It might be a small thing, but when it happens, you instantly feel exasperated. Boom! Your fragile arch of positivity crashes down.
At best, it throws us off our game for only a few minutes. At worst, it infects our whole day. It picks up momentum like a snowball careening down a mountain and turns into an avalanche.
Once you start focusing on the negative, then EVERYTHING feels like a problem. Even if the original incident was actually just an inconvenience. Or simply something that happened. Not good, not bad, just a thing. Like dropping ice on the floor when you’re trying to fill your water bottle.
Where is the emotion in that? Well, since our Emotional Mind is hardwired to find and reinforce the negative, it’s easy to slap a bad feeling on top of something that actually has no emotional resonance on its own. None whatsoever.
And yet you might find yourself cursing the ice and the water bottle. And then the day. And then life in general.
But my friends, that doesn’t have to be the end of the story.
That’s great news, because we can create new habits that work better for us and cast off old ones that aren’t working for us. You can begin to “rewire” the brain in just two minutes a day.”
For example, you can create lasting positive change in your brain and in your life by:
- Writing down three new things you’re grateful for, 30 days in a row. (Research isn’t consistent on how long it takes to form a new habit, but you need at least 30 days.)
- At the end of that time you have retrained your brain to stop scanning your day for the negative. It’s also been retrained to look for the positive instead. A double win!
- Journaling about one positive experience you’ve had over the last 24 hours allows you to relive it. Usually we relive our negative moments over and over. That’s how our good moods spiral down into crap.
- But when you relive a positive experience, you reinforce the habit of paying attention to good things.
These two activities help shift our brains toward positivity. But you do them just once a day.
What about all the times throughout the day when things continue to get to you?
I’ve been doing two things to overcome the daily habit of negativity:
- Hearing myself. I think of this as active mindfulness. I have practiced becoming aware of what I am thinking and feeling. I’ve learned to notice when I’m muttering to myself or tensing up. Once I started doing this, I was astonished at how many snarling thoughts I was allowing to traffic through my brain at all times.
- Reframing what I’m thinking so it’s positive. Once I notice what I’m feeling, then I can change what I’m thinking. If I change what I’m thinking, I also change what I’m feeling. Everything gets better. The day gets brighter.
The fastest and easiest way to reframe my negative thoughts and feelings is to be grateful for whatever is happening in that moment, starting with the thing or things that set me off.
I think of this as active gratitude.
It’s a simple practice that can turn into a habit the more you do it.
When you notice something frustrating/irritating/angering you, just say, “I’m feeling [whatever it is]. I’m grateful for [whatever it is].”
Then list everything you can think of in a stream-of-consciousness way that reflects what you are physically doing right then.
Let’s go back to the example of the ice cubes dropping when you fill your water bottle.
Say you’re late for work or to meet a friend. You know intellectually that it’s no big deal, but stress rears its ugly head, and you hear yourself grumbling, “This stupid bottle! EVERY time I fill it, I make a mess. What an idiot I was to buy this. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy to fill.” And so on.
Here’s how you throw on the brakes and stop this before it cascades into that avalanche of negativity:
- Oh, hold on. I’m feeling cranky. Okay, be thankful for it.
- I’m thankful I noticed my aggravation.
- I’m thankful that it’s only ice and nothing important.
- I’m thankful I have a paper towel to clean up the mess.
- I’m thankful I can move well enough to clean it up.
- I’m thankful I have ice.
- I’m thankful I have water to put in the ice.
- I’m thankful I have a water bottle for my water and ice.
- I’m thankful the water bottle is pretty.
- I’m thankful it’s hard to fill so I can practice being positive.
- I’m thankful I have an outing to take my water and ice and bottle to and a friend who’d going to meet me.
- I’m thankful for… [keep going with everything you’re doing, until you can say the next sentence].
- I’m thankful I can stop this now, because I feel better.
Learning to do this takes practice, like anything we want to get good at.
Try this exercise to start building the habits of active mindfulness and active gratitude.
Regardless of what you are feeling—happy, sad, angry, neutral—write down everything—and I mean everything—that you are feeling and doing right now.
Keep this up for at least one minute. Preface everything you write with: “I am grateful that ______.”
For me, at the moment, I could write:
- I’m grateful that I am writing my newsletter.
- I’m grateful that the Temptations are singing “Just my imagination” in the background.
- I’m grateful that I can bob my head with the music.
- I’m grateful that my neck feels tense.
- I’m grateful that I can roll my neck and crack it to release some of the pain.
- I’m grateful that I am feeling pressured to get this post finished in time.
- I’m grateful that my hand is cramping from typing.
- I’m grateful that I have something to say.
- I’m grateful for my readers.
- I’m grateful for the bird singing in the tree outside.
- I’m grateful that I have a cushion for my rear and back.
And so forth. Capture everything and don’t judge it. Start the habit of noticing and being grateful. Do this exercise for at least 30 days, and start trying to do it in your head whenever you feel negative.
Whenever you do this exercise, you will be grounding yourself fully in the present. In what is real. In what is right here, right now.
You will be looking at your actual life and putting it in its most positive terms by being grateful for it, whatever it is, however big or however small. And you are practicing to do this in daily life.
Active gratitude—what’s not to like? Or, more accurately, what’s not to be thankful for?
Breathe deeply. Grow still. Grow happy.