In his autobiography, The Hope Circuit: A Psychologist’s Journey from Helplessness to Optimism, Dr. Martin Seligman, who is considered by many people to be the father of positive psychology, wrote that after 50 years of research into human emotions he had reached the conclusion that our natural default position when bad things happen is to fall into negative emotions such as fear, worry, paranoia, anger, anxiety, pessimism, hopelessness, or helplessness. He wrote that we need to make conscious efforts to shift to positive emotions of gratitude, optimism, and hopefulness.
Even more importantly, he has spent most of those fifty years explaining HOW people can shift from pessimism to optimism with great books like Learned Optimism and Authentic Happiness.
If you occasionally shift into a negative emotion, that’s perfectly okay. You’re human. However, if you remain in a sustained negative emotion for several days, then you are much less likely to fulfill your potential in an upcoming situation. Positive emotions can produce joy and enthusiasm and excitement for the future. Your emotions affect your decisions and behaviors.
It’s important to realize how important your emotions really are in your life. If you acknowledge that your emotions at this moment are going to affect the rest of this day, then you might take the time to strengthen them. Just like exercising your body can have a positive impact on the day, so can exercising your emotions.
The Connection Between Thoughts And Emotions
Realize that your thoughts affect your emotions.
Here is a rather extreme example. Imagine a baseball is coming right at your head at 100 MPH and you can see it coming. It is 15 feet from your face. What are you feeling right now???
My hunch is you are intensely scared.
Now imagine the same baseball is coming at your head at 100 MPH and it’s 15 feet away, but it’s coming from behind you and you can’t see it. You are not aware of it at all. What are you feeling right now???
I’m guessing you are not feeling anything because you don’t know something bad is about to happen.
It’s not the baseball that caused your emotion. It’s the thought about the baseball that caused your fear.
Strengthen Your Emotions From Negative To Positive
In most situations in life, unlike a baseball coming right at your face, you have time to slow down and change what you are thinking. That ability to think before a situation occurs or rethink a situation after it occurs is the key to generating positive emotions.
By consciously choosing what you think, you will affect your emotions. Here are four methods to accomplish this:
Method #1: Shift the memory you focus on.
If you had a bad experience at the last meeting you attended with your boss, you might be feeling very pessimistic, anxious, or angry as you are thinking about a meeting with that person in 20 minutes. That pessimism, fear, or rage can affect your decisions and behaviors in your upcoming meeting.
Here’s a suggestion. Go back in your mind to a really good time in your life. Maybe it lasted a day, a week, or a month. Let that memory soak in. Focus on who is in that space with you and what is happening. Visualize what is being said. Really recall that experience in detail for a minute or two. Focus on what you are feeling right now as you recall that really good time in your life. Now carry those emotions of gratitude and joy and positivity into the meeting with your boss. It can very well affect your decisions and your behaviors while you are in that meeting.
Method #2: Make positive comments personal, permanent, and pervasive, and negative comments universal, temporary, and specific.
If you messed up on a recent project at work, you could work yourself up into an emotional frenzy of worry, fear, and helplessness. I encourage you not to do that.
Say this to yourself, “I always do great work on every project. Anyone could have made this mistake, and it only happened this one time.” You have now lassoed the mistake and put it in its proper perspective. Now you can go back to doing your work.
Notice this all happened in the Court of Your Own Mind. As opposed to a Court of Law where you have to convince 12 people that your perspective is correct, in the Court of Your Own Mind you only need to convince yourself. However, you do need to really convince yourself, otherwise the Court of Your Own Mind can punish you far worse than the Court of Law might have done.
Method #3: Reinterpret what just happened.
You were driving on the highway and a car cut in front of you. You were scared for your life, and then you became intensely angry. Three days later you are still angry and you are telling yourself, “That punk driver. A guy in his early 20s. He was probably taking a selfie while he was driving and didn’t even see me. That selfish jerk could have killed me. Young people today are so selfish.” You are carrying your anger into every situation that you are in today.
What can you do? Reinterpret what happened.
Say to yourself, “The guy did switch lanes, but he really wasn’t as close to me as I originally thought. He was a young guy and he was probably racing to get home to his pregnant wife so he could get her to the hospital in time to have her baby. He was trying to do something really noble.”
Notice you don’t really know what happened, but by switching your interpretation of the event you can let it go and move on with your life. You have CONTROL over your thoughts, and your thoughts affect your emotions.
Method #4: Write a letter of gratitude.
Your thoughts affect your emotions. You are feeling down today. Your mad about something in your life. You don’t see a way through a problem at work or at home. Your negativity is starting to wear you out.
Take out a blank sheet of paper. Think of one person in your life that you are really grateful for. This might be a family member, a friend, a teacher you had years ago, a former boss, a current colleague, or a person in your community.
Write the person a letter of gratitude. Not just a quick thank you note where you say, “Thanks for everything!” I’m talking about a letter with sentences and paragraphs. For five minutes pour everything you can remember about this person into the letter. Recall specific situations and things the person said to you or did for you. Let the person know how truly thankful you are for what he or she did for you. Put it all in there.
Read your letter over a few times. Add some more things. Then send the letter to the person. Even better, read the letter to the person, and then send it to him or her.
It’s very, very hard to stay stuck in a negative emotion when you are writing a long letter of gratitude.
I graduated from high school 40 years ago this month. That was an important time in my life as I transitioned from high school to college. A few weeks ago I wrote six letters of gratitude to four of my high school teachers and two of my college coaches to let them know how grateful I was for the enormously positive impact they had on my life. Doing that really helped shape my perspective for the next few weeks.
We can see the world as filled with bad news every day, or we can see the absolutely amazing things that people do every day. We can focus on all the things that make people angry, or we can focus on seeing people projecting the best version of themselves. We can be thankful for everything we have in our lives, or we can be ticked off about everything we don’t have in our lives. We can express our deep gratitude for certain people in our lives, or we can express our deep anger for certain people in our lives.
It’s our choice. We have control over our thoughts. Our thoughts affect our emotions. Our emotions affect our decisions, words, and behaviors.
We can choose either path. The key is to realize it’s completely up to us.
A frequent Snow Magazine contributor, Dan Coughlin provides both individual Executive Coaching and Group Coaching Programs on management, leadership, and teamwork. To visit his Free Business Performance Idea Center, go to www.thecoughlincompany.com.