The power of optimistic thinking

My interest in positive psychology was first sparked back in 2004. I was contacted by a large fuel distribution company that wanted me to join a team of psychologists and risk management experts to raise the awareness amongst heavy goods vehicle drivers on the impact negativity, fatigue and stress has on driver safety. The goal was to reduce the number of accidents and incidents directly related to negativity.

I wasn’t sure how responsive our audience would be to the concept of “being optimistic”, so we spent a lot of time making the program entertaining, so that the learning involved a lot of laughing as well as serious discussions about the impact of negative attitudes and pessimism on the number of accidents and incidents in their work environment.

The results from that program were astonishing – a 30% reduction in accidents and incidents simply through the drivers having a much greater awareness of the power of optimism as well as some simple tools and techniques related to positive thinking to apply when they were feeling stressed or negative.

Recognise patterns and work to break them
In order to succeed in turning negative thinking around, you need to be able to recognise the patterns that allow for negative thoughts to arise and affect your behaviour. Below are three patterns that American psychologist and author Martin Seligman recognises as leading to a negative mind-set.

To illustrate how these patterns work in reality, I will use one of my clients as an example of how you can find yourself stuck in these mental patterns and what you can do to escape them. The client, whom we can call Marnie, just went through a separation from her partner of five years.

Marnie was feeling overwhelmed with sadness and was beating herself up over what she could have done differently to save the relationship. We started by talking about how her internal dialogue may be stopping her from “bouncing back” and discovered the following three patterns:

Permanence
Permanence is when a bad event happens and your inner dialogue starts making that bad event permanent. Examples of thoughts can be: “I’ll never meet anyone else like him” or “There’s just no good men left”.

Marnie had to learn to change her thoughts to make the break-up a temporary event, and think along the lines of: “There are plenty of fish in the sea” or “You never know who you might meet in any moment.”

If you find yourself in a similar situation, try to choose an inner dialogue that resonates with you, remembering to centre it on the idea that the current situation is temporary rather than permanent.

Personalisation
The second pattern is personalisation and this is an area where Australians generally tend to fare badly. Just think how hard it is to pay an Australian a compliment. We are just not good at taking credit when it is due. We are, however, fantastic at beating ourselves up when things go wrong and blame ourselves for events over which we have little or no control.

In the case of Marnie, she had to stop blaming and punishing herself by thinking “It must be my fault, if only I was smarter/funnier/more interesting” and start thinking “He just didn’t know a good thing when he had it” or “It just wasn’t the time and place for us”.

Ending patterns of self-blame will make it easier for you to stay positive and builds your resilience.

Pervasiveness
The third pattern is around what Martin Seligman calls pervasiveness. When a bad event happens a pessimist tend to generalise bad feelings that arise and let them impact on all areas of life. An optimist on the other hand can keep things in perspective.

An example of pervasiveness is when your let a bad day at work make you grumpy long after you’ve left the office. Here there are techniques you can use to leave the negativity where it belongs. I had one client who would hang an imaginary coat on the tree outside his house with all the bad events of the day left outside, so that they didn’t impact on his time with his kids.

In the case of a relationship breakdown it can be harder to isolate the negative feelings. But simply being aware of the idea of pervasiveness can help you. Perhaps you have areas that you can try to make “positive zones” where negative feelings are left at the door. Maybe it’s the gym, a movie theatre or a café you visit with a friend.
By: Kathy McKenzie

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