Optimism improves your social life and motivates you to never give up, which turns failures and set backs into comebacks and successes.
Your thinking habits can make your life a heaven or hell.
Thinking, emotions, and behaviors intertwine very closely and each can change the others. In this chapter, we focus on the importance of our thoughts, how they help or trouble us, and what to do about our counterproductive thought habits. Much of the discussion in this chapter derives from the pioneering work of the great psychologists Aaron T. Beck and Albert Ellis.
Voodoo deaths, faith cures, the placebo effect, and hypnosis all provide dramatic evidence for the power of thinking. Voodoo deaths seem to come from the great anxiety and loss of hope in the cursed person caused by one overwhelming thought, the belief that death inevitably awaits. Faith cures at religious sites or by charismatic healers may come from a newly acquired serenity, acceptance, confidence, and vigor due to belief in the cure that reduces helplessness and allows one to notice small improvements and pay less attention to symptoms or problems. Faith in the cure may help some people to stop gaining sympathy and attention for the sick role. Perhaps believing in the cure reduces anxiety and the experience of pain. Such changes may alleviate an emotional problem or overcome a physical one. Perhaps these improved feelings and behaviors produce beneficial effects on the disease processes themselves.
In the placebo effect, believing someone gave you an effective cure can sometimes improve emotional or physical problems, especially pain. Researchers mislead patients by treating them with placebos, inactive imitations of medicines such as sugar pills or injections of saltwater. New research combining 114 studies of placebo shows that placebos don’t help nearly as many people as believed in the past. Many studies found no placebo effect at all. However, the new research shows patients in pain studies given placebos report an average of a 15% reduction in pain and shows a smaller placebo effect in other studies with subjective measures such as ratings of how much symptoms bother the patient.
Placebos occasionally cause unpleasant side effects: heart palpitations, insomnia, weakness, nervousness, drowsiness, dizziness, dry mouth, headache, nausea, vomiting, rashes, hives, swelling of the lips, constipation, diarrhea, etc. When the patients stop taking the placebo, the side effects disappear. The simple belief that one took a potent drug causes these reactions. Researchers don’t understand the placebo effect, but all the possible explanations for faith cures noted above may also apply here. Psychologists often take advantage of the placebo effect by giving glowing testimonials about the effectiveness of their techniques, because they know making believers of their clients will result in more cures. Hypnosis, treating people with the power of suggestion, also highlights the power of thinking.
Our thoughts are important to us in many ways. We emphasized certain patterns of thinking in our previous discussions of happiness: acceptance, a focus on good works and virtues, and humor. Our negative and positive thoughts can also cause our expectations to come true, a self-fulfilling prophecy, by affecting how we see things and act. If you attempt a task thinking, “I know I’ll mess it up. I can’t do anything right,” you probably won’t feel like trying very hard and you may interpret your progress as unimpressive. This pessimism may lead you to give up, perhaps blaming the poor outcome on your lack of ability or other circumstances. In contrast, if you have hope and optimistically think your efforts will make a difference, you will keep trying for much longer. Positive thoughts such as, “Maybe this will work,” motivate you to spend more time thinking and trying various things. These behaviors increase your chances of success.
In many situations, success comes from repeatedly trying and from refusing to give up because of failure. Optimistic people tend to keep working and thinking success will eventually come, but pessimistic people often give up and make their poor expectations come true. One researcher studied 500 incoming freshmen at a university and found a test of optimism predicted their grades the first year better than did either their SAT scores or high-school grades. Perhaps this was because optimistic people tend to stay motivated despite frustrations and failures.
The self-fulfilling prophecy can also operate in your social life. Suppose you go to a social event thinking to yourself things like: “I’m such a bore,” “Nobody will like me,” “I never make a good impression,” and “I’ll never make any friends.” Thinking pessimistically, feeling inadequate, and fearing inevitable rejection, you will probably talk and mingle very little and never offer invitations. You might even see events in a distorted manner, assuming people hadn’t come over to talk to you or they eventually walked away because they didn’t like you, or you might assume the man looking at you must think you are weird. Although withdrawn behavior rarely leads to friendships, you may decide making no friends there gives further proof of your dullness.
