Mid-way through January and many people have realised that their New Year resolutions haven’t done much to change their habits and behaviours. Add a dose of Blue Monday-itis and suddenly the need to change something, anything, seems to be a goal of both paramount importance and near impossibility.
The focus of the on-going media debate about our collective state of mind remains on what people are doing. And whether they are doing more or less of it.
Visiting the gym, or parents, or museums.
Exercising, eating or drinking.
The over-riding premise is that if we change the frequency of these activities, we will change how we feel about the world. We will be happier.
Already many resolutions have been discarded, adding to the pile of what psychologists call ‘accumulated failure experiences’. Those resolutions that do survive have likely become an epic struggle – a test of our determination and motivation far beyond the initial intention.
Neither outcome will be doing much to help us feel better about the world.
Which makes me wonder if we’re not collectively looking in the wrong place for a greater sense of well-being.
Rather than focusing on what we do and how we act, might we be better advised to focus on what we think? Or more specifically, how we think?
Becoming aware of the thought-patterns that govern our perception of the world, and the stories we constantly tell ourselves, can be a powerfully transformative experience.
For example, there are seven thinking traps in to which we all fall at some point. They are mental short-cuts that skew our perception and divorce us from the reality of a situation. They make us do things we regret and feed our insecurities.
The traps, as identified by Aaron Beck, the founding father of cognitive behaviour therapy, are as follows:
- Jumping to far-flung conclusions based on one piece of information.
- Using tunnel vision to extract only negatives (or indeed positives) from a situation to underscore an existing world view.
- Magnifying (or minimising) the importance of certain factors, again to underscore an existing viewpoint.
- Personalising every situation so that we are always at the centre of them.
- Externalising situations so that everything is someone else’s fault. The government. The customer. The traffic warden. But not me.
- Generalising, so that one detail is allowed to dominate our view of a person or event.
- Prophesising, when we decide that an outcome is inevitable, based on a single factor. New boss? That’s my career on hold for good, then.
Becoming aware that these traps exist is the first step to avoiding them. We are better placed to develop a narrative that allows us to communicate with greater authenticity with the people around us and with ourselves.
And if we are less trapped in our thinking, we will be less trapped in our behaviours, and therefore more open to new and happy experiences. Not only those those that we pledge to seek out in January, but those that life throws our way on a daily basis.