The title of this blog is “Looking on the Bright Side” so I am obviously a proponent of the power of positive thinking. Every now and then, I see a post about depression that seems to fuss at those of us who promote positive thinking. I understand the sentiment behind the post, but don’t agree with the execution. I think the general sentiment is that it is not helpful to tell someone with clinical depression to just “think happy thoughts.” And that is true – complex issues require complex solutions. Other treatments are usually indicated, including medication and counseling. And while positive thinking is not the only nor a simple answer, that does not mean it is not part of the solution.
Cognitive behavior therapy is a popular treatment modality for many mental health conditions. It is based on the idea that if one changes their thoughts, it will have an impact on feelings and behaviors. Restructuring our thoughts and cognitive distortions is clinical talk for the same concept that I am referring to when I personally refer to positive thinking.
This past week, I attended the Louisiana Counseling Association annual conference. I love conferences! I love learning, and I always feel super inspired to get better at my job when I’m surrounded by awesome colleagues who are all doing awesome things.
One of the keynote speeches was on a really interesting concept that I had not learned much about before. Dr. Clifton Mitchell was an extremely dynamic and entertaining speaker. He spoke about “priming” and the power and influence of our words.
The research has shown that our minds naturally move toward the dominant thought in a sentence regardless of whether it is stated in the positive or the negative.
For example, if I tell myself, “don’t eat that cake,” the dominant thought is “eat that cake.” The don’ts, shouldn’ts, won’ts, etc. don’t matter to our brain. Our brain is sensitive and picking up on certain stimuli.
Much of our behavior is controlled by our unconscious mind. Every behavior is preceded by thoughts, whether we are aware of them or not. We don’t have the power to consciously delete a thought from our brain. The only way to get rid of it is to override it with a new thought.
Basically, Dr. Mitchell was saying that we should always word things precisely, in the positive, and in the present tense if we want to move toward meaningful change. This is the same concept as reciting affirmations. If I’m feeling sad, I tell myself “I am content and satisfied with my life” until it becomes true.
This power of the positive thought is backed up by research. Part of my job as a counselor is to help my students re-frame their thoughts to assist them in becoming the best version of themselves.
Words have power. Thoughts have power. Remember that the next time you feel tempted to downplay someone’s positive and cheery outlook.