Optimism improves your social life and motivates you to never give up, which turns failures and setbacks into comebacks and successes. Your thinking habits can make your life a heaven or hell.
Thinking, emotions, and behaviors intertwine very closely and each can change the others. In this chapter, we focus on the importance of our thoughts, how they help or trouble us, and what to do about our counterproductive thought habits. Much of the discussion in this chapter derives from the pioneering work of the great psychologists Aaron T. Beck and Albert Ellis.
Voodoo deaths, faith cures, the placebo effect, and hypnosis all provide dramatic evidence for the power of thinking. Voodoo deaths seem to come from the great anxiety and loss of hope in the cursed person caused by one overwhelming thought, the belief that death inevitably awaits. Faith cures at religious sites or by charismatic healers may come from a newly acquired serenity, acceptance, confidence, and vigor due to belief in the cure that reduces helplessness and allows one to notice small improvements and pay less attention to symptoms or problems. Faith in the cure may help some people to stop gaining sympathy and attention for the sick role. Perhaps believing in the cure reduces anxiety and the experience of pain. Such changes may alleviate an emotional problem or overcome a physical one. Perhaps these improved feelings and behaviors produce beneficial effects on the disease processes themselves.
In the placebo effect, believing someone gave you an effective cure improves emotional or physical problems. Pain and other symptoms often improve when researchers mislead patients by treating them with placebos, inactive imitations of medicines such as sugar pills or injections of saltwater. A new study of prostate symptoms like weak urination documents placebo improvement for two years. Researchers don't understand the placebo effect, but all the possible explanations for faith cures noted above may also apply here.
The placebo effect is so common that all research on the effectiveness of new drugs must compare any improvements to the improvements found in a control group of patients receiving placebos. In many of these experiments, placebos cause strong reactions. Placebos occasionally cause unpleasant side effects: heart palpitations, insomnia, weakness, nervousness, drowsiness, dizziness, dry mouth, headache, nausea, vomiting, rashes, hives, swelling of the lips, constipation, diarrhea, etc. When the patients stop taking the placebo, the side effects disappear. The simple belief that one took a potent drug causes these reactions. Psychologists often take advantage of the placebo effect by giving glowing testimonials about the effectiveness of their techniques, because they know making believers of their clients will result in more cures. Hypnosis, treating people with the power of suggestion, also highlights the power of thinking.
Our thoughts are important to us in many ways. We emphasized certain patterns of thinking in our previous discussions of happiness: acceptance, a focus on good works and virtues, and humor. Our negative and positive thoughts can also cause our expectations to come true, a self-fulfilling prophecy, by affecting how we see things and act. If you attempt a task thinking, "I know I'll mess it up. I can't do anything right," you probably won't feel like trying very hard and you may interpret your progress as unimpressive. This pessimism may lead you to give up, perhaps blaming the poor outcome on your lack of ability or other circumstances. In contrast, if you have hope and optimistically think your efforts will make a difference, you will keep trying for much longer. Positive thoughts such as, "Maybe this will work," motivate you to spend more time thinking and trying various things. These behaviors increase your chances of success.
In many situations, success comes from repeatedly trying and from refusing to give up because of failure. Optimistic people tend to keep working and thinking success will eventually come, but pessimistic people often give up and make their poor expectations come true. One researcher studied 500 incoming freshmen at a university and found a test of optimism predicted their grades the first year better than did either their SAT scores or high-school grades. Perhaps this was because optimistic people tend to stay motivated despite frustrations and failures.
The self-fulfilling prophecy can also operate in your social life. Suppose you go to a social event thinking to yourself things like: "I'm such a bore," "Nobody will like me," "I never make a good impression," and "I'll never make any friends." Thinking pessimistically, feeling inadequate, and fearing inevitable rejection, you will probably talk and mingle very little and never offer invitations. You might even see events in a distorted manner, assuming people hadn't come over to talk to you or they eventually walked away because they didn't like you, or you might assume the man looking at you must think you are weird. Although withdrawn behavior rarely leads to friendships, you may decide making no friends there gives further proof of your dullness.
Alternatively, suppose you go to a social event feeling just as awkward, but telling yourself things like: "Lots of people are nervous at first. Concentrate on being friendly," "Everyone has to get used to rejection," "I don't need to be perfect. Quit worrying and go," and "The more I do it, the smoother I'll be." These thoughts help you mingle and practice your conversation skills. You may not make a friend there, but your thoughts and actions are more likely to lead to a friendship sometime, somewhere.
Our thoughts greatly influence our emotions and personal problems. Negative thoughts are common in bad moods and depression, and positive thoughts go with feeling good and happy. Experiments show spending time thinking about happy, sad, or angry situations often causes these feelings to arise. Consider how bad you would feel if you spent twenty minutes thinking about the worst things people ever said or did to you, the worst times of your life, and all your faults and mistakes. Habitually thinking about negative things tends to drag you down into depression. Angry thoughts make it more difficult to calm down, to see the other person's point of view, and to act in respectful ways. If no negotiation or solution occurs, angry thoughts simply keep us tense, our feelings inflamed, and our mood disturbed. Similarly, upsetting thoughts help cause anxiety, thoughts of needing addictive substances help cause addiction, dwelling on loss helps cause grief, etc.
Changing habits of negative thinking helps a great deal in changing emotions and improving personal problems. Negative thinking is counterproductive, self-defeating thinking that makes you feel worse, see things in a worse light, and act in ways that often interfere with goals. The more you think negatively, the worse you feel. Positive thoughts help you feel better, see things in a better light, and act more sensibly and effectively. Optimistic, hopeful thoughts improve your chances of success in work and social life. Much research suggests optimism in facing losses and failures promotes mental health, whereas pessimism does the opposite.
Let's look at some categories of negative thinking and some positive thought alternatives for each.