Are you having trouble staying positive during these challenging times? If so, you are not alone. Adversity doesn’t discriminate, so unfortunately as humans we have to deal with tough times. The good news? A positive mind-set is not a fixed trait that some people have the ability to conjure up and others don’t. It is actually a muscle anyone can strengthen, and we’ll share how you can do so with three easy tips.
The benefits of a positive mind-set
A positive mind-set is defined as a mental and emotional attitude that focuses on the bright side of life and expects positive results. While it’s not realistic (or even helpful) to always be cheerful, studies have shown that taking time to cultivate a positive mind-set has countless health benefits. Positive thinking can not only improve self-esteem and feelings of worthiness and success but reduce mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, stress, and hypertension.
It can be empowering to recognize that while you do not have control over life’s circumstances, you do control how you react to those circumstances by focusing your mind. Cultivating a positive mind-set can support you in responding to unexpected change as an opportunity for learning and growth.
How can you develop a positive mind-set?
Just like building any muscle, cultivating positive thinking takes intention, time, and commitment. When approached from a personal growth mind-set, it can be a fun and fulfilling process!
As humans, we are hardwired to focus on what is wrong with us and our circumstances. From an evolutionary perspective, this helped humans immensely! Imagine yourself as a cave person who sees a saber-toothed tiger. Instead of staying positive and focusing on the beautiful sunset, you would react immediately to the threat of the tiger. While this “fight or flight” response saved our lives in the past, in modern times we are not likely to encounter too many saber-toothed tigers. Unfortunately, our bodies can overreact to little stressors throughout the day (an argument with a spouse, being stuck in traffic, tight deadlines at work) in the same way we would if we were encountering tigers. This automatic physiological response can have serious negative effects on health, such as high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, and even addiction.
Although our brain is still hardwired for automatic physiological response, we do have the power to focus our attention. Science shows that we can train our brains to shift attention from “what’s wrong?” to “what’s the opportunity?” In psychology, this is known as benefit finding. This doesn’t mean avoiding or denying any hardship, but shifting perspective to also see opportunities.
We need to respect and acknowledge the parts of ourselves that are scared of change, while choosing to greet each adversity as a catalyst for personal transformation.
How can you put this into practice?
No matter how much we have practiced love and compassion for ourselves, self-judgment and criticism are natural parts of being human. Just like we are hardwired to focus on what’s wrong in our environment, we tend to find things in ourselves we disapprove of and want to “fix.” This is often a result of wanting to be accepted and liked by others, and therefore anything that stands in the way of our ideal self-image can show up as negative self-talk. Usually we don’t notice when this is happening because it’s so habitual.
Three easy strategies to focus your mind and cultivate a positive mind-set:
- Don’t “should” yourself. Starting any through with “I should…” is one of the easiest ways to recognize negative self-talk. For instance, “I should go to the gym,” “I should be more loving,” “I should do a better job,” etc. Next time you catch yourself “shoulding,” stop in the moment and immediately replace the critical thought with a positive one that feels authentic and true. For instance, “I should have been more compassionate with my friend at lunch today,” could be replaced with, “I’m proud of myself for getting out of the house to meet up with my friend today.”
- Journal your successes. Regardless of the challenges you face each day, taking a few moments to focus on what you are proud of will develop positive self-talk. At the end of each day, write down three things you are proud of yourself for. These don’t have to be outstanding but can be as simple as “I remembered to brush my teeth this morning,” or “I drank eight glasses of water today.” Keep your journal next to your bed to remind and challenge yourself to acknowledge three different successes each evening.
- Focus on gratitude. Negative self-talk is often a by-product of comparing ourselves to others. It’s natural to feel jealous, irritable, or even resentful when we see someone who seems to be living a more fulfilling life than we are. While not rooted in truth, this can still cause us to feel self-critical, like we aren’t doing enough or are less than or inadequate. Next time you play the comparison game, stop in the moment and think of one or two things you are grateful for. You can do this in your mind, on your phone, out loud, or in a journal or planner.
While you cannot avoid adversity, you can empower yourself through the focus of your mind. With consistent practice in cultivating a positive mind-set, you can move forward while learning from the challenges you’ve experienced.
Remember, it’s not important or even beneficial to be excessively positive all the time. It’s important to be sincere about your experience so you do not avoid, deny, or bypass challenges. You can practice realistic optimism by meeting yourself where you are, knowing that each challenging experience is helping you step into your greatest potential.
While unexpected change can be uncomfortable or scary, through the power of focusing your mind, you have control over how you choose to see each experience.