Neuroplasticity. There’s a word you don’t hear every day. Unless you’re a neuroplasticity expert I guess. What does it mean? It means that your thoughts can change the physical structure and function of your brain. Sounds like hocus pocus? Sure, but advances in behavioural science have all but proven this theorem a biological fact.
“Watch your thoughts, they become words; watch your words, they become actions; watch your actions, they become habits; watch your habits, they become character; watch your character, for it becomes your destiny” – Lao Tzu
As little as 25 years ago, it was uniformly believed that the brain is developed in utero, rigidly mapped out in infancy and then locked in position until the end of life.
However, recent neuroscientific research reveals that the brain is malleable. It is endlessly adaptable and dynamic with the power to physically change its own structure and rewire itself by forging new neural pathways.
How is this possible? With each thought, a synaptic connection in the brain is either formed or strengthened. A synapse is a microscopic space between our brain cells (neurones). Our neurones communicate by releasing chemicals (neurotransmitters) that are delivered to other neurones via a synaptic transmission. The process is known as “neurone firing” and it is how the brain talks to itself.
This dialogue that takes place within our noggin, our internal commentary, influences our words, actions, habits, relationships and ultimately, in the words of Lao Tzu, the destiny of our lives.
When neurones communicate frequently, the synaptic connection between them forges a more efficient pathway meaning that messages travelling along the same route over and over become faster. With enough repetition, messages become automatic.
It’s how we learn. It’s why we practice guitar chords or kicking a ball – with enough repetition these things become second nature. For a long time, psychologists have been aware that negative thoughts follow this same pattern. The more we dwell on a negative thought, the more negativity becomes entrenched in our mindset.
Unfortunately, negative thinking is a hard-wired default mentality that harks back to our hunter gatherer days of yore. It is to ensure survival by warding off disaster. This ingrained seed of negativity causes a dark ripple that clouds our outlook and we tend to revert to always looking at what is wrong with the world or expecting the worst.
The good news is that we can make a conscious choice to change it. By focusing on positive thoughts and experiences we can literally rewire our brain by firing up the neuronal circuitry involved in happiness and well-being (it’s called self-directed neuroplasticity). Many studies confirm the correlation between positive thinking and success. Fantastic! How on earth do we do it?
Rewire Your Brain for Positive Thinking
The first step is awareness. You have to become aware of your thoughts by observing them, assessing them and divvying them up between those which are negative and those which are positive. You may be surprised by just how many of the latter you discover are hardwired into your subconscious thinking. Time to weed those negative thoughts out of your head.
Stop the Flow of Negative Thoughts!
One of the easiest ways to recognise negativity in yourself is to identify it in others and then compare yourself against that. There are different ways to do this, it could be observing someone complaining and questioning the purpose or productivity in it.
One of the easiest ways I find is social media. Visit the comments boards of any mainstream publication and you’ll witness an unadulterated, uncensored, unrelenting stream of soul crushing negativity, pessimism, hostility, hate and abuse that makes George Orwell’s Two Minutes Hate seem like an exuberant festival of joy.
By simply witnessing this overwhelming wave of vitriol, it’s very easy to identify how the subconscious default of most people is to unleash a staggering barrage of negativity when prompted or at the slightest opportunity.
By taking a step back, it can be morbidly amusing to observe. But by asking one simple question: “Are any of these comments making the situation any better?” You can easily recognise the pointlessness of negative outbursts. That’s a pretty sure fire way for me to distance myself from negative thinking and embrace positivity on the rebound, but you need to find what works for you.
Initially, it probably isn’t going to be easy to stop the flow of negative thoughts, but take it one step at a time and you’ll gradually start to notice a shift in your mood and outlook.
Gratitude, Posture, and Smile Like You Mean It
There are a few ways in which you can shift your focus away from negativity. One of them involves reminding yourself each day of the things you are grateful for.
Be grateful for the fact that you have a job, that you get to sleep in a bed each night, for having a healthy body that lets you experience life each day, for the people that love and care for you, for your skill sets or talents, for the things you enjoy etc.
Another method is posture. If you’re struggling to move your mind into a more positive frame, try exuding it through your body instead. Standing up straight, shoulders back, chin held high, all powerful expressions that make you feel confident, emboldened, purposeful and positive.
Finally, smile more. This simple gesture is a mood changing switch. If you’re finding that smiling at things isn’t working, laugh at them instead. In this day and age of hypersensitivity where everyone is running around actively seeking out things to be outraged by, go against the grain and … don’t get offended instead.
