Changing what you think about a situation can reduce your negative emotions and help you develop a positive outlook. Here’s what you should know.
Feeling powerless can make you unhappy. It can affect your health and make you be hard on the people around you.
The truth is that we are all affected by things that we don’t have the power to change like, say, the price of hamburger in your supermarket.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a big reminder that you don’t have any control over other people’s behavior. Let’s say your employer required you to wear a mask at work. That might have enraged you. But few of us can make our companies change their rules. Someone else might be losing sleep because her 30-year-old daughter didn’t stop going on dates despite the risk of infection. Controlling an adult, or even a teenage, daughter? All bets are off.
What you can do
Change the way you think about the problem. In an international study, experiments showed this old advice works, cutting negative emotions and increasing positive ones in people from many cultures. Altogether the study analyzed responses from more than 21,600 volunteers from 87 countries.
Researchers gave volunteers a five-minute lesson in ways to change their thinking and showed them photos related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Other volunteers saw the same photos but didn’t get the lesson. Before and after viewing the photos, everyone answered questions about how much they had been feeling fear, anger, sadness, distrust and stress, hope, gratitude, love, inspiration, and serenity.
The lesson about how to change your thinking taught one of two techniques. In the first technique, you change your focus away from your problem. In the second technique, you look for the cloud’s silver lining, a positive spin about the very thing that is bothering you.
The training in the study gave these examples: “I know from world history that keeping calm and carrying on gets us through tough times” was a way of shifting away from fear about COVID-19. “Medical systems are now learning to deal with amazing challenges, which will make them much more resilient in the future” was an example of finding the silver lining.
It turned out that the two approaches worked equally well both for cutting negative emotions and increasing positive ones. That outcome held even in countries that were experiencing more COVID-19 deaths than others. Also, if you’re thinking, “No way, this will never work for me,” it might interest you to know that the volunteers got an emotional lift even if they expressed lack of interest in following the instructions.
More examples of developing positivity
- You’re sad you and your children haven’t seen your elderly mother for months because of social distancing rules in her nursing home. Shifting focus: “She’s so cheerful, what a strong person she is.” Silver-lining: “Now she’s got a video set up; we can make calls that way.”
- You’re ashamed you’ve been watching TV instead of working on projects. Shifting focus: “It’s lucky to have a safe way of enjoying family time at home.” Silver-lining: “I now have more to talk about with my kids.”
- You’re angry because every time you go to the supermarket, you end up spending more money. Shifting focus: “Thank god, there’s plenty of food to buy.” Silver-lining: “These high hamburger prices are making me buy more chicken and eat more beans, which is better for my family anyway.”
- So, what about your daughter going out on dates? Shifting focus: “I’m glad she’s having fun.” Silver-lining: “All these dates mean she’s probably been exposed by now and isn’t someone who will get very sick.”
- Or that employer requiring you to wear a mask? Shifting focus: “I’d rather work than be stuck at home and, thank God, I still have a paycheck.” Silver lining: “This mask means I can eat garlic at lunch and not worry about my breath, and I can smile behind my mask when my boss is being ridiculous.”
Taking action to change a bad situation will very likely make you feel better. But when you’re forced to wait it out, changing your thinking could help you more than you’d guess.
May 11, 2022
Janet O’Dell, RN