The question is not what you look at, but what you see.
—Henry David Thoreau
In the 1984 movie The Karate Kid, the lead character, Daniel, needs to learn how to defend himself against high school bullies—so he learns karate from Mr. Miyagi.
Mr. Miyagi has Daniel come to his house, and for days has him engaged in repetitive menial chores like waxing his car. Mr. Miyagi instructs Daniel to apply “wax on” to his car in a circular clockwise motion with his right hand, and “wax off” counterclockwise with his left. After days of doing these routine hand movements, he develops a series of defensive blocks through muscle memory. This eventually helps him become a karate champion. Initially, Daniel didn’t understand how essential repetitive learning was going to be to his success.
The ability to transform your thoughts also requires repetition. Just like Daniel in the movie, if you don’t develop a basic discipline for transforming your perception, you can’t improve. However, you will be developing emotional—rather than muscle—memory. You can think of this habit of positivity as “wax on,” whereas preventing the temptation to interpret things as negative is “wax off.” We need both of these basic skills. You can begin by actively looking for things that bring peace and joy.
Overcoming the Landslide of Negativity
The number of thoughts we have per day is reported to be about 6,000. It was previously reported that 80 percent of our thoughts are negative. This leaves most of us with a staggering amount of nearly 5,000 negative thoughts per day. We are creatures of habit and are drawn to the familiar, and if the familiar is negative—negativity will return.
Every time you worry about getting something done on time, paying a certain bill, dealing with a difficult person, or worrying about an upcoming deadline, test, or presentation, a pebble is added to the negative side of the balance. If you repeat the thought—as the research suggests we do—you add another pebble. Rumination becomes a landslide of negativity pebbles on your scale.
Now imagine you have a positive thought and corresponding feeling. A friend is coming to see you on the weekend, and you are looking forward to it, or a long-awaited check came through. The positive thought and feelings would go on the other side of the seesaw.
But, as mentioned, the positive thoughts and feelings wouldn’t be the size of pebbles—or even the size of crushed gravel. They would be feathers you’d be adding to the other side. If the above statistics are true, each day we would put 5,000 pebbles on the one side, and about 1,200 feathers on the other. No contest.
Even if the number of positive and negative thoughts were equal, the negative would still outweigh the positive, due to the negativity bias. Because of this, approaches that only limit the number of pebbles we put on the scale don’t work. Four thousand pebbles rather than five thousand won’t create a shift—we’re still going to relapse. But what if we could bring that number of negative thoughts all the way down to 10? Just 10 pebbles a day. Surely that would make us feel better, yes?
Not necessarily. This is like saying that the bullies are picking on you seven times a day versus two. Yes, this is an improvement—but the situation hasn’t really changed, and you remain at risk. It won’t matter how few pebbles you have on the one side if there isn’t a sufficient volume of feathers on the other to outweigh the anxiety, worry, and negativity.
Research has shown that a primary way you can facilitate resilience (successfully adapting to a challenging experience) is by increasing positivity. Reducing worry, anxiety, and negative thinking alone won’t bring about sustainable change.
Nothing will work until positive thoughts outweigh the negative. Nothing. Please take a moment to realize what this means. Stopping negative thoughts isn’t enough to prevent them from returning. The thought bullies are still going to steal your lunch money until they learn they can’t threaten you. Once they know you aren’t threatened—because you have lots of powerful friends, your positive emotional feathers—they lose power over you. The scientists call this shift toward having more hope, empowerment, resilience, and optimism affect balance, because it is the balance shifting toward more of the positive that will make the difference.
This post is excerpted from the new book The Positivity Effect: Simple CBT Skills to Transform Anxiety & Negativity into Optimism & Hope, by Dan Tomasulo, PhD.
Dan Tomasulo, PhD
Dan Tomasulo, PhD, is a counseling psychologist, speaker, author of several books on positive psychology and mental health, and professor. He is the Academic Director and core faculty at the Spirituality Mind Body Institute, Teachers College, Columbia University. He speaks about alleviating depression with positive psychology and hope all over the world. Dr. Tomasulo holds a PhD in psychology, an MFA in writing, and a Master of Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. He was formerly the Director of the New York City Certification in Positive Psychology for the New York Open Center. Dr. Tomasulo has given talks in on the TEDx stage, at the International Positive Psychology Conference, and at Wholebeing Institute, among others—spreading the word about the power of optimism and hope by relying on our strengths. Find out more at dantomasulo.com.