Our health and happiness depends on the quality of our thoughts. So simple. So true. Yet some of us a lot of time time find it difficult. I’ve been there. Boy have I been there. I’ve seen my friends, family, people I’ve met recently here in Los Angeles either miserable or kind of happy but hitting a rut. So I wanted to share with you some things I’ve learnt in the past few years and particularly over the past few months that have made my thoughts better and therefore made me a much happier person. [This is the disclaimer part where I'm telling you to not entirely rely on me to medicate you, so please don't make my perceptions or ideas professional advice, consult your local doctor. Oh and this is French Bulldog, Arrow by the way. I met him on Melrose and thought this picture may help lure you in to read this. Who doesn't love a cute dog?] HOW INCREDIBLE OUR BRAINS ARE. AN ACE STORY TO GIVE YOU CONTEXT
My fascination about how our mind works was sparked from a book suggested by an old mate’s Dad. Ray had finished reading The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph by psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Norman Doidge, MD. Ray gave it a glowing review a few Christmases ago and it’s one of very few non-fiction books that has left a firm impression on me. The essence of the book is that our brains are capable of changing, sometimes even drastically, and for the better.
One of the best examples in Doidge’s book was about Catalan poet and scholar, Pedro Bach-y-Rita. Pedro was 65 years old when he suffered from a severe stroke that left him disabled. Pedro lost his ability to walk and talk. One of his sons, George, loved his ‘Papa’ so much that he taught him how to walk and talk again. Beyond the typical rehab he was given, George took his Papa home with him. George’s theory? Teach him like he’s a baby and start from the beginning. Speech was starting with basic sounds to whole words to sentences. To walk he got him to crawl, with kneepads and often supported my a wall on Pedro’s weakest side. New synapses fired up in undamaged parts of George’s brain. Papa got a new lease on life, he went back to full time teaching at City College, New York and ended up climbing mountains.
So if countless of stories of brain and practical training can make us do brilliant things such as recover from stroke, surely our thoughts can change for a happier and healthier life? I think so.
HOW TO IMPROVE THE QUALITY OF OUR THOUGHTS. A PRACTICAL APPROACH
Doidge’s book touches on it though his book his greatly weighted on medical conditions and more serious human behaviours.
I want to shift the discussion back to more everyday issues that so many of us come across - negative, depressed, unhelpful thoughts that leave us feeling low on life and for some of us stuck in bed, anxious not being able to live life to its full potential. There’s only so many positive quotes one can read on Facebook and Twitter and I’m sure at times when you’re feeling the lowest of low that stuff seems to just wash over you.
In May this year I met Tim Sharp all from a retweet of... well ... one of his quotes. On Twitter he’s Dr. Happy. Tim is based in Sydney and is the leading expert in happiness and positive psychology. My curiosity made me meet with him. Tim has a lot of literature on positive psychology but a lot of it, which he encourages, needs to be practiced. So Tim’s work is quite the opposite of lying down and pouring out one’s sadness and worries - it’s much like the elbow grease of George and Pedro.
Here’s the essential excerpt that comes from one of his books The Happiness Handbook. Tim catagorised 10 types of Automatic Negative Thoughts a lot of us generally have. The practice comes from after reading this, writing your thoughts down for a couple of minutes twice and day and then analysing your thoughts according to his guide, recognising it then reminding yourself to think about every day situations differently.
10 types of Automatic Negative Thoughts by Tim Sharp
1. Over generalisation
Coming to a general conclusion based on a single event or one piece of evidence. If something bad happens once, you expect it to happen again and again. Such thoughts often include the words 'always' and 'never'.
I forgot to finish that project on time. I never manage to do things right.
He didn't want to go out with me. I'll always be lonely.
I didn't get that job I went for last week. I'll never find work.
Concentrating on the negatives while ignoring the positives; ignoring important information that contradicts your view of the situation.
I know he (my boss) said most of my submission was great but he also said there were a number of mistakes that had to be corrected... he must think I'm really hopeless.
I've just lost my job... my life is a complete mess (despite the fact that I'm very healthy and have a loving family who cares for me)
3. All or nothing thinking
Thinking in black and white, or all or nothing terms (e.g. things are right or wrong, good or bad); a tendency to view things at the extremes with no room for middle
I made so many mistakes... If I can't do it perfectly I might as well not bother
I won't be able to get all of this done, so I may as well not start it
This job is so bad... there's nothing good about it at all
Taking responsibility for something that is not necessarily your fault; thinking what people say or do is some kind of reaction specific to you, or is in some way directly related to you.
John's in a terrible mood... it must have been something I've done
It's obvious she doesn't like me; otherwise she would have waved to me.
I didn't get the job because of my appearance.
Overestimating the chances of disaster; expecting something unbearable or intolerable to happen (such thoughts begin with 'What if...?')
What if I make a fool or myself and people laugh at me?
What if I haven't turned the iron off and the house burns down?
If I don't' perform well, I'l get the sack.
6. Emotional reasoning
Mistaking feelings for facts - negative things you feel about yourself are held to be true because they feel true
I feel like a failure, therefore I am a failure
I feel ugly, therefore I must be ugly
I feel hopeless, therefore my situation must be hopeless
7. Mind Reading
Making assumptions about other people's thoughts, feelings and behaviours without checking out the evidence (e.g. asking them)
John's talking to Molly so he must like her more than me
I can tell he hates my shirt
I could tell she thought I was stupid in the interview
8. Fortune Telling
Anticipating an outcome and assuming your prediction is an established fact. These negative expectations can be self-fulfilling; predicting what we would do on the basis of past behaviour might prevent the possibility of change.
I've always been like this; I'll never be able to change
It's not going to work out so there's not much point of trying
This relationship is sure to fail
9. 'Should' Statements
Using 'should', 'ought' or 'must' statements can set up unrealistic expectations of yourself and others. It involves operating by rigid rules and not allowing for flexibility.
I shouldn't get angry. I should always be happy
People should be nice to me all the time
I should own my own house, have a great job, be happily married
A tendency to exaggerate the importance of negative information or experiences (making mountains out of molehills) while trivialising or reducing the significance of positive information or experiences.
She noticed my bad haircut. I know she said she will go out with me again, but I bet she doesn't call.
She said I did a good job but she was probably just saying that to be nice.
After reading all that you can see that all of us fall into at least a few of those categories at times, which is human. Completely human.
When I personally went through this list I spent a solid 2 to 3 months analysing my thoughts. It was hard to write honestly and pick my thoughts apart but some of the questions I had to ask myself were are these thoughts helpful? And am I being realistic? Do I have everything into perspective? Am I jumping to conclusions? Am I focusing too much on the negatives? Will this really be bad in one, two or five years? Even if it did really happen, is it really that bad? How likely is it that the worst would happen?
Going through this has helped me a great deal just with my every day thinking, and if you read my previous blog post about my first few weeks here in America it’s helped me to adjust with transition a great deal. I’m certainly no pro in relaying information, people like Tim Sharp and Norman Doidge are. If you want to read more on Tim see below, there’s also a link to a lot of his free literature and I’ve included a link to Norman Doidge’s book as well.
Happy Monday everyone!
Dr. Tim Sharp
Norman Doidge, M.D.