Ditch the Glum and Grouchy Grumps
Imagine entering an empty room that is then populated with 10 people who are confident, vibrant and outgoing. How are you going to feel? Confident, vibrant and outgoing most likely. Imagine those people are replaced with 10 pessimistic individuals who moan persistently. How do you feel now? Has your mood changed? You’ve probably become a bit grumpy and miserable in this new company.
The company you keep is important because it has a rub on effect. We all know that one person who is larger than life, whose energy is infectious, whose confidence seems to give anyone around them a warm glow. We like those people because we like how they make us feel about ourselves. Trying to be miserable and negative around one of these people is hard work because they’re just so darned spritely and uplifting.
If you surround yourself with people who are constantly complaining or who feel negatively, you’re going to find it a real slog to have a positive frame of mind. You’re going to get trapped in negativity and it’s going to drag you down. Instead, you need to be in the company of people who encourage your happiness.
If you find it hard to distance yourself from negative people because you’re too close to them … just tell them to read this article and hopefully, they can be your companion on the path to a more positive mindset.
On this point, use your new positive outlook on others. Share your wealth of positivity with the world. For example, if you have a colleague who exudes negativity by being rude or curt, respond with kindness and politeness. If someone marches into your office abruptly asking where the report is you were supposed to send them, just say: “Hello, good morning, how was your evening?”
Being polite in the face of someone being rude is an incredibly effective way of disarming them. If you demonstrate to people around you that you’re positive, they’ll be less likely to be negative towards or around you.
Believe that a Positive Attitude is a Choice
Ever found yourself blaming everyone else for your misery? It was your parent’s fault, it was your bosses fault, it was God’s fault, it was the government’s fault. While on occasion this might be the case, it doesn’t help you to be positive by blaming everyone else for your circumstances. Don’t worry about the things you cannot control, focus on the things you can by asking yourself:
“Has anything I’ve done made my life any better?”
If the answer is “no”, think about what action you can take that will improve your life. Make it a plan, make it a project even. Write it down and work on it. Every. Single. Day.
Similarly, choose to be confident. Don’t beat yourself up over what you can’t achieve and focus on what you can by asking yourself:
“If fear wasn’t a factor, what could I accomplish?”
To borrow from a sporting brand’s most famous marketing slogan: Just Do It.
Finally, look for the positive in every situation. Remember that every cloud has a silver lining. Even if you have one of those days where everything goes horribly wrong, force yourself to look really hard at the positives you can draw from it and simply leave all the bad stuff behind. Dump it. You don’t need it. It isn’t going to do anything for you but weigh you down. Just, let it go and remember, even bad experiences are a learning curve. Treat them accordingly.
Do Something Good and Be Optimistic!
Make your colleague a cup of tea. Go on a charity sponsored run. Buy your wife some flowers. Doing good things makes us feel, well, good! If you want to feel good more often, it stands to reason that you should do good things for people more regularly. They feel good. You feel good. Everyone’s a winner. Heck, do good things for people all day and you’ll really harvest a winning environment. Buy people cake, fix their computer for them, smile at them, say “good morning” to them, hold the door open for them, tell them they look fantastic. They’ll love you for it and you’ll love yourself for it too.
Optimistic people have improved moods over pessimists. They also tend to be more persevering, successful and enjoy better physical health. Negative thinking actually slows down brain coordination, making it difficult to process thoughts and find solutions. So don’t be like Mr Pessimist, be like Mr Optimist.
Be Motivated and Alert
Neurological changes are more likely to be stronger when the brain is in the mood for it. If you are “on the ball” so to speak, your brain is more receptive to releasing the neurochemicals necessary for change to happen. When disengaged, inattentive, distracted or doing something monotonous, your neuroplastic switches are off.
Thankfully, hard work pays off. The harder you try, the more motivated you are, the bigger your brain change will be. By being intensely focused on a task and really trying to master it, the change experience will be greater.
So part and parcel of this positive mindset is an overarching positive lifestyle. For your brain to change, you have to have it in good shape to absorb, accept and implement the desired change. This means getting a good night’s sleep, exercising, having a healthier diet. The whole nine yards. If you truly want to have a default positive mentality, it’s about more than just thinking happy thoughts, it’s a whole lifestyle shift, and the sooner you start, the sooner you’ll start to reap the benefits. So get started.