When we think about engaging in positive behavior change, we often think big. Exercising, eating right, quitting smoking, speaking up more often - these are all behaviors that we can choose to change. And behavior science has provided us with some great assessment tools and strategies for changing these big, obvious habits. It is certainly commendable to be hitting the gym and building your physical fitness! But, have you ever thought that maybe your brain needs a workout as well?
Everyone from Olympic athletes to Oprah have touted the power of positive thinking. People will say that they landed a new job, won a tennis tournament or avoided a traffic ticket, all because they practiced sending out positive thoughts. And, when behavior coaches help clients to increase healthy behaviors, they typically also target a change in thought patterns on top of diet and fitness. Many experts even say that brain gym is as important as physical training because keeping a smile on your face is correlated with leading a better, more fulfilling life. But how does this phenomenon of positive thinking and brain training work? Experts in behavior science may have an answer.
Usually, behavior scientists focus on behaviors that you can easily see and track. We can all see and clearly define behaviors like walking, clapping, jumping, or speaking. We can also record how often these behaviors happen and determine whether the frequency changes over time. But, what about thoughts, which aren’t easily seen by the outside observer?
It might surprise you to learn that behavior scientists consider thinking a behavior as well, in much the same way that speaking is a behavior. If you see a red ball, you can think ‘red ball’ just as easily as you can label it out loud, type it, or write it down. Right now, as I type, I am thinking of a string of words and my fingers are moving close behind in order to get them on the page. Even though thoughts and feelings aren’t obvious to the naked eye, thinking is behavior. Thus, we can use all the same tools from behavior science to increase the frequency of positive thinking.
So, why would we want to increase the amount of time that a person spends engaging in positive thoughts? Imagine a time that you’ve caught yourself smiling to yourself because of a funny or happy thought. Similarly, when you think about something upsetting, you tend to slump, grimace, or frown. When you think or say positive or negative things, your body language and actions often follow suit.
Thinking is behavior. And, because the occurrence of one behavior often begets other similar behaviors, just a single negative thought can send us spiraling into lots of other unhealthy habits (glaring, snarling, stomping, yelling, smoking, etc.). Likewise, engaging in positive thoughts can lead to positive behavior (smiling, laughing, walking tall, chatting politely with others, etc.).
Are you interested in training your brain and harnessing the power of positive thinking? Maybe you still aren’t convinced that changing your thoughts can spark lasting change in your life. Either way, if you can spare just a few minutes a day to send your brain to the gym, you’ve got nothing to lose. Below are some evidence-based strategies for increasing positive thinking. Why not give them a try?
Become Aware of Your Behavior
When starting to change any behavior, one of the most important steps is to assess your current status. When you start working with a personal trainer, they typically take all of your measurements and do some strength tests so that they keep tabs on your progress over time. The same strategy goes when you join the brain gym! At the beginning, you’ll need to track your positive or negative thoughts (without trying to change them) in order to obtain a baseline and set goals for change.
First, choose a behavior to record. Because it is easier for us to notice spoken words than our own thoughts, try tracking the statements that you make aloud. If you already believe that you’re a ‘Naysaying Nelly’ then it may be easier to track your positive comments. If friends would describe you as a ‘Positive Pete’, then record any negative remarks you make.
You don’t have to jot down the exact words you say - a simple tally mark to count the frequency will do. Also, to make it easier on yourself, don’t worry about recording your behavior all day long. Instead choose two to three 30-minute segments of time during the day and be super diligent about tallying your comments during these specific times.
Repeat a Positive Mantra in Private
When you’re working on your physical fitness, you schedule workouts throughout the week and spend hours pumping away on weight machines, dumbbells, and cardio equipment. A similar amount of commitment is necessary when you’re practicing positive thinking. But, luckily, your visits to brain gym will be much less intense and time-consuming!
At first, start out by penciling in 5-10 minute blocks of brain gym time, 3-4 times per week. During this time, find a quiet spot to sit and think. Choose any mantra or quote that makes you smile and repeat it aloud throughout your ‘workout’. If you find your thoughts wandering off track, come back to your mantra, smile brightly and say it with certainty. You can compare this practice of positive statements to doing push-ups at the gym - if you complete as many as possible with good form, you’ll quickly build up your power to refrain from negative thoughts.
Plan Opportunities for Real Life Practice
Perhaps you’re wondering how making positive statements while you’re alone will translate to happy thoughts in the real world of traffic jams, angry customers, arguing children, and spilt milk. Well, the honest truth is that it won’t. That is, unless you specifically plan for opportunities to utilize your new skill in typical, real life situations.
There’s a new term being used in the physical fitness world these days: Personal trainers are designing programs to work on clients’ ‘functional fitness’. What this means is that trainers are adding in exercises that mimic the way we use our bodies in the real world. The theory is that lifting, squatting, bending, turning and climbing in typical ways is important for keeping clients fit and able to function during everyday activities.
When you start practicing positive thinking, you’ll need to focus on ways to make your new thoughts functional in your everyday life. The best way to plan for this generalization is to let a friend or family member know about the change you’re trying to make. Tell him or her to purposely try pushing your buttons on occasion so that you have opportunities to practice repeating your positive, calming mantra to yourself.
You can also add your own personal twist by getting yourself into situations that usually bring on stress or irritation. For example, leave a few minutes late for an appointment and practice your mantra while driving in the car. The more practice you have using positive thinking in the real world, the more quickly you’ll benefit from your brain gym sessions.
Reward Yourself for Trying
Just like there is no magic pill for building muscle and shedding fat, pumping up your positive thoughts in brain gym is a process and it takes time to see results. In the beginning, you may need some extra motivation to carve out time for your ‘workouts’ or plan opportunities to practice positive thoughts in the real world. Building in rewards for achieving your goals is very effective and it’s perfectly ok!
Set a pact with yourself at the start of each week: I will record my negative statements for 15 minutes each day. I will spend 10 minutes in brain gym, 3 evenings this week. If my kids start to argue, I will let them go on for 3 minutes while I practice my mantra. And then plan in a reward when you meet your goal. Everyone’s incentives will be different, so choose something that is personally motivating for you. Maybe you’d like to rent a new movie, buy a song for your Ipod or spend some time shopping alone... Write down your plan and your reward each week and then celebrate when you meet each of your goals!