My earliest memory is a pretty bad one. I was called out by a substitute teacher in kindergarten for talking during story time.
You could argue that, in the grand scheme of things, getting in trouble at 5 isn’t that big of a deal. But the story, and how it’s burned into my brain forever, speaks to a shared and brutal human reality: We cling to the bad moments—getting busted in kindergarten, botching a speech, getting broken up with the day after the prom, feeling wordlessly judged by someone in richer clothes, whiffing on a 3-2 count in the bottom of the ninth—with more force than we afford the good ones. Negative memories are monstrous beasts, gross and sticky octopuses that attach themselves with ferocious tenacity to the present. Science, Eastern religion, elections and all eight Star Wars movies prove that negative powers aren’t easily fought. Only the strongest and most disciplined minds can train themselves to destroy the darkness with light.
I do not have such a mind.
As such, SUCCESS challenged me to learn that discipline, to engage in a solid month of positive self-talk to see how it improved my mood, to answer the question: Can I strengthen my mind by simply focusing on good thoughts? I have no idea. But I know one thing as I begin—during the Chicago Cubs’ nail-biting road to the World Series and the presidential election—if ever there were a time to test the power of positive thinking, this would be it.
The idea of using affirmations has proven, tangible merit. David Sarwer, a psychologist and director at the Center for Obesity Research and Education at Temple University, often begins treatments by having patients talk to themselves in a mirror, coaching them to use more generous, encouraging terms about themselves before starting physical regimens.
Yet the first thing I learn about positive thinking is that the word positive is a big fat lie.
“Let’s talk about what positive thinking really is,” says Gregory Jantz, Ph.D., founder of The Center: A Place of Hope and the author of 35 personal-development books. “I can tell myself a lie. I’m in Seattle. I can say, ‘It’s not raining’ all I want, but that would be a denial of reality. Positive thinking isn’t about ignoring truths.”
“It’s OK to have negative thoughts, but you need to be mindful of them and leverage them to benefit your behaviors.”
It’s not even about being happy. “If your goal is to have a constant positive feeling, well, nobody has that,” says a laughing Courtney Johnson, Ph.D., clinical neuropsychologist with Indiana University Health in Indianapolis. “Our culture says we should be happy all the time, but that’s just not how we’re wired. Negative emotions have meaning. They tell us things that are important. Sometimes things really are crummy. It’s OK to have negative thoughts, but you need to be mindful of them and leverage them to benefit your behaviors.” But there’s good news: Johnson says this is a skill you can build.
This is one of those things that sounds easy in theory but is probably exceedingly difficult in practice, so I ask Jantz what Step 1 might be.
“Gratitude,” Jantz says. “If you begin with gratitude, you start with a positive framework.” Gratitude begets humility, which begets sensitivity to others, which begets learning to respond to negative stimuli in positive, productive ways.
“If a friend doesn’t return your call, you can respond in two ways,” Johnson says. “You can say to yourself, Maybe they forgot or Maybe they were busy and not have a strong emotional reaction. Or you can think, Oh no, they must not like me, and the next time you see them, you don’t talk to them.”
Jantz has an example, too. “If somebody cuts you off in traffic,” he says, “you can either respond in anger or you can say, Wow, that guy might be having a really tough day. You don’t personalize things. If I’m living in a positive framework, I’m not personalizing.”
I have never once been cut off in traffic and cared to think about how the other driver’s day is going. But science is science, so I resolve to start every morning with gratitude. I wake at 6 a.m. and immediately feel thankful for matters great and tiny: the roof, my job, the unusually warm weather, how my younger son stayed in his bed all night, for remembering to program the coffee maker. “In our nerdy clinical world, we call that taking inventory,” Johnson says. “It’s re-calibrating what we’re paying attention to.”
Positive thinking is linked to increased life span, lower rates of depression, a stronger immune system, reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and being invited to more barbecues. But these benefits come with a catch: You have to do it all of the time. It’s not like exercising three times a week or deciding against a sporadic brownie. Thinking positively involves an unending process of catching negative thoughts, filing them away in some mental trash compactor and replacing them with healthier ones. “Somebody who’s in chronic pain might wake up feeling terrible every day and tell themselves, I’m in pain; this is my life, and it’s lousy. But those are thoughts,” Johnson says. “That pain doesn’t mean you can’t call your grandchild. The ability to be flexible in thinking is what’s helpful.”
