Is the glass half full or half empty?
There is no objective answer to this question. Your response doesn’t actually say anything about the glass itself but it reveals a lot about your attitude. Since the Stone Age, man has essentially had a deficit-oriented perspective since this was vital in order to survive. Today, this is more harmful than beneficial – but fortunately, it is possible to change that mindset. After all, the question of whether we are optimistic or pessimistic has a major influence on our life.
If I asked you to complete the sentence “The world is full of …”, what would you say? According to the late German management trainer Vera Birkenbihl, the most common response to this question in Germany and Switzerland is ‘idiots’ or ‘problems’. In other words, we certainly don’t see the world in the same way as Henri Matisse, who said: “There are flowers everywhere for those who want to see them.“ Why is it that the majority of people see more problems and shortcomings than chances and opportunities?
When we are frightened, the brain triggers a stress reaction that causes us to not only perceive the problem but to also focus on it excessively. That might have made a lot of sense in the Stone Age when we had to either flee from or fight a saber-toothed tiger – but fortunately, we are no longer confronted with such problems in the modern world. And yet: The way we react is still the same, with a very negative impact – not least on our health.
Negative thoughts make us ill
A study by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health revealed that optimistic women have around a 30% lower risk of suffering or dying from cancer, heart complaints, a stroke or some other serious medical condition. This is because negative thoughts activate a specific region of the brain – the amygdala. This is where feelings such as fear, unease, etc. arise. The risk of getting seriously ill is greater among people in whom the amygdala recovers only slowly because they have a large number of negative thoughts. It is no wonder that Albert Einstein once said that negative thoughts are a man’s only real enemy.
Conversely, you can say that measured optimism (the realistic form without artificial excesses) makes people more resilient. The psychiatrist Dennis Charney from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York interviewed 750 war veterans who had not developed any depression or post-traumatic stress disorders – in other words, individuals who appeared resilient. Charney found that their most common characteristic was optimism. When faced with difficulties from time to time, optimists try to solve them and to improve the situation they find themselves in. And if the issues cannot be solved, they learn to accept the reality more quickly and to move forwards. This reveals that they have more balanced personalities and are more resistant to stress. That is not all: Optimists tend to eat healthier and engage in more sporting activities.
Happiness begins in the mind
You might want to say: Yes, that is true – but how can I change my mindset if I have that negative basic attitude? Starting with the most important point: If our brains are on ‘negative autopilot’, we can reset them. It is possible to replace bad habits with new and better patterns of behavior. We can learn from mistakes and crises and become calmer and more composed. Here are some tips on how you can ‘reprogram’ your brain:
- Instead of concentrating on what is going wrong in your life, focus your attention on all the good things that you have and be grateful for them. This triggers thousands of biochemical processes that make you feel better. You can find out more about gratitude here: https://www.stressandbalance.ch/en/2017/02/28/how-i-visualize-gratitude/.
- If you have the feeling that you are always failing and can’t get anything right, then write a list of everything you have already achieved (professionally and privately). Next, write a list every evening for the next few weeks of the things you have done well during that day. This may be difficult at first but if you persevere, your brain will recognize more and more positive aspects over time and your self-esteem will grow.
- Pay attention to what you say. Don’t always talk about what you CAN’T do. Avoid language that conveys a sense of uncertainty – such as possibly, perhaps, mmh, etc. This makes you feel unsure of yourself.
- The same applies to you posture. Stand or sit up straight. Adopt a posture that makes you feel strong – a technique known as ‘power posing’. You can find out more about this here: https://www.stressandbalance.ch/en/2017/11/14/posture-influences-your-emotions/.
- Visualize in as much detail as possible (like in a film) the path that leads to your target and how you intend to reach it. It is very important to use all five of your senses in this context and to feel emotions such as your pleasure upon achieving your goal. These are techniques that are used by many top athletes and fighter pilots in order to summon their full mental and physical strength when they find themselves in extreme situations.
- Use positive affirmations (also known as ‘mantras’). Transform self-doubt (“I don’t think I can”) into positive statements. My nine-year-old daughter uses this method – especially when sitting math tests. She writes “I can do it” on the test paper and she has been achieving much better results since she started doing so! Just like the carmaker Henry Ford once said: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.”
- Limit the amount of time you spend brooding about an issue, e.g. by setting an alarm clock, as the German time management expert Burkhard Heidenberger suggests. Then consciously return to thinking positive thoughts.
- As humans, we have around 60,000 thoughts a day (Heidenberger says that our inner voice is a real chatterbox). A large proportion of them are negative but we tend to be unaware of them. Nevertheless, these thoughts affect the way we feel and act. Spend a day trying to become aware of all the things you think about during that time – after all, you need to be conscious of what you are thinking before you can begin to change it.
- If you are frightened of something, write down all your fears. They will then seem less daunting.
- If you don’t feel good because something is not working or you have failed to achieve something, ask yourself how important this issue will be after one week, six months and one year. This usually helps to put things into context.
- Don’t get worked up about things that you can’t change. Instead, invest your energy in areas where you can make a difference. Find out more about this here: https://www.stressandbalance.ch/en/2016/02/09/dont-get-worked-up/.
With all these methods, the most important thing is: Practice, practice, practice. It takes a lot of discipline and tenacity for the brain to understand that it has to switch from negative to positive mode. Begin with something small and then move on to bigger topics. You will sense a real change over time as you become less stressed and see your self-confidence, calmness and energy grow!
© Claudia Kraaz