Happiness and positive thinking

Happiness and positive thinking

Here’s the unedited version of my Body + Soul column that went to print today. Please enjoy and as always, feel free to send your thoughts, questions or happiness related comments to drhappy@thehappinessinstitute.com.

The incredible power of the mind

Most of you have probably heard of “positive thinking” and many of you may well have heard reference to the “power” of positive thinking. I”m a big believer in the incredible power of the mind but unfortunately, many of the amateur or pop psychologists who refer to this don”t fully understand the complexities of the scientific research thereby detracting from the credibility such findings deserve.

In short, the mind really is incredibly powerful and the great news is that we could all live happier and more successful lives if we were to fully capitalise on this remarkable organ encased in our skulls; but to make the most of the mind’s abilities and all it has to offer it’s important, dare I say necessary to realistically assess what really works, and what doesn”t.

In a book and accompanying DVD that recently sold millions of copies, readers and listeners were effectively told that if they visualised positive things happening in their lives and if they focused on and imagined achieving success, then it would come to them and be theirs.

Well this is simply not true and it is, in my experience, a potentially dangerous approach. If you were brought up being told that “it’s the thought that counts” then your mother or father or whoever told you this was only half right. Thoughts are incredibly important but thoughts without anything else are simple intentions; and at the end of the day actions speak louder than words. People who think a lot about achieving and about being happy but don”t actually do anything typically end up feeling frustrated and disappointed when nothing changes (because why would your life change without any sort of real, concerted effort?).

At the same time, I”m not in any way suggesting that positive thoughts are not good for you. They”re extremely good for you, but only if these thoughts are realistic and only if these thoughts are accompanied by positive and constructive actions. I could probably list many things that differentiate happy and successful people from those who”re not so happy and successful but the top two would be that (1) they focus on the positives while also dealing with the cold hard realities of the day, and (2) they engage in more healthy and constructive behaviours. As stated by that well-known shoe manufacturer they “just do it”.

Let’s, to begin with anyway, focus on the first of these. There’s absolutely no doubt that happy people think about the world in a fundamentally different way. Specifically, they view themselves in a more positive light, others as more likeable and friendly, and the world around them as being a better place in which to live. But note again, they don”t think of themselves as perfect but as someone with strengths and weaknesses; and then they focus more on their strengths. Further, they acknowledge imperfections in others and in the world but actively look for more good things and make the most of these.

Recently I found the following great quote, “What we see depends mainly on what we look for.” This goes for what we see in ourselves, in others and more widely in our surroundings. This is also relevant to whether we see problems or opportunities; obstacles or challenges.

The mind really is incredibly powerful and as the Dalai Lama once said, “the central method for achieving a happier life is to train your mind in a daily practice that weakens negative attitudes and strengthens positive ones.” As much as I love this quote I would, based on my many years of coaching and consulting experience, also add that happiness is not a spectator sport but rather, something which if desired requires taking decisive action. So get to it; use your mind but don”t let your goals be just dreams by falling victim to wishful thinking and inaction.