Jantz says the approach is best done in a group. So I tell my wife, children and a handful of associates my plan to be a shiny, happy person for a month. They give me a lot of funny looks, which I interpret forgivingly. This leads to a lot of on-the-fly mental adjustments. For example, when my wife texts me to ask how our boys behaved in the morning, I want to say, “Ugh, they were feisty and took 20 minutes to change and brush their teeth and cried when I took away their cereal.” But I change my tone. I’m supposed to be thinking positively, so I respond with, “They were brimming with youthful energy and joy.”
I keep at it. Dealing with the home insurance people? That isn’t a soul-deadening automated-menu hellscape; it is strengthening the safety net surrounding my family. The grinding, squealing noise from the garbage disposal isn’t a future $400 plumber bill; it is probably something I could fix myself. My younger son’s propensity for spilling chocolate milk on the table isn’t a twice-weekly dairy-based nightmare but a lesson in taking responsibility for your own actions. My self-employment tax bills aren’t a monthly kick in the pancreas area but a reminder that we all need to do our part to make our country function as a singular cooperative unit (dear sweet Pete, this is hard).
I need help, so I go to the first place I usually turn for it: my phone.
Launched four years ago, Happify is one of a predictably blossoming wave of apps that uses “research on the science of happiness” to devise activities, called interventions, designed to improve your mindfulness. “We want to have people inserting these interventions and messages into their daily lives,” says co-founder and president Ofer Leidner. It’s working: Happify has more than 3 million users who follow 1,800 specific tracks covering everything from job stress to relationship stress to handling negative thoughts, which Leidner says is the most popular. Leidner reports that 86 percent of Happify users get happier within two months. I install Happify and similar apps such as Headspace, ThinkUp and Unique Daily Affirmations to help push myself along. Most are heavily attuned to the social component. Post pictures here, share your score with friends there. I also schedule my own reminders. For three weeks, I set my phone to ping me every few hours and remind me to stop what I’m doing and be grateful for something, usually whatever was in front of me: coffee, my family, a chocolate bar.
“If your goal is to feel better all the time, good luck. Nobody’s figured that out. And if you put pressure on yourself to feel a certain way, it won’t work.”
But I worry my self-imposed pressure to be happy is defeating its purpose—is my mood artificial? And I’m concerned that 30 days is too short of a window to effect meaningful change. But everyone I talk to says it is plenty of time for habit-forming. “You can help yourself quote-unquote get better in five minutes if you do gratitude exercises every day,” Johnson says.
Something else happened, too. Exhausted by the whole sunny enterprise of constantly reminding myself to be happy, I decided to go for a run. I went outside, cleared my head, listened to very loud music, felt sunshine on my face and came back feeling refreshed. In a way, I did something that made me happy, after being wearied by all of the stuff telling me to be happy. “It’s OK!” Johnson laughs, when I tell her the story. “Reinforcement is reinforcement.”
Because, again, positivity is a big fat lie. “If your goal is to feel better all the time, good luck,” Johnson says. “Nobody’s figured that out. And if you put pressure on yourself to feel a certain way, it won’t work.”
The idea, after all, isn’t future happiness, some glistening paradise or some unmet goal/job/love down the road. It’s not the kind of synthetically forced happiness you often find in Facebook feeds either. We shouldn’t even call it happiness; it’s better to stick with the idea that your current state has value, that this life isn’t a ladder but a (sometimes nauseating) roller coaster, that the only thing you can count on is change and that you can influence your own emotions.
“When you sow the seeds of gratitude,” Jantz says, “You become other-focused, less absorbed with your own problems, and more optimistic.” A positive outlook doesn’t mean stapling happy to your face. It means being OK with whatever’s on there anyway. And that makes me happy.
Related: TED Talks: ‘The Habits of Happiness’
This article originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of SUCCESS magazine.
Jeff Vrabel is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in such publications as GQ, Men's Health, Time, Billboard and the official Bruce Springsteen site, because though he's had many bosses, there is only one boss. He lives in Indianapolis with his wife and two sons—the older just stole bacon off your plate and the younger was personally approved by Springsteen (long story). He can be reached at the cleverly named JeffVrabel.com.