Alternatively, suppose you go to a social event feeling just as awkward, but telling yourself things like: “Lots of people are nervous at first. Concentrate on being friendly,” “Everyone has to get used to rejection,” “I don’t need to be perfect. Quit worrying and go,” and “The more I do it, the smoother I’ll be.” These thoughts help you mingle and practice your conversation skills. You may not make a friend there, but your thoughts and actions are more likely to lead to a friendship sometime, somewhere.
Our thoughts greatly influence our emotions and personal problems. Negative thoughts are common in bad moods and depression, and positive thoughts go with feeling good and happy. Experiments show spending time thinking about happy, sad, or angry situations often causes these feelings to arise. Consider how bad you would feel if you spent twenty minutes thinking about the worst things people ever said or did to you, the worst times of your life, and all your faults and mistakes. Habitually thinking about negative things tends to drag you down into depression. Angry thoughts make it more difficult to calm down, to see the other person’s point of view, and to act in respectful ways. If no negotiation or solution occurs, angry thoughts simply keep us tense, our feelings inflamed, and our mood disturbed. Similarly, upsetting thoughts help cause anxiety, thoughts of needing addictive substances help cause addiction, dwelling on loss helps cause grief, etc.
Changing habits of negative thinking helps a great deal in changing emotions and improving personal problems. Negative thinking is counterproductive, self-defeating thinking that makes you feel worse, see things in a worse light, and act in ways that often interfere with goals. The more you think negatively, the worse you feel. Positive thoughts help you feel better, see things in a better light, and act more sensibly and effectively. Optimistic, hopeful thoughts improve your chances of success in work and social life. Much research suggests optimism in facing losses and failures promotes mental health, whereas pessimism does the opposite.
Let’s look at some categories of negative thinking and some positive thought alternatives for each.
- Other people seem so much more confident (or successful, popular, etc.) than me.
- I don’t have any talent.
- I have no discipline, no will power.
- I’m a complete failure.
- I’m worthless, no good.
- I have no patience whatsoever.
- I’ll never be able to …
- I don’t have any brains.
- I’m a born loser.
- I’m so weird.
- Dwelling on concerns about status.
- Dwelling on unattractiveness.
- In all areas of life, you can always find people who are better or luckier than you and people who are worse or less fortunate than you.
- I’ll try to do the best I can.
- I’m not going to give up!
- Making mistakes is only human.
- My qualities include … (make a list)
- I can do anything if I put enough time and effort into it.
- I have a good family life. That’s all that matters.
- Many things are more important than looks.
Lack of Charm
- Who would want to date me?
- I have no sense of humor.
- I’m such a bore.
- I’m so dull.
- I make a lousy impression on other people.
- I’m a wallflower and I always will be.
- I don’t know how to flirt and I never will.
- I’m the worst conversationalist in the world.
- I always say the wrong thing.
- The more I do this, the smoother I’ll be.
- People are often nervous at first.
- Just concentrate on being friendly.
- Well, it was easier than last time.
- I was nervous, but people usually don’t notice. I’ll improve.
- You don’t need to be funny all the time.
- Even popular people sit in a corner sometimes. You have to share the limelight.
Lack of Ability, Mistakes, Failure
- I can’t do it. It’ll be awful.
- I’m too nervous. It’ll never come off right.
- See! I’ll never be any good at this.
- I know I’ll mess it up.
- I just know I’ll make a fool of myself.
- I don’t want to try. I could never do it.
- I’m not smart enough. I might as well not try.
- That proves I’m a total jerk.
- What’s the use? I give up.
- I can’t do anything right.
- I’ll try to do the best I can.
- If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. If I give up, I’ll fail.
- Practice makes perfect.
- I don’t need to be perfect. I’ll learn.
- Maybe this will work.
- Mistakes are the stepping stones of learning. I’m going to hold my head up high.
