I wrote not too long ago about the Cognitive Triangle which describes the interplay between the way we think, feel, and act. Although we may mistakenly believe that one always influences the other, there is a lot of evidence which shows that in reality, each of these processes actually both affects and is affected by the others. In that post I considered the ways that acting the way we want to feel can lead to a shift in our emotions, which is something I have tried to remember in my day-to-day experiences. But more recently I read about the power of positive thinking on our subjective well-being in Ed Diener and Robert Biwas-Diener’s book Happiness. Although it can sometimes be irritating (to me at least) to hear trite inspirational quotes or cliché admonitions to “look on the bright side,” “see the glass as half full,” or consider “the silver lining,” the research shows that happiness is in fact quite often in our head and the perspective we choose to take.
Diener and Biwas-Diener argue that “positive thinking is not about ignoring negative events or pretending that life is better in the face of adversity. Positive thinking does not magically make things happen nor is an upbeat outlook alone enough to overcome hardship. Rather, positive thinking is a mindset in which you recognize your blessings more than you pay attention to daily hassles.” Realizing that adopting a rosy attitude and “taking captive every thought” is often more easily said than done, they present a useful and practical approach to developing positive thinking patterns which they call the AIM Method. AIM is an acronym “representing the basic components of a positive attitude that are necessary for happiness: attention, interpretation, and memory.”
They highlight the fact that “we can have positive interpretations only of what we are attending to…. we can only decide if the glass is half empty or half full if we are looking at the glass in the first place” Most people have a tendency to pay more attention to the squeaky wheel, the negative events or failures and weaknesses of others and ourselves as opposed to the positive; but what we chose to focus our attention on has a tremendous impact on happiness. I would definitely be one of those who fall into that “most people” category. So a lot of my own Happiness Project has been focused on cultivating habits which force me to notice and consider the good things that happen to and around me. Keeping a gratitude journal, making an effort to give thanks everyday, and deliberating studying marriage and happiness in general have often opened my eyes to how incredibly blessed I am.
When I think of positive thinking, interpretation or reframing is usually what comes to mind. Reframing involves taking a step back to consider what lens or filter we are applying to a particular situation; understanding the underlying assumptions and beliefs that we are employing to infer meaning and then choosing to consider an alternative viewpoint. Our interpretation of an event is colored by our own values, biases, and selective attention, but we can counteract this to a large degree by challenging our thoughts, pointing out inconsistencies, exceptions or evidence to the contrary. One resolution I started back in my month focused on marriage was to “make the positive argument” and it has been helpful to challenge my more immediate negative thoughts and consider alternative explanations.
We have probably all heard of instances which have demonstrated the unreliability of an eye witness to a crime or and experienced firsthand the faulty recollection of a friend or family member due to the selective processes of memory. Just as our interpretation of the same objective event can be completely different from someone else’s, our memories are biased by what we bring to the table. However, positive psychology expert Sonja Lyubomirsky analyzed the memory habits of chronically happy people and found that they had a “tendency to err on the positive side, even treating adversity with humor or mentally emphasizing personal recent progress rather than focusing on problems.” And a lot of recent research has shown that by savoring, or actively enjoying the present and past through focused attention, we can increase our positive affect. I am trying to develop habits in this area through not only journaling, but also one of my major 2018 projects – scrapbooking.
I really like when seemingly aspirational or transcendent ideals like “positive thinking” can be made more practical and tangible. For me, the framework of the AIM method helps to crystalize many of the key components and steps one might take to actually adopt such an attitude. As Diener and Biwas-Diener point out “[although] when most people consider positive thinking, they tend to focus on the interpretation part [and recasting] negative thoughts in a new, shinier light, [they] usually overlook how vitally important attention and memory are to the happiness equation. Positive thinking is more than simply looking on the bright side; successful positivity means paying attention to successes and blessings, and being open-minded to positive explanation of events, as well as recalling the good times.”
One of those good times I was recently reflecting on was my former GROW group community back in Boston. Every week for nearly two years, Jon and I met with a small group of friends from our church which quickly became like family to us. We discussed just about any and every topic together and helped to celebrate the positive or challenge the negative interpretations we were considering. There were some serious and vulnerable moments, but there was never any shortage of laughter, fun, or snacks. And one of the group’s very favorite treats were these Spirulina Bliss Balls. Spirulina is an algae chockfull of nutrients, antioxidants, protein, B-vitamins and more. And it’s out of this world tasty in these energy bites regardless of your level of attention to your health or your interpretation of superfoods. It is a beloved treat which conjures up some of the best memories I have.
- Unsweetened Coconut Flakes 3 TBSP
- Cacao Powder 3 TBSP
- Dried Unsweetened and Unsulfered Apricots 15 Each
- Dates 20 Each
- Smooth Almond Butter .33 cup (85 g)
- Shelled Pistachios .25 cup (30 g)
- Raw Almonds 1 cup (120 g)
- Spirulina Powder 1 TBSP
- Ground Linseed/Flax Seed 2 TBSP
- Soften your dates by soaking in a bowl with water just covering them for at least 30 minutes or up to 2 hours. The longer that you soak, the easier it will be to combine them with other ingredients in your blender or food processor. You can also chop them up into smaller pieces before soaking as well to help with this process. When finished, drain the dates, but save some of the water in the bowl.
- Meanwhile, combine almonds, pistachios, and flax seeds in a high speed blender or food processor and pulse until broken down into a coarse powder, some chunks are fine. If your blender/food processor is not designed to handle nuts you may also chop up beforehand with food chopper or in a plastic bag with a meat pounder.
- Add the dates and apricots to the blender and combine until smooth. The batter will be quite thick, so you may need to stop and stir a few times or add a small bit of the water you used to soak the dates in. Start small only about 1 TBSP at a time as needed.
- Pour all contents into a separate bowl and add all remaining ingredients. Mix very well, using a spatula or your hands to ensure all ingredients are fully incorporated.
- Place the bowl in the freezer for approximately 10-15 minutes to allow the mixture to slightly harden. Then remove and roll approximately 1 TBSP at a time into a small ball between your hands.
- If desired, roll the ball in a thin layer of unsweetened coconut flakes to cover and enjoy!
- You can keep these in the fridge for about 3-4 days or freeze for up to 2 months.