12.25.2014

How to Think Positive

One way to keep a positive outlook on life is to look for the silver lining in any less than optimal scenario.

For example, I get seasonally depressed in the winter. It's not clinical depression or even actual seasonal affective disorder (SAD). I just hate winter and it bums me out, especially as the days get shorter and we switch to daylight savings time (in Wisconsin). I dream about living someplace warmer and I am disappointed when I cannot travel to faraway warm places for a respite from winter.

In Wisconsin, it starts to get cold in November and December, and then really cold in January and February. Toward the middle of December, I start to dread the weather that will come after the New Year. On the other hand, it's not as gloomy as it seems. The shortest day of the year in Wisconsin is the Winter Solstice, which falls on December 21 or thereabouts. So even though the coldest months of winter are yet to come, they days start to get longer again after December 21. So using daylight hours as a metric, rather than simply outside temperature, things are going to get better in January and February (I can still hate these months, but they do not bum me out as much). By March 21, the rate of increase in daylight hours will be at its maximum and spring is just around the corner.

Sometimes you may find your mind wanders toward negative thoughts more often than positive ones, especially when thinking about the future. I know mine does. I am a chronically anxious person, always thinking about the future and worst case scenarios. I would prefer to just live in the now and be happy, but it is not my disposition normally. And that's OK. I am who I am.

Awareness of the tendency to think negatively is critical to avoiding this and instead having a positive outlook. A lot of negative thinking and anxiety is irrational and baseless. Worst case scenarios seldom happen, statistically (in reality, most outcomes fall somewhere between best and worst case...you have to really try to royally eff things up). But even if you can't get your head around this mathematical fact, you can still JUST SAY NO to negative thoughts. When you recognize you are having them, you need to catch yourself and stop them dead in their tracks (sorry, that was a bit cliche).

This is not easy by any means. It sounds easy, but its not, because most of us aren't aware of when we are having the irrational negative thoughts. To think positive, you first have to have an awareness of the negative thinking. Only then can you consciously push the negative thoughts from your mind, which isn't always easy either. So there are basically two somewhat challenging steps involved in positive thinking, if you are not a positive thinker by nature (I envy such people).

Meditation can help develop positive thinking skills. In Zen Buddhist meditation, a person focuses on breathing while being aware of when the mind wanders. The mind always wanders. The goal isn't to prevent the mind from wandering, but rather to recognize consciously when it does. Sometimes your mind can wander off for a while before you notice that it has. This is because the subconscious mind is in control. When the conscious mind recognizes the subconscious has wandered off, it has to take control and bring it back to the focus on breathing.

The practice of meditation is supposed to teach the practitioner how to more effectively recognize when the mind has wandered off and return it to a centered focus on breathing.

Although the Zen meditation practice is focused on breathing and the reduction of a wandering mind in general, the skill can be applied to everyday thinking as well. If you think about it, a lot of negative thinking is just a form of mind wandering - into a dark scary forest of anxiety and stress and worst case scenarios, all fabricated by the subconscious reptilian brain we all harbor. In every day life, you are generally in no danger most of the time. When you are in danger, it's usually immediate danger, and you deal with it in the now (fight or flight). The future, though, is a complete unknown and you have a choice to accept or reject negative thoughts in the here and now.

When you become aware of a negative thought that you do not wish to have, simply push it away. The more aware you are of your negative thinking, the better you will become at catching yourself and willfully redirecting your thoughts. All skills get better with practice. You don't need to be a Zen Buddhist to do a poor man's form of meditation practice. Just get comfortable in a chair or on a couch, close your eyes and focus on your breathing. When your mind wanders, and it often will, you will eventually recognize it. Simply redirect your mind on the inhalations and exhalations of breath. A word of warning...if you meditate lying down, there is a very good chance your meditation will transition to a power nap at some point. So I personally recommend sitting upright in a comfortable chair if you don't wish to succumb to a nap.

It can be helpful to have a positive thinking "go to" when you are trying to avoid negative thoughts. Think about something that gives you joy or a generalized abstraction of positivity, such as, "Nothing bad is going to happen to me and everything is going to work out in my favor, because the COSMOS loves me."

Actually, the COSMOS doesn't really love you. In fact, it wants to kill you (Darwin's natural selection). So you are right to have some amount of fear and worry. But it does not have to be negative fear and worry. It's perfectly normal to assess your surroundings for immediate and near term risks. Just don't get swallowed up and overwhelmed by irrational nonexistent ones. That doesn't help you and only taxes your mind and body with stress hormones (these can literally kill you...so in a way, stress is an immediate threat to your health and should be avoided - that's why it is OK to punch your douchebag bully of a boss in the nutsack when he is stressing you out for no good reason...he is slowly killing you and you have a right to defend yourself!).

The fact that you are alive should be an indication of just how awesome you are though. You and your ancestors survived 3.5 billion years of non-stop evolution to be here today. That's ridiculously awesome.

So quit being a Negative Nellie and realize that it is awesome to be you...to be alive...and things could be worse (but don't think about those things...).

Are you with me here?

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