Because thinking is effortless, people are oblivious about the importance of controlling what they think, even though that’s the root of happiness.
Imagine swimming in a lake far from shore and you notice something peculiar. Like a bobber attached to a fishing line, your body floats with ease when your thoughts produce the emotions of joy, optimism, and contentment. And you lose buoyancy and start to sink when your thoughts produce the emotions of fear, worry, and anger.
In this “think” or “sink” scenario, you notice that good thoughts are easy to maintain when your body is safely floating. But when all you can think about is keeping your head above water, bad thoughts become increasingly difficult to prevent.
The same thing happens in your everyday life. When all is well, it’s easy to keep your thoughts upbeat and optimistic. But as your disappointments accumulate, your good thoughts turn sour and unless you prevent this, you sink deeper into despair. Then you blame your disappointments for bringing you down when it was really your thoughts.
Here’s an example. A friend recently called me on a Saturday to vent about a medical bill. After satisfying the balance he owed, the hospital charged him an additional $6,000. He was furious about this and worried sick.
Since he couldn’t reach his insurance provider until Monday, I suggested that he stop thinking about the situation and avoid the emotional turmoil he was causing himself. He agreed. Then within minutes, he resumed his tirade, further arousing fear and anger.
No matter how many times I reminded him to regain control of his thoughts, he still didn’t understand that he was at fault for his rise in blood pressure, not his hospital. He called again on Sunday and was still fuming about the same situation.
Rather than take responsibility for controlling his thoughts, my friend chose to think habitually without regard to the emotions he was creating. But now that it’s known that thoughts create the emotions that supply your motivation, it would be irresponsible for an adult to neglect the control of their thoughts.
There are two learning points to be made here:
The vast majority of people don’t make the connection between their thoughts and how well they feel and are able to perform.
Your circumstances don’t cause your emotions, only your thoughts do. And since you can control your thoughts, you have tremendous influence over your emotions. Your circumstances don’t have to be good for you to feel good.
If you wanted to, you could make every day a happier one for the rest of your life. Of course, that assumes you could exercise perfect control over your thoughts, a Herculean feat for many of us, especially in our age of distraction and indulgence. But it remains true that you don’t have to allow your circumstances to dictate which emotions you experience.
You have six opportunities to guard your thoughts and determine your emotional reaction.
Before: In advance of something happening, you have the option to prime the emotions you would like to experience by planning what you’ll think when it happens.
During: In the moment something is happening, you have the option to describe the situation in such a way to create an emotion that might be beneficial to you.
After: After something has happened, you have the option to recap the situation in such a way to guard your emotions, regardless of the outcome.
Don’t Think: You have the option not to think or to suspend thinking about something, to prevent the creation of unwanted emotions.
Let It Go: Even when an unintended thought pops into your head, you have the option not to process it. You simply let it go and avoid creating an emotion.
Rethink: You always have the option to rethink something and replace an unwanted emotion with a helpful one.
Like most people, you probably aren’t concerned about the hazards of uncontrolled thoughts and assume that improving how you think is pointless. Why should you care, since you can already think and have been your entire life?
Now look again at that last paragraph. If you were to process it as a thought, it would create an emotion that motivates you to avoid improving how you think. Without realizing it, you become your own worst enemy. But don’t worry.
You have the option to control your thoughts to make reduce your self inflicted emotional suffering and make each new day happier than the last. You become your own best friend by treating yourself with greater kindness.
Jeff Garton is a Milwaukee-based author, certified career coach, and former HR executive and training provider. He holds a master’s degree in organizational communication and public personnel administration. He is an originator of the concept and instruction of career contentment. Twitter: @ccgarton