“We are beginning to comprehend a basic truth hitherto neglected, that our physical condition is determined very largely by our emotional condition, and our emotional life is profoundly regulated by our thought life.”
When he wrote that 70 years ago in his classic The Power of Positive Thinking, Norman Vincent Peale could have had no idea of its relevance in our world today.
In fact, against the background of the lock-downs and restrictions that have become a part of everyday life in 2020, Peale's statements and, indeed, the theme of his book are possibly more relevant than ever.
That's because mental health experts fear that the effects of these restrictions could be quite serious for many. Not just those who've actually been through the ordeal of Coronavirus, or seen family or friends suffering. But for all of us who feel we're going stir-crazy through the loss of our freedom to do what we want -- within reason.
But it so happens that today we are possibly better equipped than ever with the psychological tools that can help us avoid the mental doldrums -- by being mindful and practicing positive thinking.
What Is Mindfulness?
Many people think of mindfulness as a bit new-agey, or something that's either too hard or too mystical to take seriously.
But that's not the case at all. In very simple terms, being mindful means focusing your mind on what you're doing right now, observing yourself if you like, instead of thinking about tomorrow or yesterday. That's why it's sometimes called "being in the moment" or "being present."
Here's a simple example. When you brush your teeth, what are you thinking about? Probably not about brushing your teeth. It may not be important to be thinking about your teeth but if you did, you'd probably do a better job and you wouldn’t be worrying about, say, how you're going to fill your latest day at home.
Let's take the idea a step further. When you do think about what you're going to do, a whole host of little worries might start to emerge in your mind. But what is a worry? It's simply a chain of words you put together in your mind. It's not the actual event, which may or may not happen. It's just a thought. And if you could observe yourself as composing that chain of words, as though you were a third party -- "there goes that thought passing through my brain" -- maybe it wouldn’t have such a hold on you.
How to be Mindful
As we've just suggested, you don’t have to do anything special to be mindful beyond being in the moment. You don’t have to meditate (though you can), you don’t have to clear your mind, you don’t have to chant or pray. And you don’t have to beat yourself up when you find your mind is wandering back to those worries. You just have to return your mind to "now".
Why should this do you any good? Well, research has shown beyond a shadow of doubt that practicing mindfulness eases anxiety and improves your mental well being. And science also tells us that, when our minds are calm, our bodies benefit too -- for example with reduced blood pressure and stress, or less pain.
Here are some of the ways you can practice mindfulness:
- Mindful eating. Instead of doing other things while you eat, observe yourself in the process. You'll find you taste your food more, eat more slowly and perhaps even eat less.
- Mindful walking. When you're out walking -- we can still do that can't we? -- look at everything around you, instead of letting your mind wander. Look for details you might not have noticed and appreciate the beauty of nature where you can.
- Mindful resting. Sit or lie down quietly -- you don’t have to strike a yoga pose! -- and observe your body, how it moves when you breathe. Are there tensions that you can release? Tingling? Itches? Can you be aware, separately, of each muscle and joint? Don't worry if your mind wanders -- just bring it back -- and don’t worry if you fall asleep!
- Mindful listening. When we're in a conversation, we tend to think about what we plan to say next. Stop doing that and listen to what the other person is saying. You'll learn far more than you would listening to your own voice!
- Mindful working. It's easy to let our minds wander when we're doing a job that may be repetitive or simply something we find easy because we do it every day. Or maybe it's just downright boring. But by focusing on what we're doing and the way we do it, research shows we become more productive. As a bonus, there's less opportunity for negative thoughts to enter our minds.
- Mindful sensing. This involves using all your senses. What can you hear, smell or see right now? Most likely, many of those sensations will be things that have been there all the time, but you've never noticed before.
If you'd like to know more about the benefits and techniques of mindfulness, there are lots of free resources online, including videos and courses. A good starting point is this article from Harvard Health: https://tinyurl.com/harvard-mindful
How to Get a Positive Mindset
Much of the advice and many of the techniques from Peale's original book have been developed and built-on in the years since publication.
The basic idea behind positive thinking is that if you can see the best or the upside in anything, any situation, even when things go wrong, you'll likely improve your mindset and your attitude to life.
The simplest example is the well-known question about whether you see half a glass of water as half full or half empty. Are you focused disappointingly on how much has already gone or on the pleasure of how much is yet to come?
According to the renowned Mayo Clinic positive thinking doesn't mean ignoring the unpleasant sides of life. It's more about putting the best possible spin on what is happening and being grateful for the good things. It's the difference between optimism (things may be bad but they're going to get better) and pessimism (things are just going to get worse).
The clinic notes how some people incline towards negative thinking -- blaming themselves when things go wrong, always fearing the worst, and always seeing things as good or bad, when most situations have elements of both.
Here's Mayo's advice on how to adopt a positive thinking attitude:
- Think about change. Identify areas of your life where you're dissatisfied and create a plan for change. Maybe learn a new skill.
- Check your thoughts. This is an echo of mindfulness. Observe your thinking and recognize negative thoughts are just that - streams of words running through your brain.
- Look for opportunities to smile. It's amazing that the very act of smiling, even if it's forced, has a beneficial effect on your mental attitude.
- Adopt a healthy lifestyle. We all know it's true that fitness and exercise generate a "feel good" feeling but we don’t always do what's best for us. Just a couple of 10-minute chunks of exercise will lift your spirits.
- Mix with other positive-minded people, even if your just video conferencing or Zoom-ing. You already know who makes you feel good and who doesn't. Give a wide berth to the latter.
- Talk to yourself in a gentle and encouraging way. It's good if you can actually say the words, either out loud or under your breath. Compliment yourself and think about the good things in your life.
For the full Mayo Clinic article, see: https://tinyurl.com/mayo-think
There's never been a better or more needy time to practice positive thinking and mindfulness. When all this Corona-virus is done or at least under a semblance of control -- and it will be one day -- life will have changed in many, dramatic ways. Make sure you're ready for the opportunities with a positive mindset!