2 Attitudes to Increase Hopefulness in Your Life

Each year we experience an oceanic feeling of hope. On New Year’s eve and New Year’s day there is a proliferation of good wishes for a happy new year. One friend describes this as an overdose of ‘wish upon a star, fortune cookie wisdom’. The question is how do we maintain a sense of hope when the euphoria wears off? In this post I explain how we can create a sense of hopefulness by changing two key attitudes.

Positive Psychology over ‘positive thinking’

It is through out attitudes that we explain and shape our perception of the world. So we don’t have to rely on the fleeting euphoria inspired by the symbolism of a brand new start from a brand new year. This is not the deluded philosophy of ‘positive thinking’ that tells us that we create our world through our thoughts. Instead it is the rooted in evidence-based positive psychology. The former is based on a philosophy, the latter is an academic discipline.

How you explain the world shapes your experience of the world

In Learned Optimism, Martin Seligman argues that we maintain our sense of optimism and pessimism through an explanatory style, that is, the way we explain positive and negative events in our lives,

The two attitudes related to hopefulness are:

  1. Making it permanent – it’ll never end (permanence)
  2. Making it pervasive – it affects everything (pervasiveness)

Recipe for Hopefulness

  • Negative Outcomes: When faced with negative outcomes to events instead of jumping to the premature/automatic conclusion that the situation is never going to end / change and it affects all aspects of your life. Instead, balance out the negative default conclusion by looking for explanations that emphasize the temporary nature of the situation and take stock of other areas of your life not affected by it. For example, don’t think of a bad day at work as the beginning of the end. You may just have been tired rather than ‘all washed up’. If you get knocked back after asking someone out on a date, it’s more likely that you are just not their type or they are not looking to get involved. The aim is to look for a specific explanation rather than a universal one. It’s important not to go beyond the evidence.
  • Positive Outcomes: When things go well, the tendency sometimes is to write-off such outcomes as flukes and exceptions to the rule. Instead look for explanations that emphasize things can be enduring and may well spill over into other areas of your life. So rather than writing things off to luck, take stock of the things that you did to bring about the positive results. When someone does accept your invitation it’s not because they are weird, it maybe because they see you have something to offer.

By adopting these hopeful attitudes we embrace the possibility that bad things may get better and good things can endure.BooK: Don't Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . . Swim Out to Meet It by Dr Gary Wood It’s not a Pollyanna-rose-tinted glasses approach, rather it balances out a social and cultural bias.We talk about bad news coming in threes but don’t seem to have a standard multi-pack for good news. We are encouraged to indivualize problems rather than to consider social injustice and social inequalities. There is a bias to self-blame.

Keeping a ‘hope’ journal

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodA helpful way to ensure that we adopt and maintain hopeful attitudes is to keep a journal. It’s also a key strategy that I recommend for getting the most from a self-help book. Hope needs to be nurtured and it’s more difficult to do so purely in our heads. It helps if you can see things in black and white. Like everything else in psychology, the more we practise things, the more deeply ingrained they become. The journal becomes a useful resource in less hopeful times.

Hope is a precursor to courage and confidence building. All begin with a change of attitudes.

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So How Did You Get This Far? Solution Focused, Strengths Focused Learning

If you got 40% and passed a test, what would be your first question? Would it be:

  1. What happened to the other 60%, or
  2. What did I do to pass and get 40%

If it’s answer 1, then you’re taking a ‘weakness focused’ approach.

If it’s answer 2, you’re taking a ‘strengths focused approach’

Personal development often focuses on improving weaknesses but there’s a body of research that argues a ‘strengths-based’ approach is more effective. In short, we can’t all be fabulous at everything.To attempt to do so would require massive effort. It’s more economical to invest more time in what we are already good at, so we can specialize and excel (we can then manage the weaknesses).

I remember hearing of a child who arrived home with a staggering 96% on a maths test. The response of one of the parents was ‘What happened to the other 4%?’ Whereas they should have be celebrating the 96%. The questions they should have asked are:

  • What did you do to get that result?
  • Was there anything that you really think helped that you can do more of next time?
  • What strengths and qualities helped you get this far?
  • What did you do differently this time?
  • Is there something that you use to do that you stopped doing this time?
  • What can you let go of that didn’t help?
  • What else did you do?
  • What else?

With the strengths focused approach you concentrate on what you have already attained and then build on it, whether it’s 96%, 57%, 40% or 22%. This makes sense as it is the same approach we use with babies. After witnessing a baby’s first step, surely you wouldn’t dream of saying ‘And why didn’t you run around the coffee table?’ No, you’d praise them, encourage them to try again and focus on how they managed to take that first step. Now think about the staggering amount that babies manage to learn in a very short space of time.

You can apply the same to any goal you’ve set and tried for. If you didn’t get that 100% result, try focusing on what you have actually achieved and how you got there. Using the above questions you will use the feedback to build on strengths. If you obsess over what you didn’t get, you’ll probably lose motivation and give up! So go back and review previous attempts at goals and apply the strengths-focused questions. You have everything to gain.

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Don’t Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . . Swim Out To Meet It!

Oh No They Can’t! Oh Yes They Can! Self-Help Mantras With Evidence-Based Psychology Can Help!