- Well, I know that doesn’t work.
- What else can I try?
- If I work hard and refuse to give up, I’ll get it.
Pessimism about Life or the World
- The world is going downhill.
- Things just get worse and worse.
- Life is futile and meaningless.
- Life is just one problem after another. It never ends.
- Life is misery and then you die.
- Life is unfair.
- People don’t care anymore.
- They’re out for whatever they can get.
- I have nothing to look forward to.
- Nothing ever works out for me.
- I’ll never have what I want.
- Problems have been around since time began, but so have cleverness and courage.
- We have spices, fruits, and material comforts that Medieval kings would have envied.
- Most people are pretty good.
- Life is what you make of it.
- A winner gets ahead by working for his goals.
- I’m willing to do what it takes to get the things I want.
Lack of Love, Rejection in Romance
- Nobody understands me.
- I just don’t belong.
- I’m so all alone.
- I know he won’t find me interesting.
- I knew she’d reject me. I’m so boring.
- I can’t live without her.
- I’ll never get over him.
- I’m going to be an old maid (or lonely bachelor) all my life.
- Nobody cares about me and nobody ever will.
- What’s the use? I’ll never find love.
- Without a lover, life is endless depression.
- How could anyone ever love me?
- She’s the only one I could ever care for.
- Nobody likes rejection, but I’ll get over it.
- I’ll pick the places I’d like to go to meet people.
- Moaning for a lover will turn people off. What interests and activities can I develop?
- I wish she hadn’t left me, but it’ll be fun to start dating again.
- Rejection is a normal part of life.
- I’ll find someone I get along with better someday.
- It’s not the end of the world.
- Being cheerful will help me find someone new.
- Maybe she’s too busy or deeply involved. I’ll ask someone else.
Social Hostility or Rejection
- They really think I’m no good!
- There must be something wrong with me.
- I made such a fool of myself. I can’t ever go back there.
- It’s not fair they’re against me.
- I can’t stand it!
- This is just awful. They hate me.
- It’s my fault she doesn’t like me anymore.
- He seems angry. I must have done something wrong.
- The way he acts just tears me apart.
- I just know he doesn’t like me.
- I know I’m living a good life.That’s all that matters.
- People respect a guy who can hold his head up after a mistake.
- It’s not worth getting upset about. Plenty of people like me as I am.
- You can’t please everyone, no matter how hard you try.
- I wonder why he’s so moody.
Maybe he’s having some kind of personal problem or maybe he’s just having a bad day. I guess I shouldn’t take it personally.
Chained to the Past
- I’m this way because my parents …
- I’m this way because when I was growing up …
- My folks never taught me to control my bad habit of …
- I’ve never been the kind of person who could …
- I just don’t have the will power to change.
- My dad had a very bad temper. That’s why I …
- People will never change their opinion of me.
- I’ve been this way for so long. It’s too late to change now.
- I’ll never change. I might as well not even try.
- I’ll keep trying until I can …
- It’ll take time and effort, but I’ll see it through.
- I’ll get over it.
- Today is a new day.
- From here on in, I’m going to …
- I’ll take one day at time.
- It’s hard to change, but this time I won’t give up.
- It’s never too late to change.
- If I stick with it for long enough, people will see I’ve changed.
- While I look for new friends who won’t lead me to my old ways, I need to keep busy and do things I enjoy.
Depression, Excessive Grief
- Thoughts from any of the previous sections: Inferiority, Lack of Charm, Lack of Ability, Mistakes, Failure, Pessimism about Life or the World, Lack of Love, Rejection in Romance, Social Hostility or Rejection, Chained to the Past.
- Dwelling on sorrows or problems.
- I can’t shake how I feel.
- Why did it have to happen?
- I’ll never get over this.
- I just don’t feel up to it.
- I can’t help how I feel.
- I don’t have any energy.
- Nothing interests me anymore.
- I feel so exhausted. I wish I could stay in bed all day.
- Time heals all things.
