Perception is subjective, and we can change it. Changing how you see events is key to improving well-being. What follows is a list of practical techniques to do it. Thought patterns are habits, and like any habit, changing perception will take time and effort until better habits form.
Practice Mindfulness + Negative Visualization
Mindfulness combined with negative visualization lets one realize that things are often wonderful.
Mindfulness is noticing right here, right now. Not your situation, your state of relationships, or your career. Where are your hands? What does the room look like? How are you breathing? What do you hear? These things, this moment, are all that is real. And right now, there are no problems. The rest is pattern and memory.
You might feel some strong emotions bubble up as you connect with the present. This is normal. Accept these feelings.
Negative visualization means to imagine yourself in scenarios less preferable than now, then acclimate yourself to them. Its purpose is to create gratitude for the things we take for granted. If it was always night, would you be okay? You would: You could live a happy life in such a world. Yet we have the gift of sunlight, and it is beautiful.
Combine mindfulness and negative visualization to feel immense gratitude for the way things are.
Forget everything else. Keep hold of this alone and remember it: Each of us lives only now, this brief instant. The rest has been lived already, or is impossible to see. The span we live is small—small as the corner of the earth in which we live it. Small as even the greatest renown, passed from mouth to mouth by short-lived stick figures, ignorant alike of themselves and those long dead.
—Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
Accept Things That Aren’t In Your Control
Acceptance means embracing things without judging them or trying to change them. Accepting an outcome and preferring an outcome are not the same. The goal is not to feel happy about events, it is to feel at peace with them.
Epictetus taught that things are either in our control or not, and suffering comes from trying to change things outside of our control.
Things that aren’t in your control:
- The past, including past actions.
- The present, including your own state. The present is already here, and cannot be influenced. You can only react.
- Actions, thoughts, and feelings of others.
- The final outcome of events.
You may influence these things, but you do not have control over them. Once something has happened, wanting it to be different amounts to trying to change the past.
Identify Cognitive Distortions
Cognitive distortions are errors in reasoning that cause emotional pain, and are a major cause of depression. Identifying and challenging them will lead to increased happiness.
David Burns identifies 10 cognitive distortions in his book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy:
- All-or-Nothing Thinking: You view things in absolute, black-and-white categories.
- Overgeneralization: You view a negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.
- Mental Filter: You dwell on the negatives and ignore the positives.
- Discounting the Positive: You insist that your positive qualities don’t count.
- Jumping to Conclusions: You jump to conclusions not warranted by the facts.
- Mind reading: You assume that people are reacting negatively to you.
- Fortune telling: You predict that things will turn out badly.
- Magnification/Minimization: You blow things out of proportion or shrink them.
- Emotional Reasoning: You reason from your feelings: “I feel like an idiot, so I must really be one.”
- Should Statements: You tell yourself what you “should” do, or “have to” do.
- Labelling: Instead of saying, “I made a mistake,” you say, “I’m a jerk” or “I’m a loser.”
- Blame: You find fault instead of solving the problem.
- Self-blame: You blame yourself for something you weren’t entirely responsible for.
- Other-blame: You blame others and overlook ways you contributed to the problem.
All of these logical fallacies. Realizing these ways of thinking make no sense lets us not take them seriously. On a related note:
Stop Taking Your Mind Seriously
Your internal monologue evolved over thousands of years to warn you of dangers. Fifteen thousand years ago, a content human was a dead human.
You are not your mind. Your mind is a helpful tool, but it has limitations. It sometimes operates on principles that no longer apply.
Notice Emotions and Their Influence, but Don’t Fight Them
Practice acceptance towards emotions we already feel. They are part of the present. Notice how they loop back to influence your perception and thoughts, drawing our attention to related things, which generate still more of that emotion. Through awareness of the influence of our emotions, we counteract it. When we become aware of the feedback loop, we block it, allowing that emotion to dissipate on its own.
But when we fight the emotion, we stop it from running its course. This makes the emotion last longer, and it generates secondary emotions about the first emotion, creating a downward spiral. Emotions are often short-lived when we don’t interfere with them.
Books Mentioned in this Article
- Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor and a student of Stoicism. He wrote Meditations for his private use. Its wisdom has stood the test of time, and is more applicable today than ever. Book two is the start of the good stuff. There are many translations, and I chose my favorite above. There is also a free version, but I do not prefer the translation.
- Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David Burns. This book is the most recommended self-help book by therapists. The book is clinically proven to be as effective as professional therapy.