Self-help affirmations are a common techniques designed to improve a person’s sense of worth but many self-help books offer the technique in uniformed and uncritical way. Unfortunately our inner critic is not so forgiving. So, if you endless repeat ‘I am a gifted, lovable, dynamic, outgoing person’ over and over again your inner critic may just respond each time ‘No you’re not! NO you are not!! NO YOU ARE NOT! NO YOU ARE @&%*ING WELL NOT!’ So, it’s no surprise that new research has found that low-self esteem felt worse after repeating positive statements about themselves. However, ‘let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater’. As welcome as this research is, affirmations can still be helpful if you use them in line with evidence-based psychological insights. Let’s look at why and how.

As I explain in Don’t Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . . Swim Out To Meet It, the problem is that many self-help gurus do not have even a fundamental understanding of attitude change, although many have recognised that the over-blown affirmations do not work. If you’ve ever had a conversation with a negative person and tried to offer suggestions you will know why. Invariably your attempts will be met with ‘yes but, yes but, yes but’. As we know ‘yes but means no!’. It’s like aiming ‘well intentioned missiles’ at the Starship Enterprise when the deflector shields are up. You ain’t gonna get through!

The secret is to recognise that attitude change is often a slow and subtler process. If we combine the psychology of attitudes with some Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Solution Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) and insights from Positive Psychology then we do have a recipe for change. All of these already drawn on a body of research whereas the ‘repeat things you don’t believe’ approach, does not!

The secret is to use small incremental steps that are difficult to disagree with. Focus on continual improvement. So for instance, compare these two statements:

  1. I am a lovable person
  2. I am becoming a more lovable person

Statement 2 is still not perfect but it is not so easily discounted as statement 1. Furthermore, statement 1 is most likely cancelled out by the existing statement running over and over in a person’s head, which says ‘I am an unlovable person’. This has already set up a perceptual filter that looks for evidence to support this statement and filter out anything to the contrary. This how negative attitudes and stereotypes are maintained. Statement 2 can easily be tagged on as a ‘but’:

  • I am an unlovable person BUT I am becoming a more lovable person

So if you are running negative statements, what you need to do first is spot them and use a method to cancel them. Just saying ‘Cancel’ makes the process more conscious. You can then substitute a ‘becoming’ statement.

Another technique is to add an ‘up until now clause’ which opens up the possibility of change. For instance:

  • I’m crap at maths

This becomes:

  • Up until now I’ve been crap at maths

Now add the ‘but’:

  • Up until now I’ve been crap at maths but I’m improving

After you’ve used this for a while, your inner critic is  much more likely to be receptive to the affirmation:

  • As I work at it, my maths is improving

Whereas, ‘I’m fantastic at maths’ is likely to be met with the immediate response: ‘No you’re not, you’re as thick as pig sh*t’!’ Clearly, your inner critic recognises the lie and tells you so and you end up feeling worse. To make progress you need to write affirmations that are unlikely to be rejected.

It’s only really possible to scratch the surface in this post, but hopefully I’ve demonstrated that it’s not self-help affirmations that are at fault, it’s how they are written. Knowledge of evidence-based psychology of attitude change (and therapeutic techniques) can help us to structure statements, that slowly peel back the defences.

One of the main motivations for writing ‘Don’t Wait. . . Swim Out‘ was to dispel self-help myths and put some evidence-based insights back into equation. Here’s a short video that explains more about my approach to affirmations and turning that inner critic into an inner coach:

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Going for Your Goals or Going with the Flow

We often talk about ‘going with the flow’ as an indication that we are flexible and relaxed individuals who make the best of what comes our way. And it’s true, ‘going with the flow’ can sometimes be a good thing. ‘Digging our heels in’ and resisting change can be stressful, especially when the change is inevitable.However, taken to its extreme ‘going with the flow’ could mean that rather than ‘taking the plunge’ we let ‘life wash over us’.

‘Flow’ is a concept discussed by Positive Psychology by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (pronounced ‘Chick-sent-me-high’). For him, to be ‘in flow’ is a definition of happiness. Flow is that state when we ‘lose ourselves’ in the moment with some activity. We lose sense of time and hours pass and seem like minutes. We are totally captivated by the experience. When we set goals to increase the amount of time we are ‘in flow’, we also increase our personal happiness.

Increasing ‘flow’ and therefore happiness is one of the main themes running through my self-help book Don’t Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . . Swim Out To Meet. In keeping with the aquatic theme of the book, I offer the GO-FLOW model of goal-setting, which is a development of the GROW model.

  • Goal – clearly and specifically stated (with a time frame)
  • Observation – observing opportunities, reality and choices
  • Feelings – checking your feelings, perceptions, emotions and attitudes to the goal.
  • Limitations or Let-downs – considering the personal and situational limitations for this goal, how you can counter them or work around them, and how you will deal with the let-downs.
  • Options – considering all possible options of achieving the same outcome
  • Will – that is, I will do it.

Bear in mind that goals shouldn’t be too easy as we’ll become bored and lose motivation. Without being totally out of our reach, goals should stretch us without overwhelming us, that way we are more likely to be ‘in flow’. So on to the pitfalls.

Two of the most common stumbling blocks when goal-setting are:

  1. Carrying on regardless when the approach is unlikely to succeed with adjustments
  2. Giving up prematurely.

The key to overcoming both of these is how we use feedback. If we don’t succeed the first time or with only limited success it’s most likely that the goal needs a tweak. With the new information that ‘what you’re doing isn’t working’, review the GO-FLOW process to see if you can diagnose the problem or make an amendment.Think of it as going back and checking for leaks. It sometimes takes a few attempts before we get a watertight action plan.

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