By Daniel Bobinski
For the past 90 years or so, there’s been a lot of teaching that positive thinking affects our lives for the better. Books have been written about it. Motivational speakers fill stadiums and give dynamic presentations about it. On top of that, millions (and probably billions) of dollars have been spent as people try to improve their lives though learning how to think positively.
But does the concept work? Does positive thinking really affect your life for the better? I dare say it does. Within reason.
Despite the nay-sayers, facts are facts. Through the wonders of modern medical imaging we have learned that positive thoughts have different waves and forms than negative thoughts. But even without scientific evidence, when you walk up to people from behind, sometimes you can sense their mood – good or bad – even if you can’t see their face.
So yes, I think it’s safe to say that our thoughts have an influence on our surroundings, and yes, there are ripple effects.
Other medical findings show that our brains develop neuropathways that are created as a result of our habitual thinking patterns. That would align with what my first coach used to tell me: “Some people are addicted to negativity.” Think about it. If people focus on negative things all the time, their brains develop neuropathways that automatically tune in to the negative of a given situation.
Maybe you know someone like this. I do. The gentleman I’m thinking of is always talking about what he doesn’t like. As an example, he went on a cruise for a week. He was treated like a king, enjoyed beautiful scenery and dined on sumptuous fare. But when anyone asked him how his cruise went, he’d spend 15 minutes talking about everything he disliked about the cruise. The man’s brain is simply wired to focus on negative things.
So, what’s the alternative? If you think I’m talking about becoming all bubbly and upbeat like Anne of Green Gables after three triple shots of espresso, that’s not it. Positive thinking has to do with achievement thinking. From my perspective, it’s focusing on what you want instead of what you don’t want. It’s focusing on what you’re going to do instead of what you’re not going to do.
For example, if I were to say, “Think of a red car,” chances are the image of a red car will pop into your head. Since at least 80 percent of the population is visually oriented, this should be true for at least 80 percent of you. The car could be any make or model, but it would be red. By thinking about what you want (in this case, a red car), you are giving your brain an expected end-result.
Focusing on what you don’t want is not helpful, because the mind has no picture for “don’t.” For example, if I were to say, “Don’t think of a blue car,” your mind, however momentarily, develops an image of a blue car. It might end up focusing on something beside a blue car, but there’s no purposeful focus on what you want.
Where am I going with all this? There’s something else that neuroscientists have discovered: Our brains are always trying to reconcile our external reality with the words and pictures we have in our minds. Whether those words and pictures in our brains flop around aimlessly, or we put them there purposefully, if what we have in our heads is negative, things aren’t likely to turn out positive.
This is why it’s hard to succeed if our mental thoughts and images revolve around negative phrases. For example, let’s say a guy arrives at work each day thinking, “I don’t want to get fired.” First, with a focus like that, people around him sense an uneasiness. Second, he will have a tough time deriving a sense of satisfaction from his work if he ends each shift thinking, “Whew – I made it through another day without getting fired.”
If you think you’d like a little more power in your life, one thing you can do is answer the question, “What do you want?” Do you want a promotion? Do you want to be placed in charge of a project? If so, put those pictures in your head. Then, divide those bigger pictures into smaller pieces that you can work toward, and “see” yourself doing them.
If pictures don’t do it for you, write out a clear description of what it is you want. Don’t write what you don’t want. Write what you want. Then, divide it into bite-size chunks and prioritize it into steps. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and elephants are eaten one bite at a time.
When others sense you are moving toward something, they can sense your vibe and quite often it’s contagious. It’s very different from sending out feelings of negativity, uneasiness or worry.
If you think you may have been stuck in neutral or perhaps even partaking in some negative thinking, know that you can make a shift. There may be some new neuropathways for your brain to write, but that will happen if you stay focused. You’ve probably heard it takes 21 days to change or form a new habit. That’s true if there are no emotional obstacles, but it can take three months or more to make changes if there are strong inhibitions. When I do management and leadership coaching, the three-month mark is usually when I see my clients experiencing significant, transformative breakthrough. You just have to stick with it and trust your brain to do its thing.
So, to answer our question, yes, I do think there is power in positive (achievement) thinking, and no, it’s not a magic wand. Remember what science has told us. Our brains are always trying to reconcile our external reality with the words and pictures we have in our minds. If that’s true, then we can choose the thoughts and pictures we want in our brains. And, in time, they will make us better than we are now. ICE
– Daniel Bobinski, M.Ed. is a certified behavioral analyst, a best-selling author and a popular speaker at conferences and retreats. He loves teaching teams and individuals how to use Emotional Intelligence, and his videos and blogs on that topic appear regularly at www.eqfactor.net. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (208) 375-7606.