What’s your story? When positive thinking works

This post is inspired by a book I read on holiday recently – Derren Brown’s Happy. In this book, Derren talks about ways we can change our mindset in order to feel more content, and builds on the Stoic principle that it is how we feel about events which causes them to affect us, not the events themselves. For example, we might worry about an upcoming presentation, getting ourselves really worked up and thinking of all the ways we could embarrass ourselves – tripping over, stumbling over our words, failing to hold the attention of the audience. The presentation becomes a source of dread. However if we were instead to put aside our worries and focus on preparing our slides we might feel more in control, and a whole lot calmer about the situation. Or alternatively noticing a scratch on our car could make us angry, wishing harm to come to the perpetrator and causing us to spend the whole day in a bad mood, being grumpy with others which makes us feel worse. Whilst to someone else this would be a minor annoyance, and not affect the rest of their day at all. So the same event can affect us differently, depending on how we feel about it, and our internal narrative.

In his book, Derren is unconvinced of the advice often given in popular modern self-help books, which state that we can achieve anything we want through the power of positive thinking. Want a promotion? All you need to do is think positively enough about it, convince yourself you’ll get one and the universe will reward you. If it doesn’t work out? Well you just weren’t thinking positively enough. This example seems fairly harmless, but what about when people with a serious illness are told they need to ‘think positive’ to help them get better? When of course some people don’t get better it is as though it is their fault, for not being positive enough.

keep-calm-and-think-positive-42

However, he points out a type of positive thinking which can be useful, especially when it relates to our internal narratives, that is the stories we tell ourselves about our past. Some people are always lucky, others pride themselves in being hardworking, whilst some are always being hard done by. But is someone who thinks of themselves as lucky really lucky all of the time?   Our internal narratives are often affected by something call ‘confirmation bias’ – that is, we recognise all evidence which correlates with the theory we have about ourselves, and ignore anything to the contrary. So in the example of someone who thinks of themselves as lucky, they remember the one time they won first prize on a raffle, but forget that every week they play the lottery without reward, or all the other times where luck has failed them.

The affects of our internal narrative can be illustrated nicely by the following experiment, first done by Charisse Nixon at Penn State Erie University. To start, all you need to do is complete these 3 easy anagrams. They shouldn’t take very long, so if you haven’t solved it after 5 seconds, just move on to the next one. Here they are:

WHIRL

5 seconds.. if you don’t get it just move on.

SLAPSTICK

Again, 5 second limit..

CINERAMA

 

How did you do?

In this experiment, half the people in the room were given the same 3 anagrams to solve as those shown above. The other half were given the words TAB and LEMON instead of WHIRL and SLAPSTICK, but the last word, CINERAMA remained the same. Here’s the trick: the first two words that you were shown above were unsolveable (sorry), whereas the ones given to the other half of the people in the experiment were easy. Participants were asked to raise their hand when they’d solved each anagram, so of course the ones given BAT and LEMON raised their hands straight away. And this is the interesting bit – did you solve the last anagram, CINERAMA? The chances are you didn’t, and this was also the case for the participants in the experiment who had received that list of words too. Interestingly, most of the participants given the first two easy anagrams solved this last one without a problem. Whilst the first half had given up, thinking they were worse at this task than their peers, these participants were confident, having already completed two anagrams easily. So more of them were able to solve the last one too.

The phenomenon illustrated by this experiment is called ‘learned helplessness’. The participants given the unsolvable anagrams struggled with the task, whilst they saw their peers complete it easily. This caused them to feel like a failure, that this was something they weren’t very good at. And as a result, they were more likely to fail the last part of the task. This experiment shows the importance of your internal narrative and how it can affect different aspects of your life. If you’re interested, here’s a video showing this experiment in action.

As Derren says, the good news is that we are free to change our stories. They are concocted by us, and we have the power to alter our them – we don’t have to play out the same role every time.

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