4 Positive Thinking Exercises to Help Get Out Of a Rut

Sean Kernan

Positive thinking is correlated to greater happiness, less anxiety, better health, and longer life expectancy.

By deploying these specific, proven approaches to positivity, your mental wellbeing will improve, and the benefits will cascade into every aspect of your life.

Do this every day to rewire more positivity

After years of agonizing, I quit my stable, well-paying finance job and pursued a writing career. There was this moment of terror. My friends thought I was crazy. I only made a few hundred bucks in the first few months. Then things took off.

Making my writing career work was the most empowering and rewarding experience of my life. I escaped the cubicle. I live on my own terms.

What you have just read is a positivity journal, that I just wrote. Scientists researched this exercise with 90 students. They had half of the students write about a neutral topic every day. The other half wrote about an intensely positive experience every day. Three months later, the latter group was happier and had fewer sick days. Another study found that a mere three days of journaling each week reduced anxiety and depression in patients.

All it takes is two minutes of quick journaling each day. Choose a highly positive experience. Then analyze it from different angles and explore it with the same intensity you apply to your mistakes.

A bizarre experiment revealed our problem bias

In 2018, researchers showed a series of images to two groups of participants. In each image, there were batches of black dots. They asked people to identify when the batch contained blue dots.

The first group was shown blue dots mixed in right away. Dozens of images later, they were shown one with purple dots mixed. That group saw the obvious and said, “Those aren’t blue dots.” The second group was only shown black dots for the first images. When a few purple dots eventually appeared, they tended to say they were blue.

This seemingly irrelevant phenomenon is called prevalence-induced adaptive change. We expand our definition of things as we see less of them. More tangibly, you expand your definition of ‘problem’ as you have fewer real problems in your life.

Two examples

  • Having a fridge full of food but not having anything to eat.
  • Paying to check your bag on an airplane.

It’s the scientific underpinning of ‘first-world problems’. It’s our tendency to catastrophize.

Two ways to fix this

  1. Step back and reframe your problems in the grander scheme of life. I often remind myself that, “I have my health. I have security. Nobody is bleeding. This problem isn’t that big.”
  2. Add a second half to your first-world complaint. For example, “Paying to check your bag on an airplane, while flying on an actual airplane, traveling thousands of miles in a few hours, for a few hundred dollars.

Today, I caught myself complaining about my salad dressing packets. They are always at the bottom of my premade chicken garden salad. I forgot someone was making me this amazing salad and selling it to me for $7.

There’s a moving excerpt from The Gulistan by the Persian author Sa’di, “Once, when my feet were bare, and I had not the means of obtaining shoes. I came to the chief of Kufah, in a state of much dejection, and saw there a man who had no feet. I returned thanks to God and acknowledged his mercies, and endured my want of shoes with patience.”

This contrarian exercise will lift you

If something terrible has happened, the last thing I want to hear is, “Just shake it off.” And you definitely shouldn’t say that to someone whose dog just got hit by a car, or if they are at a funeral. I still wouldn’t put it past people.

That ‘shake it off’ approach is very damaging and academics have repeatedly proven that accepting valid negative emotions is critical to healing.

We fall into the trap of feeling bad for feeling bad, saying “I shouldn’t be feeling the way I’m feeling.” Sometimes, you absolutely should be feeling bad. While going through my divorce, my counselor hammered away at this point, “Give yourself permission to feel sad.” Compartmentalizing or condemning your feelings exacerbates and prolongs problems.

Here’s an example: my friend was dating a woman and they weren’t serious yet. But they were on the path. He’d gotten his hopes up about their future. Then, abruptly, she broke things off with him. He was blindsided. I met up with him for dinner and asked him about it. He was accepting of his fate and said, “I’m giving myself 48 hours to grieve this.”

There was no hiding or diminishing it. He was allowing the hurt while also being mindful. Our feelings can’t be turned on and off like a faucet. Let it happen. Therein lies power.

Lastly, how to break negative thought loops

I’m 40 now but around the time I turned 35, I noticed this bizarre and troubling trend in my thoughts. Inexplicably, and out of nowhere, negative memories surfaced from decades past. I was agonizing, “Why is my mind bringing up these terrible experiences? These embarrassments?” I haven’t thought of these memories in years and now I’m playing them on repeat?

This is actually quite common. Particularly as we approach milestones — in my case, middle age — when people begin taking stock of their lives.

I went through cognitive behavioral therapy. It’s the gold standard in treatment with psychologists. The results are incredible. These are three simplified steps for addressing negative thinking:

  1. Be aware. Spot the spiral of negative thoughts when it’s happening.
  2. Pause for a moment. This allows you to cement recognition and awareness. It’s the lack of recognition that causes the loop to go unchecked, putting you in a bad mood.
  3. Replace the thought with something healthier. Forgive yourself. Substitute a positive thought. Count a blessing. Remember something good or a success.

You’ll be shocked at how effective it is. The key is to put it into practice and do it repeatedly over time. Be patient.

Recap for your memory

  1. Spot first-world complaints. Reframe them with a broader perspective. Or attach gratitude-oriented thought.
  2. Give yourself permission to feel sad or disappointed when it is warranted.
  3. Start a positivity journal. Spend two minutes writing about something you are deeply grateful for. Analyze great memories and blessings.
  4. Break negative thought patterns by noticing, pausing, and then replacing them with positive alternatives.

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