Negativity can make your experience of your everyday reality miserable. It can wreck havoc on your physical body and on your connections to those most important to you.
While constant, delusional positivity is neither possible nor desirable, a tendency within yourself to see the positive in most situations will serve you well. We want to stop your brain from defaulting to the negative, which is called having Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs).
Why do so many of us have thoughts that tend in the negative direction? It appears to be an evolutionary mechanism to avoid dangers that might hurt us. But in modern society that evolutionary mechanism has become overactive to a detrimental extent. So how specifically do we release ourselves from this inner prison of negativity?
Step 1 - Understand That Your Response is Your Choice
You are creating your experience of reality via your brain's perceptual functions. Let's think about the classic "is the glass half full or half empty?" thought experiment. Logically, the glass is both half full and half empty at the same time. The choice is whether you focus on the fact of the glass being half full or if you focus on the fact of the glass being half empty. Your mind is deciding either way, so you can either let it go with its default or train it to do what you want.
Now let's look at what is going on inside your body. To keep it simple, when you think happy / positive / upbeat thoughts, your body releases happy chemicals inside you. This feels good! You are then more likely to subsequently think happy thoughts because you are feeling good. This creates a positive feedback loop encouraging more happy thoughts.
In contrast, when you think sad / negative / downer thoughts, your body releases worry chemicals inside you. This feels agitating and gives your body a physically uncomfortable sensation. You are then more likely to subsequently think worried thoughts because you are in an agitated state. This creates a negative feedback loop encouraging more negativity.
In my opinion, your automatic preference to lean into the positive or negative is the number one factor in determining the quality of your life. You can live in a heaven or you can live in a hell. It's really up to you.
Step 2 - Understand That Your Emotional State Affects Others
Your thoughts don't just affect you inside yourself. They also affect your social relationships. People tend to like positive people because it's fun to be around them. People tend to dislike negative people because it's unpleasant to be around them.
There's an interesting third category of people who are actually very negative, but have developed sufficient social skills to hide their negativity under a thin veneer of positivity. Some of the most extroverted people I know follow this pattern. These people are still unconsciously radiating out negative energy to those around them, it just doesn't come off as negative when you first meet them.
What makes people content and happy in the long run is having healthy, stable social relationships. In turn, the quality of your relationships is going to be directly determined by whether you are a person radiating good energy or bad energy. Which would you prefer to be?
Step 3 - Take Care of Yourself Physically
When you aren't taking good care of yourself, the tendency to automatically go negative will intensify. Think of how cranky you get when you haven't had enough sleep. Or when you are hungry and somebody is trying to talk to you about something seemingly irrelevant. A key foundation for happy thoughts is making sure you are physically taking care of yourself. This includes getting sufficient sleep, eating healthily, exercising, managing your personal finances, and engaging in healthy thought patterns (essentially all the topics we cover on this site).
Remember, exercise directly produces happiness chemicals in your body and a healthy diet gives your body the necessary building blocks to produce happiness chemicals. Conversely, controlling sources of stress limits the production of worry chemicals. Keeping these facts in mind will help you produce an internal chemical environment for yourself that is more condusive to positive thinking and to generally feeling good.
Step 4 - Manually Interrupt ANTs When They Arise
While you may start off with an automated tendency to be negative, luckily this default response can be manually overridden. When an Automatic Negative Thought (ANT) pops into your head, take a moment to explore its validity. Most of these sorts of thoughts depict the world in a more simplistic fashion than is actually true.
Take a moment to critically examine the thought to see if it is correct. Most of the time, the ANT is a black and white simplification of a reality which is actually a shade of grey. Take moment to recognize this.
Because Automated Negative Thoughts tend to follow one of a limited number of specific patterns, we are going to explore each of them in our forthcoming article: "Deconstructing Automated Negative Thoughts."
For now the point is that you don't want to believe your thoughts simply because they pop into your head. Reflect and analyze if this individual thought is appropriate and helpful in this particular circumstance.
Step 5 - Prime Your Brain for Positivity
Luckily, there are a number of exercises which predictably cause your brain to start defaulting to the positive. As you begin training yourself to focus on the positive aspects of the reality around you, manually correcting the occasional negative thoughts that do occur will become much easier.
These are the key exercises for producing automated positive thoughts, each of which will be explored individually in subsequent articles:
- Doing Affirmations
- Going on a Happiness Walk
- The 2 Second Goodwill Meditation
- Expressing Gratitude
- The Sense of Perspective Visualization
You will be surprised how quickly your brain responds in terms of its default mode when you start consistently doing even a few of these exercises.
Consider giving yourself the gift of a happy life. It costs nothing and you get to have it essentially immediately.
Remember, you get to choose how your mind responds to external circumstances. By taking care of yourself physically, critically examining negative thoughts as they arise, and proactively priming your brain to tend towards the positive, you are putting yourself in a position to radiate out good vibes and to internally experience the best possible version of your life.
We also did a podcast about this topic! Watch or listen here.