- Maybe if I start reading some books, going to clubs, and learning to cook, I’ll feel better.
- Thank goodness for my friends.
- Once I get started, I won’t feel so tired.
- Let’s not drown in my own tears. What interests would I like now?
- This isn’t the first time I’ve been down and out! I’ll get over it.
- It’s hard to lose someone you love, but I can accept my pain.
- Enough of this self pity!
- I’ve been dwelling on this long enough. It’s time to get back in the swing of things.
- I’ll always have a bad temper.
- I can’t control my anger. I just blow up.
- When I get angry, there’s no stopping me.
- I don’t have any patience. I never did.
- Dwelling on a quarrel.
- Dwelling on a humiliating episode or an insult.
- That rotten creep. I can’t stand her!
- Thoughts about cursing and insulting the target of your anger.
- That burns me up! I think he does this just to make me angry.
- I can’t get over it! The nerve!
- Who does she think she is!
- A bad temper is just a habit. I can change it if I keep working on it.
- From now on, whenever I’m angry, I’ll wait until I calm down before I try to settle anything.
- I don’t like it, but I’ll get over it.
- No use getting upset over it. What’s done is done. I can’t change it.
- No use dwelling on it. I guess I’ll call someone and go to a movie.
- Well, at least now I know not to trust him so much.
- I guess I’ll call a friend and get it off my chest.
- Later when I’m calm, I’ll decide what to say to her.
Anxiety, Worry, Fear, Phobia
- Worrying about possible problems and real problems.
- Other people seem so much more relaxed than me.
- I’m so nervous. It’ll be horrible.
- I’m better off not going. I’ll be so nervous, I’ll look like a fool.
- I can’t help it. It just comes over me.
- I’ve tried, but I just can’t shake it.
- I’m too nervous. I can’t do it.
- I can’t stand it. I tremble, my stomach gets queasy, and I have to turn back.
- No! I couldn’t stand it!
- That’s not very likely.
- Never sweat the little stuff.
- Everybody gets the jitters.
- People usually don’t notice.
- Just concentrate on being friendly. It’ll be fine.
- Being anxious won’t hurt anything.
- It won’t be so bad. I’ll feel great when it’s over and done with.
- It’ll get easier with practice.
- My fear will come and go. It’s OK.
- It will be over in no time.
- I’ll try my best. I’ll just have to fake it until I make it!
- I wish I could just get some sleep.
- Oh no! It’s already 2 A.M. Darn it!
- I never get enough sleep. Oh, I hate insomnia!
- When will I ever get to sleep!
- It’s been one hour already. I just know this is going to be a bad night.
- If I don’t sleep soon, tomorrow will be awful.
- It always takes me forever to fall asleep.
- It’s so nice to thoroughly relax and let my mind wander where it will.
- My body will get the rest it needs.
- If I don’t sleep much tonight, I’ll make up for it tomorrow night.
- Just relax and get some good rest. No use worrying about it.
- I guess I’ll read a book until I get tired.
- It’s so cozy to just lie here and rest. This is really pleasant.
- Dwelling on desires, cravings.
- I’ll never be able to quit for very long.
- I’ve been an addict for too long. I wouldn’t know what to do without it.
- Life would be boring without my highs.
- I hate doing chores without getting high!
- I can’t flirt without drinking.
- Withdrawal would be horrible. I can’t go through it.
- Withdrawal is too hard. I give up.
- I need new activities to keep my mind off my addiction. I’ll do gardening, jogging, and artwork.
- If I can flirt drinking, I can learn to do it without drinking.
- It’s going to be tough, but I’m determined to succeed.
- I’ll get used to partying and doing my chores without getting high.
- Maybe I won’t have any withdrawal symptoms.
- Once this withdrawal ends, I’ll be free.
- No use letting it upset me. We’ve talked about this before. Just forget it.
- I’ll have to bring this up tonight when I’ve calmed down.
- We used to have fun. We should start going dancing and camping again.All marriages have problems.
