“Such as are your habitual thoughts, such also will be the character of your mind…” – Marcus Aurelius
The brain is the most complex, yet fascinating, structure in the human body (perhaps even in the universe). All of the thoughts we have about ourselves and our environments are stored in our brains – kept safe for when we need to access them in order to navigate particular situations. The only problem is that when we think about something repeatedly, that thought becomes more accessible than others (especially if the thought is one that invokes a negative emotion, such as anger or jealousy). So, for example, the more we tell ourselves that we are not good enough, smart enough, or attractive enough, the more we believe it.
Continuous, or regular, negative thoughts become “habitual negative thoughts” – and they are detrimental to our overall wellness. Habitual negative thoughts have the capacity to shatter our self-confidence, cause tremendous amounts of anxiety, and can lead to depression and psychosomatic disorders (physical illnesses caused by, or at least aggravated by, mental factors such as stress – e.g., stomach ulcers, high blood pressure, eczema, and heart disease).
Moreover, whether we intend them to or not, habitual negative thoughts directly affect our behavior, which subsequently affects not only how others perceive us, but also how they interact with us. In essence, therefore, we become our negative thoughts! And, let’s face it – no one wants to be known as a “Debbie Downer” or a “Negative Ned”! After all, humans are, by nature, highly social beings. There is a fundamental human desire for social acceptance and meaningful interpersonal exchange – and if we are consumed by habitual negative thinking, others will avoid engaging with us. Think about it: would you rather go to lunch with someone who generally has a positive disposition and who engages your creativity or with someone who steals all of your energy with their negative outlook? I, for one, would prefer the company of the former!
Of course, it is important to recognize that negative thoughts are not inherently bad. Humans have hundreds (maybe even thousands) of thoughts every single day. It would be unrealistic to think that we could (or that we should) rid ourselves of ever having negative thoughts. The problem, however, is when we begin to believe those negative thoughts – when they take over the perception we have of ourselves and our environments. Since negative thoughts breed more negative thoughts, it is important that we learn how to control them. The more negative thoughts we have, the more likely it is that we will begin to accept and believe those thoughts – this is because the more negative thoughts that we have, the more we program our brains not only to expect negativity, but to actually create it!
So, how do we get rid of habitual negative thinking?
It may sound strange, but we can actually train our brains to change the way that we think! Using brain activation techniques, such as functional magnetic resonance imagining (fMRI), studies in neuroscience and psychology show that the left side of the brain’s frontal lobe (known as the left prefrontal cortex) is more active when we are experiencing happiness and joy. In comparison, these same studies show that the right side of the brain’s frontal lobe (known as the right prefrontal cortex) is more active when we are experiencing sadness or grief. By participating in activities that increase stimulation to the left prefrontal cortex, and avoiding those that stimulate the right prefrontal cortex, we can help to strengthen (and sometimes even to create) neural pathways that encourage positive thinking, and reduce those pathways that encourage negative thinking! Activities that have been empirically shown to increase activity to the left prefrontal cortex include: meditation, physical activity, and social interaction. In general, however, any activity that you enjoy doing (cooking, reading, swimming, etc.) will help to stimulate activity in the left prefrontal cortex – and thus, help to increase your overall level of happiness!
The overall idea is that when we change the way that we think, we change the way that we feel about ourselves and our environments. To create this change, we must learn how to go from habitual negative thinking to habitual positive thinking – we must learn to mute and negate negative thoughts and to focus on and create positive thoughts. Achieving habitual positive thinking will increase your energy, improve your immune system, help prevent chronic diseases, and allow you to achieve true happiness and balance in your life. Of course, training our brains to focus on and create positive thoughts takes time and dedication. After all, we want to dispose of our chronic negative thinking, and instead, make positive thinking a habit – and habits take time to form (approximately 21 days)! The key, therefore, is repetition. Repeated exposure to positive thoughts and engagement with activities that produce feelings of pleasure will help to increase activity in the left prefrontal cortex, and thus, change the way that you think!
Training your brain in this way will lead to a happier, more balanced life – so, what are you waiting for?!