The evidence is stacking up that a positive attitude shapes and enhances our lives in every way - in health, wellbeing, love, career, even playing sport. Dr Peter Dingle PhD explores its power.
Your attitude is basically how you think and how you feel. Your attitude is a product of your past (or, at least, your perceptions of your past), yourself and the world around you and, through this, your conditioning. It's conditioning that'll allow you to make the right choices, to be prepared to challenge yourself and to make those positive changes. As you change, you'll take on a more and more positive attitude.
Our past conditioning, in one way or another, holds all of us back. How many times have we heard ourselves or our kids say, "I can't do that", only to look back and realise we could have done it. Sometimes our conditioning prevents us from even seeing opportunities until they've passed us by. The limiting factor was simply our conditioning, the way we thought.
We can condition animals to stay inside a light fence. A horse that is about ten times more powerful than us can be controlled with a flimsy piece of rope. If you put a bunch of fleas in a container they will jump up and down as high as they can. If you put on a lid, they'll hit the lid when they jump, so they learn to do only small jumps. When you take the lid off, they continue to do small jumps. They've been conditioned. All through our lives we have lids put on us. If parents can recognise some of the "lids" they've had all their lives, they can then remove some of the "lids" on their own children.
I recently met a woman who was passionate and successful at what she did. She was not rich, but she was very happy, earned a satisfactory income and, most importantly, derived a lot of happiness from helping people. She had a rough upbringing without parents, but had a loving grandmother. She also recently overcame a life threatening disease and continues to inspire the people she helps. Her brother and sister went onto alcohol, drugs and the sex industry. They had much the same upbringing, but one saw it as contributing to her strengths, making her into who she is today, while the other two saw it as the cause of all their problems. Their perceptions of the situation determined how they reacted. For one reason or another, one learned optimism and the other two learned helplessness.
Some interesting studies have been conducted on conditioning. In one study, dogs were put in a small room and subjected to a mild electric shock. The dogs tried to avoid the shock in various ways, but there was no escape. After a short while, the dogs simply became willing to sit down and do nothing. In the second part of the experiment, an easy escape was provided, but the dogs remained apathetic. These dogs were conditioned to believe they could not find a solution to the pain.
A second group of dogs was provided with an escape in the first part of the experiment. In the second phase, even when faced with no escape from the pain, these dogs continued to search for an escape. This group of dogs was conditioned to believe that they could find a solution and so they continued to search.
In a similar experiment, a number of rats was made to swim in a container without anywhere to rest. A second set of rats was also made to swim, but they were given a small ledge to rest on. After some time, the first set of rats gave up and quit swimming. The second set had their ledge removed, yet continued to swim for twice as long as the first set of rats. The second group of rats continued to swim because they had the expectation of finding a safe ledge on which to rest.
The good news is that you can teach an old dog new tricks, and even the dogs who gave up and just accepted the pain were able to learn to look for an escape. It just took a bit more effort.
When Einstein was asked, in reference to his discovery of the theory of relativity, "How did you do it?" he replied, "I ignored the axiom." In other words, he ignored the established beliefs in the field. Have you ever wondered about the evidence that shows the majority of working class kids grow up to be working class adults? (And it has nothing to do with IQ.) Conditioning has little relevance to the here and now because it is based on past information. If you consider the history of many Australian and American leaders, they're not leaders because of their IQ, they're leaders because they come from a political family and there's an expectation that they'll be a political leader. George Bush has been primed since the day he was born to be president of the US.
A story that we are all familiar with is Roger Bannister and the four minute mile. More than 50 medical journal articles were written on why it was impossible to beat the four minute barrier to run a mile. Roger Bannister refused to believe the research and consequently broke that four minute barrier in 1954. And now it's regularly beaten. Athletes have learned that the only real barrier to their achievements is the mind. As a result, athletes continue to break world records and they'll continue to do so until such time they think they can't.
You can change your conditioning through developing a positive attitude. This doesn't mean you or your kids have to become super optimists - you just need to recognise and chip away at self limiting conditioning. There are now dozens of studies showing its power. The benefits include improved health and wellbeing, living longer, success at university, school and career, sporting achievements and many other areas of our lives. Developing a positive attitude is probably the most important thing a person can do to change their life. But don't worry, as I've already said, an old dog can learn new tricks!
Fortunately, there are many techniques you can use to develop and enhance a positive attitude. So let's get started. It's not just about feeling good or a matter of improving some aspects of your or your kids' lives. It's about survival. Positive attitude is the single most important factor in determining how long and how well we will live.
