Mar 052013 - change how you think

In the past 15 years Psychologists have turned their attention to what makes us happy in life. The research is loud and clear, your thinking has a huge impact on this. This post looks at what the research shows is ‘good’ thinking, what is not and shows an easy way to change how you think.

A group of us were discussing the idea of luck during a workshop I was running. One participant piped up, ‘I not one of those lucky ones, I’ve never been lucky and probably never will.’

It was a typical response from someone who has a pessimistic explanatory style. The bad news for this participant is that his thinking makes him right.

When doing research for a book called ‘The Luck FactorRichard Wiseman discovered that people who considered themselves lucky in one area of their life, were usually also lucky in other areas. This led him to believe that luck is not something that occurs randomly, but instead it’s something that people create through their thinking.

Enter Martin Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology, with a fantastic explanation as to the kind of thinking that creates luck in our lives.

We’ve all heard the terms optimist and pessimist, but what do they exactly mean? Seligman studied the patterns of thinking of hundreds of individuals and noticed that people could explain events in two different ways.

Imagine you’ve thrown a dinner party and the food you’ve cooked has been exquisite. The night was a roaring success and all the guests told you how much they loved it.

If you’re an optimist you might think something along the lines of, ‘Wow I’m a great host and a great cook. I’m sure this party was the start of many great evenings with my friends. And you know what, I’m sure I can use these same skills to turn that work event I’m planning into a huge success as well.’

In other words you’ve built up the event. You’ve made it permanent (you can repeat it), you’ve made it personal (it was YOUR skills that created the success) and you’ve made it universal (you’ve applied it to other areas of your life). As a result you feel great!

If you’re a pessimist your thinking might be a little different. You might say to yourself, ‘That was a fluke. I’ll never be able to re-create that food. There was something in the air that made everyone have fun’.

In other words, you’ve played down the event. You’ve made it temporary (you cannot repeat it), you’ve made it external (you had nothing to do with the success) and you’ve kept it specific (you haven’t applied it to other areas of your life). Chances are it hasn’t given you the same boost that the optimist got.

What about when something negative happens? This is where it gets even more interesting. Seligman found that in a negative event the exact opposite happens.

Let’s imagine you’ve applied for a job and you’ve just received a rejection letter.

An optimist would think something like, ‘It was only one job, they probably needed different skills. I’m sure I’ll do better in my other applications.’

The pessimist might think, ‘This is a disaster. I’m sure I’ll be rejected in my other applications too. I’m just not good enough.’

This time the optimist has made the event temporary, external and specific, while the pessimist has made it permanent, personal and universal. As a result the optimist might shrug the incident off, while the pessimist might end up feeling very disheartened about it.

When we break down the idea of optimism and pessimism in such a way it becomes much easier to see why research shows that optimists do better at work, live longer and report more fulfilling lives.

If you like the sound of this, here’s what you can do to think more optimistically in life.

When something good happens ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What part did I play in making this a success?
  2. How can I apply these skills to other areas of my life?

When something bad happens ask yourself these questions making sure you find reasons to say NO to each question:

  1. Is this permanent?
  2. Is this widespread?
  3. Is this personal?


You might want to follow this line of questioning with:

What specific action can I take to get a better result next time?

Psychologists also recommend that we avoid ‘catastrophising’ negative events. Here are two more questions to help with that.

  1. Will this matter in 5 years’ time?
  2. What are the overall consequences? And why are these not as bad as they seem on the surface?

Hope this post helps you think more optimistically about events that happen in your life.

What current event will you apply this strategy to?

With love




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  15 Responses to “An easy way to change how you think”

  1. Wonderful post Karen! So true as well… we often don’t realise that thoughts are things, and they are just as powerful as actions, i always try to stay mindful of this… very helpful stuff again, THANK YOU! xxx

    • You’re very welcome Traci! I’m really happy you found it useful.

      You’re so right. Thoughts are EXTREMELY powerful and the worst bit is that often we don’t realise they’ve got this power over us either because we don’t notice them or we assume that they are true.

  2. Wow Karen, powerful stuff. It’s one thing to say ‘think positive’ and another to show people how! I will definitely be applying these parameters to my next ‘situation’ to help me gain clarity. Thank you, I’m so glad I found your wonderful site too! :)

    • Thanks so much Sarah! I’m so glad you enjoyed it.

      I love writing about this stuff because it reminds me to do it! :)

  3. So Karen, what do you think of the third wave therapy, Action and Commmitment Therapy (ACT), which stresses the importance of accepting rather than fighting negative thoughts? Through ACT, one learns to be mindful but not attached to one’s thoughts. One acknowledges them intruding thoughts without granting them any special status. So, for example, I find myself saying, “Oh there’s that thought again that I really blew that presentation. Interesting to note how my shoulders start to hunch up at the same time! I will imagine the thought spray painted like graffiti on an urban wall and just keep on walking past.” They explicitly reject the notion of disputing, and I am ready to let it go in most cases and substitute a more mindful, ACT approach.

    • Hi Gayle

      Thanks for your comment. Very interesting question.

      Being mindful of our thoughts is also a great strategy and an important starting point for managing our thinking.

      I think ACT can be very beneficial for someone who has been trained in the practice through undergoing therapy. It also important to be aware when you are exaggerating the negative consequences of a situation. in this case, rather than ‘catastrophising’ the situation, a more optimistic interpretation would be useful.

  4. funny, this post comes at very right time for me. something to keep me optimistic!;-) thx .xxx

    • I’m glad to hear that Ed. It’s amazing how much brighter the world looks with a little shift in perspective. :)

  5. Awesome post Karen. Too good not to share, so I made sure to re-blog as soon as I finished reading it.


    • Thanks so much Sean. I didn’t realise you had started a blog! Will be following eagerly :)

  6. Read it early morning – pretty much half asleep – but very inspiring – this is gonna start my day nicely :-) – Thanks Karen!

  7. brilliant :)

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