- You can save any marriage if you really want to. First I’ll work on showing more interest and warmth toward her.
- Let’s set aside some times for problem solving.
These examples make it clear how our thoughts can influence our feelings and problem behaviors. When a problem frustrates us, we should either do something constructive about it or learn to accept it. Negative thinking resigns you to problem emotions and keeps you from feeling calm and content and confronting problems in constructive ways. Instead of seeing problems as normal, tolerable, manageable, or challenges to overcome, people with habits of negative thinking often overreact and blow things out of proportion. Negative thoughts continually create bad feelings and cause misery or upset over life circumstances.
Sometimes firmly fixed negative beliefs color our worlds without our realizing it. We may never consciously think the negative thoughts. Rather, our feelings indicate we hold the negative beliefs or assumptions. For example: When you feel inadequate, some of the negative thoughts listed above concerning inferiority, lack of charm, or lack of ability may feel true to you, whether or not you ever actually think them. When you feel overwhelmed, some of the negative thoughts concerning pessimism or depression may describe your feelings well. If perceiving dislike, hostility, or rejection devastates you, you probably feel like endorsing some of the negative thoughts concerning social hostility or rejection. If you have a bad temper, you can probably easily relate to the angry thoughts listed above, whether or not you ever actually think them.
When grouped together in a list, negative thoughts are obviously negative. Detecting your own negative thoughts is much more difficult, but you can recognize many negative thoughts by their extreme nature. The following thoughts all paint things in extreme terms: “I am the worst conversationalist in the world,” “I always mess things up,” “I have no sense of humor,” “Anything I try turns out terrible,” “Nobody understands me,” “I’ll never be able to dance,” and “I can’t stand it!” Notice in these examples and in the above lists that many of the negative thoughts are overgeneralizations using the words always, no, anything, nobody, everyone, never, and can’t.
Some negative thoughts involve the use of negative labels, such as complete failure, bore, born loser, rotten creep, lousy mother, etc. When you apply a negative label to another person in anger, you keep yourself angry or upset. When you habitually think of yourself in terms of a negative label, you define yourself in a way that reduces your hope for change. People who do this often resign themselves to the social role it implies. Children whose parents constantly scold and insult them often come to believe their parents’ descriptions of them are true. With low self-esteem, these children have little hope of changing and put little effort into improving. This is another kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Similarly, when adults come to think of themselves as boring, bad tempered, alcoholic, addicted, sluttish, homosexual, neurotic, mentally ill, or criminal, they often resign themselves to the social roles these labels imply.
The best way to find your negative thought habits is to write down negative thoughts. Some people prefer to tape record them. Write down your thoughts anytime you notice one that might be negative or seems to contribute to your feeling bad. Then spend a minute or two every hour or so reviewing the time interval for possible negative thoughts to jot down. At the very least, review your thoughts four times a day. If you review them only once or twice a day, you will forget many because negative thoughts tend to be habitual and automatic. Pay particular attention to your thoughts when your mood changes for the worse. Your thoughts at these times are the most likely to be counterproductive. Write these thoughts down even if you don’t think they contribute to the negative emotion. Never evaluate these thoughts when your mood changes for the worse; always evaluate them later, in a calm, content mood. Negative thoughts will be more obvious when you don’t feel angry, depressed, or emotional. The following questions help in judging whether the thoughts you collected are negative. These questions also help you look at problem situations in more constructive ways.
Questions for Evaluating and Fighting Negative Thoughts
- How does this thought make me feel? Does it help keep me depressed or angry? Nervous, anxious, or fearful? Frustrated or upset? Grieving? Guilty?
- Am I being negative?
- Am I dwelling on something negative? A flaw? A mistake?
- Something I want but don’t have?
- Am I minimizing qualities in myself?
- Am I overlooking good in other people or the situation?
- Am I frustrating myself by wishing something I can’t change wasn’t true or by feeling something I can’t change shouldn’t be?
- Am I overreacting or blowing things out of proportion?
- Am I blowing one detail out of proportion?
