When the competing demands of work, family or school start zapping your energy, it's important to stay positive to achieve your goals. Practicing positive thinking goes beyond powering through the Monday blues – it can actually stop negative thoughts before they emerge. Experts have proven that the power of positive thinking can have an even greater effect on your well-being that carries through the rest of your life.
Optimistic people tend to live longer, according to a study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, reported in the December 2016 issue of The Harvard Gazette.
Even if you weren’t born seeing the glass half-full, you can follow these tips to re-frame your mindset and build forward momentum.
Recognize Positive vs. Negative Thoughts
It starts out with understanding the impact of positivity versus negativity, said Shanita Williams, assistant vice president of learning and development for student experience teams at Southern New Hampshire University. In her role, she helps more than 1,200 staff engage with students, many of whom are returning to school mid-career.
Our brains want to help us solve problems and often can’t tell the difference between a real threat and what it perceives to be a threat, Williams said. It ruminates on what is not working to protect you. For example, if you tell yourself that a task is going to be miserable or that you will fail at it, you probably will. That’s why it’s important to recognize negative thinking before it consumes you, she said.
“A lot of positivity begins with a thought. If you can raise the level of consciousness about the thoughts running through your mind, you can switch your thinking to be more positive,” Williams said. “What do you talk about every day? Do you talk about how much you fail, how you live in a house you don’t want, or are in the relationship you don’t want, or that you aren’t the mom you want to be? If you do, it’s hard to come back from that entourage of thoughts.”
Understand What You Like to Attract What You Want
Sometimes people slip into negative thinking because they aren’t sure what they like or they’ve been told to react to particular situations in a negative way. Part of drawing in positive people and experiences involves expressing who you are through your personality and actions and expressing what you want, Williams said.
It’s important to think about your passions and connect with others in your community who like the same things that you do. If you don’t know what you like, you might follow someone or something blindly without it being your intention, she said.
Or, you might subconsciously buy into negative messages that aren’t true. For instance, you might hear from family members that you don't have enough time or the support to complete your degree, but that negative statement is an opinion, not a fact, Williams said.
Most of the time, the negative messages you receive come from people who don’t want you to get hurt, but unfortunately, these statements end up being destructive feedback that’s not true. It’s our job to recognize that and be able to separate fact from opinion, she said.
“People always have opinions, but you need to identify what is constructive and what’s destructive. You have to think is this helping or hindering me in my journey?” Williams said.
Understanding what you like can take some trial and error. For example, you might know what you like, but that activity or group of like-minded people may not be immediately accessible. You need to get out of your comfort zone and seek those people out, Williams suggests.
Filter out the Negative
Living in the present and controlling what you absorb and what you filter out has a huge impact on your state of mind, according to Dr. Stacee Reicherzer, a clinical counseling faculty member at SNHU. This means concentrating on the task at hand and limiting your interactions with people or information that might bring you down.
Reicherzer, a mental health counselor whose work and research has focused on trauma and studying how people overcome past experiences, said that it is possible to re-frame negative experiences. In her practice, she’s successfully treated clients with post-traumatic stress disorder with therapeutic models like Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), in which patients relive painful events while a therapist directs their eye movements.
For those looking to rewire their thinking to be more positive, there are simple shifts you can make to set the stage for a happier, more productive day. One example is choosing what you listen to at the beginning of the day and how you engage your senses throughout the day.
“While fixing breakfast, I listen to uplifting things on YouTube or SuperSoul Sunday with Oprah and a spiritual leader. If I am listening to this, there is just no way to not feel inspired and in the moment,” Reicherzer said. “Throughout the day, I listen to spa music. I burn candles with essential oils. I surround myself with things that really engage my senses and keep me in a space with the now.”
As intentional as you need to be about letting the positive in, you also have to be proactive about eliminating the negative labels you’ve attached to previous events or experiences, something Reicherzer calls “decluttering.”
“What I have students do when approaching a new week’s assignment is to take those Monday objectives and put it forth as an intention. It centers on the student’s right to learn and say, 'I absolutely deserve to be here learning right now,'” she said. “If we experience recognizing learning as something we deserve, it changes the vibration a little bit and brings the student back into the moment.”
You can also make the decision to transform a seemingly negative experience into a positive one. For example, instead of dreading a long, traffic-congested commute, you can turn it into an opportunity, she said. You can choose to listen to relaxing music and create your own bubble, or take that time to learn something entirely new.
“I used my commuting time to learn a new language – Spanish. I used it as an opportunity to concentrate on something that I was able to make into a meaningful moment,” Reicherzer said. “The power of positivity is that you can create a meaningful moment out of even the most mundane, stressful task.”
Practice Positive Affirmations
When you are feeling down on your luck, it’s important to keep your best qualities in mind, so you can recall them during times of self-doubt, said Dr. Matt Glowiak, a licensed clinical professional counselor, certified advanced alcohol and other drug counselor and clinical counseling faculty member at SNHU.
Glowiak has successfully helped clients focus on their positive characteristics to help them face new challenges. For example, if you think you are a kind person, it helps to write down all of the things that make you a kind person and recognize people in your life that can affirm that you are kind.
“If you believe it and other people are affirming it, you realize that you are a kind person. You may do good things all the time that you don’t think of – hold open the door, smile, lend someone a phone to make a call –and not realize what you are doing is something positive,” Glowiak said.
Once you tune into your strengths, you can build coping skills that can help you build strategies to achieve new goals, he said. Then, you can choose a mantra or a quote from a famous person who embodies the characteristics you have.
“The most important thing about positive affirmations are that they have to be something a person believes. You can look at quotes, but the person has to actually believe what they are affirming themselves for,” Glowiak said.
Adhere to Realistic Timelines
Recognize that life is a marathon, not a sprint, Glowiak suggests. In most cases, it’s not the smartest person who proposes the best idea or completes the loftiest goal, it’s the person with the most endurance. And endurance requires positivity. Setting up realistic daily, weekly, monthly, and annual timelines can help stay positive as you achieve mini-goals, Glowiak said.
“Maybe you listen to an audiobook daily. You look forward to a meal with family or friends weekly; monthly you attend a ball game or concert. Then you plan a vacation,” he said. “The same thing goes for school—you progress week by week on assignments, you receive summative feedback at the end of the term. Then, one term at a time, you complete a program. You have to remember that everything you do along the way contributes toward something larger.”
Alternatively, setting healthy boundaries can also help you stay positive, particularly if you are struggling to balance multiple priorities. Taking lunch breaks, spending time with your family, and minimizing work on the weekends can help you feel more in control. The power of a positive no is strong – it tells your boss or others around you that you want to do a good job with the work you already have on your plate.
“Remember, every time you say yes to something, you say no to something else,” Glowiak said.
Krysten Godfrey Maddocks ’11 is a writer and marketing/communication professional. Connect with her on LinkedIn.