How do you retrain the mind to focus on the positive?
Find out more in my latest article on PsychToday.
Positive psychiatry examines how to enhance well-being by focusing on strengths and positive characteristics, emotions, and behaviors. This is not easy. It goes against our natural instincts. We are set up to pay more attention to negative events or characteristics. Our brain processes negative emotions far more than positive emotions. We ruminate more on things that went wrong or were stressful than happy memories. This negativity bias causes us hold onto things that are troubling and to forget about happy experiences more quickly.
But what if we retrained ourselves? Focusing on our strengths, compassion, social connection, and community allows us to heal. Positive psychiatry can be integrated with more traditional treatment through several ways, including talk therapy, yoga, meditation, exercise, and practices of self-reflection and compassion. Through those modalities, we make room for wellness within illness. We don’t have to force ourselves to be Pollyannas either— positive psychiatry can simply be a gentle reminder to be aware of these meaningful areas in our lives.
1. Love. Love is a powerful and transformative emotion that nurtures a sense of connection both to others and within ourselves. In what ways do we feel loved in our lives? How do we express our love and care to others? Are there ways we can make our connections with the cherished people around us more fulfilled?
Self-compassion is an essential part of love. How can we treat ourselves better and with more self-compassion today? Can we notice when we are being really tough on ourselves and let go of self-criticism?
2. Kindness. Acts of kindness have powerful effects both for the person who receives kindness and for the person who is being kind. Several studies have found that acts of kindness can increase your life satisfaction. Are there small ways that you can integrate acts of kindness in your day?
3. Resilience. Resilience is our ability to adapt to adversity, our ability to get up after we get knocked down. And this trait is malleable and teachable. It’s inevitable that there will be things outside our control— and sometimes within our control— that will go wrong. Are we looking at the situation realistically? Are the negative aspects overshadowing the positive? Is there a way to sit with the negative feelings? Are there activities that can still provide some joy or meaning?
4. Hope. Hope is a key part of our ability to move past obstacles. According to the positive psychologist Charles R. Synder, hope is a motivational state that engages both being able to set goals and figure out different ways to get there. Are you able to identify 2 to 3 goals for yourself? What are a few different pathways to get there?
5. Courage. Courage is not just the absence of fear—it is the ability to act from a place of authenticity and strength in the face of great challenge and perhaps even peer pressure to do otherwise. In situations in which you experience fear, how do you react? What are sources of courage for you—people that you admire, values, or commitments? Are there barriers to acting from a place of courage?
6. Spirituality / Religion. For many people, spirituality or religion are important parts of their lives and identities. Spirituality and focusing on aspects outside yourself can help improve awareness and mindfulness and has been shown to improve psychological distress and medical symptoms. What is your relationship like with spirituality or religion and how has it played a role in your life?
7. Gratitude. Gratitude is the appreciation of positive things that happen in your life because of other people. Interventions that involve focusing on gratitude has been shown to improve well-being and life satisfaction. What are three aspects of your life or people are you are grateful for?
8. Friends & Family. Social support is a key part to our growth and sense of security and stability. How can you enhance your connections with the people around you? Have you been spending as much time with friends and family as you want to? And if not, what is getting in the way? We know from a 75-year study at Harvard that good relationships keep us happier and healthier.
9. Community. Building a community where you feel like you fit in and feel supported takes time and effort. Where do you feel most at home? Are there ways of expanding your sense of community?
10. Individuality. Every one of us contributes something unique and special. Whether it’s being really good at singing, dancing, remembering people’s birthdays, or managing a large team in the workplace, we all have unique “superpowers” that we bring to the table. What do you feel like you’re particularly good at? When do you feel a sense of what scholars call “self-efficacy,” or self-mastery?
These are not easy questions and can take years to figure out and work through for most people. But you can start simply by thinking about these questions even a little bit. That slight shift in attention can start you on a path toward awareness.
Copyright 2016 Marlynn Wei, MD, PLLC