used to be that once you had matured to adulthood, the mind was fairly much developed and couldn’t be changed. It turns out, from extensive scientific experimentation and research that this is far from the case. The ability to change the way we think, throughout life: neuroplasticity is a thing.
So what does that mean? Can we change a completely pessimistic outlook to an optimistic one? Can we change from being spontaneous and erratic to being calm and measured. The answer seems to be that we can.
Mastering new skills
Firstly, it’s helpful to think back to something that you initially found very difficult to master. Thinking about learning how to dance or drive a car perhaps. Even reading was something that most of us struggled with at some stage. What’s common to these skills? Well, here are some similarities:
- It’s accepted that they take a long time to learn
- It’s usual, if not essential, to receive coaching, or some kind of instruction
- We learn from our peers and sometimes from professionals
- It’s never too late to improve our technique
It’s fair to say that, by and large, we are familiar with learning new skills. But thinking and finding happiness don’t tend to be amongst them. We just get on with our thoughts. The stuff that goes on in our heads is largely private. Thought and feelings of pride, shame, passion, indifference, extreme joy and deepest despair are experiences that most of us have had. We may share them, or we may choose to keep them private.
That can be fine if everything is going well. And many people do manage to get through life without any significant mental health concerns. But, lots of people don’t.
Mental illness used to be viewed as a personal weakness or something shameful. Happily, those days are behind us. People talk openly about a wide variety of mental health conditions that were once poorly understood and largely ignored.
Shift in public perception
Cognitive behavioural therapy, or CBT, has played a major role in creating this shift in public perception. CBT is a very successful method in teaching how to change the way that we think, feel and behave.
We are not our thoughts
One of the key techniques that CBT implements is learning to dissociate from our thoughts: we are not our thoughts. All sorts of thoughts come to us in a lifetime. Some of them we choose to act on and some we ignore. CBT teaches us to actively use this natural filtering process rather than to treat it passively.
Thoughts aren’t facts
With the help of CBT techniques, we learn to pay greater attention to the thoughts that come into our heads. We learn to see them for what they are: thoughts, not facts. With training from a therapist we become much more aware of the thoughts that resonate with us and with which we identify. We learn that we can pick and choose.
Consciously choosing thoughts
From moment to moment, we are making decisions about our identity; who we are and how we think, feel and behave. CBT teaches us to master this process.
Where CBT is particularly helpful, is that it doesn’t focus exclusively on thinking. We also bring emotions and behaviour into the equation. We choose our emotions and our behaviour as much as we choose our thoughts.
New way of thinking
It can be an incredibly hard skill to master our thoughts, behaviours and emotions, particularly if this active process represents a new way of thinking.
Mastering thinking and emotions
Learning to master our thinking and emotions can seem daunting. We are bombarded by the world around us. We’re constantly distracted by our friends, colleagues, family and neighbours. In amongst all of the pressures that life already puts on us, mastering our emotions may seem like an additional burden.
However, like learning to read, mastering your inner life may be one of the best investments of your time that you ever make. You can learn how to proactively choose so many more decisions. You can choose the identity that you build for yourself internally. And, to a large degree, you can build resilience in your own mental health and wider sense of well-being.
So, in conclusion, how do we become more positive? Well, if happiness is proving to be elusive, there is much that you can do to change your mind.