Seeing the Trees II: Cultivating Your Positive Attitude

by Elizabeth on January 5, 2012

Trail Marker, by Carbon NYC@flickr

Your attitude is the most important factor in getting you from marker to marker in your life.

If you haven’t read part one, you might want to do that, or the rest of my analogy won’t make a lick of sense.  (Not that I’m not prone to wild flights of analogy anyway, but still…)

The deep sense of knowing that the next marker will be there is the part that allows you to let go of the marker you can see, and head toward the one you can’t quite see yet.  It’s also what keeps you from being a giant stressed-out mess when you can’t see any of the markers in your life, and may even ward off a bear or two.

If you’re not naturally a positive person, which some people aren’t, cultivating that kind of positive mental attitude that underlies so many great things in life can feel a little overwhelming.  Or unimportant.  (Though I’m betting it’s important to you, since you’re here, still reading about my brushes with bears.)  Or like trying to figure out how to play the clarinet when you were born with flippers and no lips.

A whole slew of information exists out there on the internets about cultivating a positive mental attitude.  Like, a ton.  Like, millions of google results from a search, tons.  After looking at the first million or so (possibly exaggerated a bit), there are some threads that run through almost all of the resources, which I’m happy to distill down to three big’uns that may not get you to Perky, per se, but will at least set your toes on the trail to it.

1.  Gratitude

Later on this year, I’m going to dive into gratitude pretty deeply.  Not only is it a factor for a positive attitude, but it’s also pretty key in a bunch of different areas of your life.  Even Oprah gets all hypey about gratitude.  (And I just collectively heard the “back” button by every indie kid that doesn’t like anything that’s mainstream.)

Here’s the thing about gratitude, though:  When you not only have what you want, but want what you have, you’re more likely to appreciate things around you.  And it’s not just things, either.  People.  Situations.  Advantages.  Goals.  Emotions.  If you stop every so often and take an inventory of what’s right in your life, instead of constantly cataloguing everything that’s wrong, you can’t help but be more positive.

You realize how lucky you really are, no matter what else is happening situationally.  And that’s a pretty good base on which positivity can grow.

An Action You Can Take Right Now:
Start a gratitude journal.

It’ll feel cheezy at first.  Prepare yourself.  Don’t get all fancypants or twee about it.  Just write down, somewhere you will remember it every single day, a few things for which you’re grateful.  Things that make your life better, easier, or more rich.  Small things, big things, medium-sized things…doesn’t matter.  Commit to writing down several of them every day.

I’ve been doing this for a few weeks now.  Mine’s just in a ridiculously small, plain little notebook, in fact.  No art, no pretty bits, just paper, a pen, and five things I’m grateful for on that day.

I’ll tell you this, from experience:  There comes a point, a few weeks in, when you start really noticing the little things around  you, and how they enhance your life.  Your lists go from generic (food, shelter, partner, job, whatever) to very specific.  It stops feeling weird, and starts feeling like something you’re looking forward to.

So start a journal tonight.  Now, even.  On scrap paper for today.  I’ll wait while you make your list.

2.  Mindfulness

Next week, we’re going to talk a whole lot about awareness, which is pretty much just mindfulness with another name.  Almost every single resource I’ve read, though, has mentioned “mindfulness” as a key component to baseline positivity.

Without going too in-depth before next week, suffice it to say that being mindful of what’s around you is so simple that most people are prone to overlook it…or they refuse to slow down long enough to make time for it.  A lack of mindfulness leads to tons of disconnection, which then leads to things like eating an entire box of Oreos during an episode of Grey’s Anatomy because you weren’t paying any attention to what was going on with that box-to-mouth action.

An Action You Can Take Right Now:
Set an alarm.

Two or three times a day, set your phone or computer alarm to pop up with a reminder.  For me, that reminder is “TAKE A BREATH”.  Not a literal breath, but a moment to stop whatever I’m doing, look around, and actually see what I’m doing.

Sometimes, the results are surprising.  Sometimes, the interruption is an annoyance.

And sometimes, when you go back to whatever it is that you were doing before your phone started vibrating its fool head off?  You’re aware of the details of what you’re doing, and it goes from automatic action to one where you’re paying attention.  And that’s worth the interruption.

3.  Flow

Of the big three, Flow is the hardest to take any immediate action on, but it also might be one of the most important for positivity.  (Behind “relentless optimism”, which is great, but not all that practical for someone just starting out.)

If you aren’t familiar with the term, Flow is that state you go into when you are totally engaged with something that you’re enjoying.  Y’know how, when you get in a really great conversation with a friend, or you’re working on some kind of creative pursuit or something — and time just disappears?  You’d swear you just sat down, but it’s five hours later and you’re wide awake, fully present, and could probably keep going for another five hours if your insides weren’t threatening to eat themselves since it’s an hour past dinner.

That’s Flow.  That state.  That sense of suspended time and complete engagement.

According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, spending time in that state is a core element of positivity.  It allows your mind to be fully active, and puts you into a state of selflessness that engenders a receptivity to gratitude and optimistic feelings.  There’s a whole book, aptly named Flow, by Csikszentmihalyi, that goes into great detail about the actual physical responses to the state, and if you’re kind of a brain geek, you’d probably love it.  (It was largely greek to me, and I tuned out.  Psychology = not where I find my Flow.)

An Action You Can Take Right Now:
Set a date….with you.

Y es, I know lives are busy, and that there’s not a lot of time for ourselves.  Make some.

Find that thing that makes your time suspend.  Maybe that’s falling into a good book or writing a great book.  Painting or gardening or playing the piano or knitting.  Whatever it is that fully engages you and makes your time just seem to disappear — find the most obvious and the most do-able of those things.

Then pencil in some time for yourself.  Call it a meeting on your public calendar or tell the kids you have a class or something…but block out some time and make it sacrosanct.  Even an hour a week can start improving your baseline positivity.  (More, of course, is better, and Csikszentmihalyi recommends it daily, even.)

Generally speaking, we’re not so good, in today’s world, at taking care of ourselves.

It’s really not all that surprising that we’ve started missing the forest for the trees, what with increased demands on our time and attention all the time.  Whether it’s correlation or causation makes no matter:  our baseline positivity has gone down with the decreased time we have to spend on ourselves.

If we want to get that back, or grow it where we don’t think it naturally exists, we have to take the small actions that lead us not only to healthier selves, but to more positive ones, as well.

After all, the next trail marker’s just up the road. Are you ready to let go of the one you can see in order to get to the one that’s ahead?

Come on over to the forum and tell me how these are working for you.  Are you finding any challenges in working on your attitude this week/in general?  I’d love to hear what you’re doing.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

lori January 6, 2012 at 4:28 am

I’m setting that mindfulness alarm right now!

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