“What do you do to try and think more positive about life?”

Last week I received a text from a friend of mine. She said simply this: “What do you do to try and think more positive about life?” She then said I should take my time to answer, and my answer could be as short and simple, or as long and convoluted, as I liked. There was no context, and no indication of what was prompting her to ask for this advice. There was just the question.

I reproduce here the response that I wrote for her and emailed to her the next day. Besides removing one reference to her by name, I’ve left it exactly as I sent it to my friend. She tells me it was a helpful response. I hope other people will find it helpful too.

 

What do you do to try and think more positive about life?

Well. I don’t have a simple answer. But I’ll try to express the wisdom that works for me. The first thing I’d say is this: thinking more positively about life is a thing that needs to be happening on a deep level if it is going to make much difference. There is thinking on the surface, which is the conscious, constant stream of thoughts we all have rushing along on the surface of our minds. Thinking on this level is so mutable and so undisciplined that it’s very easy for any change we make in it to just be swept away by the next tide of thoughts. But there is a different, deeper level of thinking, which most of us usually don’t even notice. Beliefs, assumptions, and attitudes run deep in our minds, like a slower, stronger current running underneath the rapid surface tumble. They do count as thoughts, because they are different from feelings: these are ideas about life, about what it is and how it works, that you have running deep in your mind. If you want to change the way you think about life, the change needs to happen here. Change only the surface currents, and the ongoing motion of the deep currents will push away whatever you’ve changed on the surface. But change the deep currents, and the surface currents will change on their own.

Most of us have ideas running at the deep level which say, in one way or another, that life is not good. One such idea might be, other people cannot be trusted. Or, there will not be enough for me to get by in life (enough opportunity, enough money, whatever). Or, I am not a good person. Or, I am not a likeable person. Or, I am not a lovable person. Or, I don’t know how to live well. Or, the world is a bad place.

Whatever form they take, most of us have these deep ideas. Some of us have fewer of them than others. In some of us, these ideas are much stronger than they are in others. But all ideas running in the deep currents of our minds have a profound influence on the way we see the world and the way we live our lives. When one or two of the “bad ideas” form a strong part of the current, we understand the world less well, and we live our lives less well. I think mentally and emotionally unhealthy people are very often people whose deep currents are dominated by bad ideas. Mentally and emotionally healthy people are very often people whose deep currents contain very few bad ideas.

So if you are to think more positively about life, you need to hold more positive ideas about life on a deep level. The question that arises now is, how do you change your deep thoughts?

This is less easy. Here, I am less sure of my answers. I think there is usually no single decision or action you can take that will accomplish it. I think it can only be done by sustained effort. For a start, I do believe that one crucial thing here is self-awareness. Or to put that another way, I believe that it becomes more easy to change your ideas at a deep level if you are living more consciously. When you move through your life without thinking much about what you are thinking and doing, without noticing and considering your own responses, reactions, and choices, then the deep currents in your mind have no reason to change. This is what it means, I think, to live the unexamined life. Now, living the unexamined life is one thing that nobody could accuse you, [my friend], of doing. I think you and I are already people who are quite aware and reflective of ourselves. So what we are talking about here is not just being aware of why we are making the choices that we make, and why we are doing the things that we do. We are talking about exerting pressure on the deep currents of our minds – pressure that would force them into different channels. I believe you can apply this pressure by consciously questioning and challenging yourself. I think you have to try to be aware, first of all, of what your deep thoughts are, and which of your basic ideas and attitudes about life are negative or unhealthy. Then, try to become aware of how your actions are shaped by these deep ideas. Try to notice when you do something, or say something, or choose something, for a reason that arises from a deep, bad thought. The more you become aware of how your choices are being directed by unhealthy ideas, the easier it becomes, I believe, to make different choices, to begin to act in accordance with different principles.

This can be much easier, I think, when we experience certain special moments that offer us a natural clarity. I’ve had these moments, and I’m sure you’ve had them too. They are moments when we suddenly feel we grasp essential truths, when we are not bound by our inhibitions, when we feel an exaltation that arises simply from being aware of how good life is. It’s like you’re lifted out of yourself and for a brief time you can see everything from a higher place. Maybe a book or a film has led you to this moment. Maybe it occurs because you’ve spent time with a particular person, or had a particular conversation. The point is, you have a moment of greater natural awareness and healthiness. You are like a seal coming up to breathe through a hole in the ice. I think it’s important to seize this moment. It offers you the opportunity to directly and consciously decide to change something fundamental in yourself. This is a moment when it is suddenly easier not only to see where you have been thinking wrong, but to choose to think differently. You have a short window in which you can make some dramatic re-arrangements in your mental furniture. Try to hang on to the clarity and happiness as long as possible. Try to take the chance to permanently redirect your thoughts into different channels. The better you seize this chance, the healthier you can become. And the healthier you are, the more often you will have these moments, and the more often you will be given this chance.

So. I don’t know how much help this is. Your question is a question I’m still trying to figure out myself. But what I’ve said here is what I believe I have discovered to be true, so far. I hope I’ve offered you something of value you can take away from it.

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