- Am I overgeneralizing by using words like always, no, anything, nobody, everyone, never, and can’t?
- Is it really true? Why? How do I know? What is the proof?
- Have I asked what they really said or thought or did?
- Could this situation have had nothing to do with me?
- Can I look at this another way? How else could I interpret it? And how else?
- What would I think if I felt better or wasn’t so worried?
- What would I say to a friend in this situation if I was trying to help?
- What would a counselor, minister, or wise person trying to help say?
- How likely is my fear?
- Am I focusing on facts that are not relevant to this immediate situation?
- Is the event really less important than I first thought?
- Did a similar situation ever work out satisfactorily, better than I now feel this situation will?
- Haven’t I experienced something similar before, survived, and gotten over it?
- Am I underestimating my ability to cope, to deal with it?
- Haven’t I felt this way before? What did I do then? What could I do better now?
- Can I do something about this?
- Do I need to learn to accept this?
Changing your thinking habits can make many things less disagreeable. If you don’t like your job, for example, you may habitually think about what a chore it is, how much you hate it, and how much you’d rather do something else for a living. You may think negative thoughts about your job from the time you get up to go to work until you get home, and this may keep you miserable all day long. You will feel better about working at a job you dislike if you practice positive thoughts such as: “At least it pays the rent,” “I sure do like my paycheck,” and “I’m going to do the best I can.”
After identifying your negative thoughts, write several positive statements for each negative one. Most of the questions in the above list aid in generating ideas for more helpful thought alternatives. First, focus on what you can do about the problem. Replace unfulfilled longing with realistic goals or plans for change. When you can’t do anything to change a problem situation, work toward acceptance. Use thoughts like, “I don’t really need it.” You may need to change your priorities to fit the reality of the situation. Write optimistic, rather than pessimistic, views of it. Instead of dwelling on sorrows, practice thankfulness for your friends, pleasures, strengths, and other blessings. When you compare yourself to other people negatively, emphasize that no matter what trait you consider, you can always find people who are either more fortunate or less fortunate than you. Find the good part of your failures, problems, actions, experiences, or situations. You can find good in almost anything. View failure as a learning experience teaching you what doesn’t work, so you can succeed in later attempts. If you have trouble with your child, take pride in setting limits to teach your child, in supporting, and in forgiving your child. Relabel crying, vulnerability, or anxious, upset feelings as sensitivity.
Don’t use overly simplistic, general thought alternatives such as: “It’s not so bad,” “That’s not true,” or “Look at the bright side.” Statements like these become trite when you use them in a variety of situations. An effective alternative focuses on helpful aspects or views of the particular situation. A positive thought alternative should also sound convincing and help you feel the way you want to feel, act in your own best interest, and avoid further problems.
Whenever you find yourself thinking one of your habitual negative thoughts, think “STOP!” This makes you more aware of negative thoughts and helps you reject them. Then practice substituting more helpful thought alternatives every time. Keep a list of your most common negative thought habits and positive alternatives for each. Refer to this list whenever negative thoughts arise, until you can substitute helpful alternatives from memory or immediately make up new thought alternatives to counter the negative thoughts. When a negative thought arises and circumstances make it impossible to read your list, read it at the next convenient moment.
In addition, read all of your positive thought alternatives several times each day. This helps you build new positive thinking habits. It also helps make up for the times negative thoughts arise and you forget to read your list or you can’t stop and read it. Because of similarities between many habitual negative thoughts, you can often counter new negative thoughts with some of your planned alternatives. If none of your alternatives seem appropriate, write down the new negative thought and create some positive alternatives for it later.
Like other bad habits, negative thinking can be very difficult to change. You can only change it by practice, practice, and more practice. The more you flood your mind with positive thought alternatives by reading and practicing them, the more your thoughts and feelings will change for the better. Many people witness the power of positive thinking when they practice and repeat affirmations for spiritual growth such as, “I will face each new day with peace and love in my heart.” It may take months of daily effort changing your habits of negative thinking before you notice much change in your feelings, however.