In a study that began in 1974, Dr Ronald Grossarth-Mahcek gave a 15 question "Pleasure and Wellbeing" test to 3,055 elderly residents in Heidelberg , Germany . In the follow up, 21 years later, those who had scored highest on the test, that is, those who had the most positive attitudes, were 30 times more likely to be alive and well than those who had low scores. Only 2.5 per cent of the participants who scored two or less were still alive 21 years later, compared to 75 per cent of those who scored 6.5 or above out of a total of seven.
In 1940, a similar study of Harvard University graduates showed that high optimism at age 20 predicted good health at 65. Those who had high scores in pessimism had poorer health or no forwarding address. In studies of stroke victims, optimists had a faster rate of recovery and fewer complications during and after operations compared to pessimists. In a 1984 study of freshmen at the University of Pennsylvania, student optimism scores were a better predictor of grades and success than university entry scores.
Optimism has also been found to be a major criterion for success in a number of jobs. The optimists would continue to try despite numerous setbacks, while the pessimists would give up. The best example of this was in the selection for insurance sales personnel. Overall, 75 per cent of insurance salespeople quit in the first year. But pessimists quit at twice the rate of optimists. The optimists also sold 37 per cent more insurance. Even optimists who failed the entrance exam outsold pessimists by 27 per cent in the first year and by 57 per cent in the second year. Being more optimistic has also been shown to improve basketball scores and swimming performance, demonstrating that it can be of benefit in nearly every facet of life.
Mental monologue and cognitive restructuring
We all have a mental monologue going on in our heads that evaluates who we are and what we do. For many of us, this monologue is often negative, criticising our actions and generally running us down. We all know this monologue. It's the voice that tells us how poor or bad we are and that what we're doing is stupid or wrong, or that we can't do that positive or challenging thing so stop fooling ourselves and others. It's particularly active in people with clinical depression and other mental illnesses, but also in healthier individuals when they may be upset, annoyed or fatigued, or when something in life goes wrong.
The thinking mind too easily spins out of control, creating exaggerated negative thoughts and pictures. This was probably an evolutionary adaptation to help us avoid risks. The negative thoughts create negative emotions that create stress that creates more negative thoughts - and so the negative cycle begins. This monologue creates fears of the future (what could go wrong and why) and criticisms of the past (what you could or should have done but didn't). Our mental monologue not only uses the "should have" and "could have", but also becomes excessive and uses words like "never" and "always". It becomes catastrophic with words like "worst", "terrible", and "horrible". Over a period of time, a person can feel disempowered and quite devastated.
These negative thoughts, and that's all they are, create feelings. We need to learn different methods of exerting control over our internal monologue. We can take charge of it, and have it working for us, rather than against us. We are essentially responsible for creating our own experiences of the world and how we interpret things around us, that in turn influence us and our thoughts and feelings.
One of the most effective ways of taking charge of your mental monologue is cognitive restructuring, in which the very first step is to identify that critical voice. Simply observe what it says. Identifying the monologue and taking a step back from it enables us to take control. Once we recognise our mental monologue, we are able to restructure it.
To identify the monologue, listen for negative messages and words such as:Could haveShould haveNeverWorstTerribleAlways
Other words include "can't do" and "why bother". Get the picture? They're all the negative words tumbling around in our heads that degrade us and tell us that we are useless, hopeless, no good and stupid.
Once the negative monologue is identified, set up a dialogue with a positive counter voice which deconstructs and counters the monologue, creating a more realistic and positive perspective. We can do this in our heads, but it's much more powerful to write it down. Write the monologue on a piece of paper. Any piece of paper will do, but best to keep them all together and even better to keep them in a diary. On the right hand side write down the monologue - what was the negative message? Then on the left hand side write down all the reasons why the message is wrong. Ask yourself if the thought is really, really true. If not, why not. List all the reasons it's not true and keep adding to the list.
Get in touch with reality by asking yourself what you would say to your best friend if they undermined themselves the way your inner critic does you. What would you say to them? Perhaps that's what you should be saying to yourself, rather than beating yourself around the head. So write it down. Become your own best friend.
If you still think something is going to be so devastating and catastrophic, compare what you fear may happen with what has happened in the past. Was it so catastrophic, did it really nearly kill you or destroy everything you had? Write it down. Put it in perspective.
These simple techniques have proven to be extraordinarily powerful in changing people's ways of thinking. Once your inner dialogue and fears are written down, you can revisit them at any time to remind yourself of what you need to change. And once you get started there are many more things you can add on to help improve your attitude.
Dr Peter Dingle PhD is an environmental and nutritional toxicologist
and Associate Professor in Health and the Environment at Murdoch University, Western Australia.