Mindfulness, meditation and gratitude are buzzwords that we hear all the time, particularly in relation to happiness. But what do they really mean? Is being positive just a case of mind over matter, or is there something more complicated going on?
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. So why is it so difficult?
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.
When I was growing up, mental illness was still taboo. People talked in hushed tones about neighbours who had ‘had a breakdown’ or were suffering from depression. It tended 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. For good reason. CBT is a very successful method in teaching how to change the way that we think, feel and behave.
Believe in change
Firstly, if we want to change, we need to not just accept, but to believe that we can change the way we think and behave. Let’s look at the concept of politeness and social convention. We learn, usually from a young age, that we can act in a way that may be contrary to how we feel. For instance, a shy person meeting somebody new may be inclined not to make eye contact or to avoid speaking if possible. But as children, generally we’re taught not to do this. It can make the other person feel uncomfortable. So we train ourselves to make eye contact, to shake the hand of a stranger hand and to say hello. It becomes routine and natural.
Learning how to socialise
Similarly, we learn, again usually from a young age, that when we’re part of an audience, for instance in church, or watching a play or listing to a talk, that we have to sit still and be quiet. We conform with social conventions and train ourselves to sit quietly, even if we’re desperate to talk, cough, go to the bathroom or stretch our legs.
These kind of social conventions may seem far removed from mental health issues. But, the point is, we’ve learned how to behave in these situations. And we can train our thoughts and behaviour in a way that is helpful for happiness in much the same way.
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.
Identifying with thoughts
What does this mean in practice? Well, if I’m watching Oceans Eleven, or any other heist movie for that matter, it may occur to me that becoming a professional criminal is a lucrative, and to some extent, fun career. For the majority of us, this thought would come into our mind, and pretty quickly we would dismiss it. We may even act as if it had never happened. Because it’s not something we identify with, it’s natural not to really notice it and to forget it just as easily.
Thoughts aren’t facts
Conversely, let’s take the example of somebody suffering with mild depression. A thought comes into his or her mind, such as, ‘Life is terrible’. Just as in the example above, this person can choose to reject or accept this thought. As they are already feeling depressed, they are more likely to identify with it. In fact, they will probably identify with it quite strongly, so they dwell on it for longer and may even consider it to be true. In their thinking, ‘Life is terrible’ may be something they perceive as a fact.
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 or CBT coach 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 rather than to passively succumb to the ideas and thoughts with which we unconsciously identify.
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. Going back to the analogy of learning how to behave as part of a theatre audience. When you take your seat before the opening of a play, you know how you’re expected to behave. You have been trained in this role. So we see that even if it’s just for short amounts of time, it’s completely possible to train thoughts, emotions and behaviour.
New way of thinking
I’m not underplaying that 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.
Like any skill, for instance, learning to drive, there is a lot to master. Not only do we have to keep the engine happy by changing gear when necessary, we also have to observe the speed limit. At the same time we have to think about safety, road conditions and the traffic around us. We have to observe the rules of the road, drive differently on motorways to in country lanes. Passengers may distract us. Getting lost may frustrate us. Other drivers may antagonise us. There’s an infinite number of situations that we may find ourselves in when we’re driving.
Mastering thinking and emotions
In exactly the same way, 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. We have responsibilities and duties. We have exams to pass, professional standards to adhere to and sometimes customers and clients to keep happy. We have beliefs and faiths. We have social obligations and often we have to earn a living. 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 or learning to drive or learning to play golf, 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, I hope that I have demonstrated that there is much that you can do to change your mind. In my practice I help people shift their mindset away from negativity and anxiety. I coach CBT techniques and can reinforce them with hypnotherapy. If you want to change, then it’s entirely possible.