You know that old maxim about being sad that roses have thorns versus being happy that thorns have roses? Of course you do, and hopefully your takeaway is that perspective totally matters. Virtually all of us experience stress and anxiety—and who can blame us, what with toxic work cultures, constant connectivity via smartphones and social media, and a depressing 24-hour news cycle? That said, the way you approach your circumstances most certainly impacts how you experience them. Put more simply, the way you think directly impacts the way you feel.
Fortunately, the brain can be subtly shifted or even transformed through mental practices that work to rewire old, unhelpful structures and thought processes. As Rick Hanson, PhD, a neuropsychologist and meditation teacher, writes in Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, & Wisdom, “neurons that fire together, wire together.” What he means, basically, is that repeated mental activity (for example, meditating daily, reflecting on the things you feel grateful for, or holding positive thoughts in your mind for several extra seconds each time they arise) can create lasting changes in the architecture of your brain. This phenomenon, known as neuroplasticity, suggests that your brain is the ideal canvas on which to craft a perspective shift, moving you away from negativity bias and toward a positive mental attitude.
What does it mean to have a positive mental attitude?
Again, no one is denying the common experience of hardship. After all, avocados won’t always be ripe, job searches won’t always be fruitful, and stressful situations are just an inevitability. Given those realities, what does it mean to have a positive mental attitude, even when faced with challenges and struggles? I mean, who wouldn’t be bummed out by a barrel of mushy avocados?
According to Sarah Romotsky, head of health and science strategy at Headspace, a positive attitude has a lot to do with the how you view the world. “The way I like to think about it is as having an optimistic approach to life that incorporates kindness, gratitude, and an intentional choice to embrace life and everything that comes with it.”
There are so many ways to look at the same situation; a positive attitude helps you focus on the gold and filter out the garbage, so to speak.
Look at this way: Your world is bound to contain some bruised fruit, but look next to that bin and you’ll see the beautiful, unblemished tomatoes that will go perfectly on a rainbow sandwich. You choose to feel grateful for the fruit that is available to you instead of clinging to disappointment in light of your unmet desire for avocados. This example may seem trivial, but it also applies to painful experiences, like the end of a romantic relationship or really any missed opportunity. There are so many ways to look at the same situation; a positive attitude helps you focus on the gold and filter out the garbage, so to speak.
If reaching this Zen-like state of flexibility and tranquility feels far out of reach for you, keep in mind that cultivating this mind-set doesn’t require you to see the world as a perfect fountain of happiness and joy. “A positive mental attitude doesn’t mean you have to be positive all the time,” says Romotsky. “It means that you have resilience and emotional balance so you can bounce back from setbacks and challenges.” If you’re ready to work toward making a positive perspective shift, Romotsky suggests the following four strategies to help you mobilize your neural networks and find your own little piece of bliss.
Unleash your joy using 4 strategies for cultivating a positive mental attitude.
1. Break the cycle of negativity to reduce the impact thoughts have on mood and behavior
Rather than trying to banish negative thoughts entirely (let’s be real–that would be a completely unrealistic goal), aim to make them less important and, as a result, less impactful. “The first step to breaking the cycle is to recognize the difference between feelings and facts,” says Romotsky. “It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by negative thoughts, and this can allow them to seem like reality. But if you ask yourself if the negativity is based on actual facts, you may be surprised to realize your negativity bias is more feeling than fact.”
Practice separating your knee-jerk reaction to a situation (for example, that you will never recover from losing your current job) from the true implications it has in your life (you got out of a situation that was no longer serving you, and now you have the opportunity to find something that fits much better).
2. Try meditation as a means of improving your mood and reprogramming your mind-set
Research shows that this ancient practice is more than just an old-but-new wellness-world trend. “Meditation has been shown to improve positivity and happiness,” Romotsky explains. “In fact, one study showed just 10 days of [meditation using] Headspace increased positivity.”
What’s more is that the benefits of positive thinking that can arise as a result of meditation also extend to transforming other facets of your life, including feelings of purpose, social support, and even physical health. As you might imagine, these personal resources were also found to predict increased life satisfaction and decreased depression in a sample of adults who were trained to practice lovingkindness meditation. These wide-ranging mental health benefits provide strong evidence in favor of meditation as a healing practice that may help to infuse your life with a little (or a lot of) extra positivity.
3. Remember that even those who are “wired” for negativity can rewire the brain
“Studies show you can actually train your brain to ‘go positive’ through a variety of different interventions,” says Romotsky. Remember that whole neuroplasticity thing? Even if your friends have dubbed you “negative Nancy” due to your bent toward pessimism, your brain has the powerful potential to reorganize itself so that you begin to approach life with a more positive attitude. As Romotsky reminds us, “’wired’ a certain way can often be ‘rewired’.”
4. Find what works for you and practice it consistently
Now that you know your mind is malleable and capable of making mental shifts that improve your outlook on life, how do you go about flipping the proverbial switch? Three words, my friends: time, patience, and consistency. It took you years of repeated mental activity to develop your current mind-set, and it will take time to change things around. But rather than seeing this as an obstacle to positivity, try to view it as an opportunity to develop healthy self-care habits that will be beneficial in and of themselves.
“The most important thing is to find an activity that helps you make this shift and is sustainable for you,” Romotsky suggests. “Consistency is key, so whether it is meditation, exercising, or another activity, find what works for you and stick with it!” Romotsky also suggests using mantras or positive affirmations to help you remember to look on the bright side: “Any language that reminds you to be positive and gives you motivation and inspiration to adopt this mind-set is great.”
It is entirely possible to train your mind to focus on the silver lining of even the darkest storm clouds. Doing so may take some effort to engage in this kind of perspective shift, but the ultimate payoff is a refreshing, happier outlook on life.
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