If you’re having trouble envisioning a better future for yourself — tomorrow, next week, or a decade from now — you’re not alone. There’s a biological explanation for the human tendency to fixate on negative emotions.
According to Rick Hanson, who has a clinical psychology degree, the amygdala (aka the part of our brain that helps process emotions) stores memories of negative experiences far quicker than memories of positive experiences. This contributes to a negativity bias that causes us to forget positive feelings and remember and dwell on even the most fleeting negative ones.
We literally have to overcome our own genetics in order to feel good about the present. In other words, being happy takes work. If we’re not deliberate about having a positive mindset, we’ll default to a negative one. As James Allen wrote in one of my all-time favorite books, “As a Man Thinketh”: “’Men are anxious to improve their circumstances but are unwilling to improve themselves.”
The desire to change the way we see the world and our place in it has given rise to the practice of positive psychology, a scientific approach to studying thoughts, emotions, and behavior with an emphasis on exploring strengths rather than weaknesses. Proponents of positive psychology say that shifting your focus to positive experiences, traits, states, and institutions can dramatically elevate your quality of life.
My own experience of implementing positive-thinking techniques as a leader has shown me that fostering a sense of accomplishment and self-confidence in people can be absolutely transformative. At Rhone, we strive to create a culture where positivity and vulnerability come naturally, and I’ve found that it holds me accountable to my goals.
Individuals who realize greater potential in themselves typically also start to realize greater potential in those around them, creating a positive feedback loop that empowers people to feel capable to accomplish their own goals. Positivity can be contagious, and it’s now a heavily researched topic in behavioral science. I’ll spare you the reading: It works. With that in mind, I often find that having specific tactics can help me get started. So here are five ways you can incorporate positive thinking into your goal-setting:
1. Become aware of your self-talk.
I’ll lean on Allen again: “As a man thinketh in his heart, so shall he be.” While painful to concede that our thoughts help determine our character, it is also incredibly empowering. As Viktor Frankl wrote in “Man’s Search for Meaning,” “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s own way.”
Start by recognizing when you are speaking to yourself about yourself. Oftentimes, we develop negative thinking loops that have floated around our minds for so long that we stopped noticing them. “I have bad luck.” “Why are things so hard for me?” Becoming aware of these thoughts is the first step toward positive changes.
2. Avoid the extremes “always” and “never.”
Growing up with a mom who has a master’s in social work from Columbia University, I learned the importance of avoiding extreme thought patterns (especially the words “always” and “never”). Think about it: While those words can be used positively, we rarely use them as such.
When you tell yourself, “I’ll never lose this extra weight,” you subconsciously give up and change your outcome. When you say to yourself, “I always eat too much,” you give up some of your own self-control. The world is full of gray areas, so don’t make yourself a prisoner to absolutes.
Rather than using these two words, acknowledge the reality of the goal you’re trying to achieve. Give yourself something to focus on instead. For example, try saying, “Losing weight won’t be easy, but I can start by not eating after 7 p.m. this week.” By acknowledging that a task or a goal will be difficult, you prepare your mind for the effort and take back control of your thought patterns.
3. Give yourself a new script.
We often hold ourselves to standards that no one can actually meet. As a result, we perpetually feel like we’re letting ourselves down or failing to fulfill our potential. This makes life harder for us and the people we surround ourselves with. We set ourselves up for failure and thus begin those negative thought loops.
If you want to achieve your goals, replace unreasonable criticism with encouragement. Treat yourself like a friend you’d want to help; you deserve praise. An easy and practical way to do this is to write down the affirmations of thoughts you want to have about yourself (the self-talk you want to receive from others). You can then become your own best source of encouragement.
I even suggest practicing saying these thoughts out loud. It may sound goofy or strange at first, but we are talking about rewiring your brain and your thought patterns. You could also ask a close friend to write down a few positive thoughts about you. If they’re willing to record them for you, then you can play the audio recording daily for a month to get that script into your head.
4. Stop fixating on the past.
Hanging on to painful memories and negative feelings is a surefire way to conjure up negative thoughts that monopolize your present. Dwell on these thoughts too long, and they’ll rob you of your future as well. Forgive loved ones who have let you down or hurt you. Forgive yourself, too. Holding onto anger, jealousy, or regret is like willingly entering a jail cell and refusing to leave.
B.J. Fogg, the founder of the Stanford University Behavior Design Lab, recently published a book titled “Tiny Habits.” It teaches you how to build better thought habits that help you stay in control when your mind simply wants to dwell on negative past experiences.
It’s time to move forward and focus on the future.
5. See what’s possible.
If you have the right mindset, you’ll see opportunities everywhere. At times, it may be hard for you to recognize possibilities on your own, so ask for help. Other people can often help us compensate for blind spots in our own thinking and empower us to change the way we view our current circumstances. You might not always be able to rely on others, but by focusing on your strengths and what you can do, you’ll begin to attract people whose skills and capabilities complement your own.