I was recently working with a client who wanted to stop being overly negative.
We came up with a way for her to build awareness of her negativity. A variation of the no complaint experiment. She would wear a wristband, and every time she complained or was overly negative about something, she would switch it to the other wrist. The goal was to keep it on the same wrist 7 days in a row.
We talked again two weeks later, and she was very surprised at how often she had to switch the wristband. She expected about five times a day. Instead, it was only once every two or three days.
It turns out, she was positive and constructive vast majority of the time.
But because she focused on the instances of negativity so much whenever she thought back to her behaviour, it seemed like a huge part of what she did.
Your remembering self and your experiencing self
When thinking about the concept of “self”, people often mix up two separate concepts. Your remembering self and your experiencing self.
Your experiencing self is the you in the moment. You experience each moment as it comes, feel every second of the sun on your skin, or the uncomfortable chair under your bum.
Your remembering self, on the other hand, is the you of your memories. When you think back to what you did yesterday, that’s all your remembering self.
It’s an interesting distinction, because your remembering self will sometimes choose a situation that will lead to more overall pain and discomfort to you, but leave a less painful memory [1,2]. It’s because your memory doesn’t work as a sum of all the experience you had. Rather, it picks out key points of an experience, like a short photo album. For a painful experience, you will remember mostly the peak pain and the ending. So adding a bit of mild pain at the end of a moderate-pain experience will produce a less painful memory, even though it increases the total amount of pain you experience!
And when you think about who you are, you are simply sifting through your memories. It’s your remembering self that’s in charge of letting you know who you are, and making decisions for the future (as in the above experiments, where subjects chose to repeat the experience that left a less painful memory, even though it involved more pain overall).
In essence, your memories determine who you think you are, and how you think you behave.
Your focus determines your reality
Getting back to my client, because she always focused so much on the times she was being negative, they formed a major part of what she remembered about her behaviour.
And so to her, negativity and complaining formed a large part of her life. Because that’s what she remembered the most.
And the same applies to you.
Whatever you focus on will form a larger part of your memory of yourself. And because your memory is you, as far you’re concerned, you can literally change your life just by focusing on different aspects of it!
Thinking mostly of negative experiences? Your life will be filled with complaining and worry. Thinking mostly of positive times? You will feel optimistic and resourceful.
How to increase your happiness and positivity
I’m sure you understand what I’m saying, by now. You can increase your happiness and positivity by focusing on the more.
You can try doing a gratitude experiment. Or you can try placing a few memorable objects around your home, and pause to think of a positive memory every time you pass them. Or you can ask yourself questions that will get you thinking of times you acted positively.
In fact, try it right now. Close your eyes, and think of 5 happy experiences from the last few days. Times you felt good and happy.
When you’re done with those, think of 5 times when you reacted positively to neutral or negative circumstances. Times like helping a friend, or being ready to look for a solution to a problem when you hear about it, rather than ignoring it.
And if you make this a regular habit, you will find that you will be more positive and happy. Just by changing your focus.
(image courtesy of eflon)
1. Memories of Colonoscopy: A Randomized Trial; Redelheimer, Katz, Kahneman, 2002.
2. When More Pain Is Preferred to Less: Adding A Better End; Kahneman, Fredrickson, Schreiber, Redelmeier, 1993. http://pss.sagepub.com/content/4/6/401.abstract