Image sourceKarl Fredrickson
When I work with young people there seems to be something they all have in common and that is the assumption that everyone else is either happier, has more friends, smarter, more attractive, knows what they want, basically better than them in some sort of way. When I challenge them on this, we pretty quickly realise that this isn't actually true and nobody 'has it all'. They have just fallen into the comparison trap, and so they are missing out on all the great things that are right there in front of them. It seems that they often focus on what they don't have and what's wrong with them, rather than what they do have and what's going well. This causes lots of stress and makes them pretty miserable, and in a world where they are constantly exposed to images of the perfect life, I feel there are some skills this generation need more than ever before, and positivity is one of them.
I like to compare this to a pair of glasses we see the world through. We all have our own unique way of looking at things, our own lenses and no two people see things in the same way. Our glasses are put together and shaped by our experiences and our genetics, a lot of which can't be changed. But, I do believe that we can change our lenses and with practice can even design a new pair. When we wear our dark glasses, or as I like to call them 'our s**t smeared specs' guess what we see? More s**t! We've all had days when everything's going nicely, and then like a slap in the face someone or something upsets us and somehow we manage to erase anything pleasant from our memory. The dark glasses go on, and the rest of the day goes dark.
The bad news is that our brains are actually wired to look for the negative stuff and so there is a biological reason for our preference for the 's**t smeared specs'. In fact our brains are 3 times more likely to pick up the negative stuff than the positive stuff
- pretty grim eh? Our old protective part of our brain is constantly scanning for dangers in an attempt to keep us safe and it doesn't care whether that's a car coming towards us at high speed or our ego being battered when we realise we have spent the whole afternoon with our dress tucked in our knickers! The good news is we can train our minds to be more positive. Just in the same way same way we train our bodies to be faster, fitter or stronger, we can train our positive 'muscles' in the mind. We don't have to keep wearing the glasses we have been given, we can redesign them, swap lenses, accessorise, customise, even make them 'rose-tinted' if we like. Even better news for teenagers, as their brains are already going through a big makeover, so a perfect time for some new training. So, to combat the negative bias of our brains we need to be on a strict regime of exercising our rose tinted muscles daily.
When I explain this to young people some of them say 'but sometimes things are really bad and there's nothing to feel positive about' and I say 'Yes I know, and that's the exact time we need to practice this skill. What really takes courage is to find the positive stuff when life is rubbish, this will be the very thing that will make you stronger and able to handle the tough stuff'.
So how can we train our minds to be more positive?
Finding 3 good things every day
One New Year's Eve, my friend gave me a Doritos dip jar with a ribbon around it. She told me to write down 3 things that I felt good about at the end of every day and pop them in the jar. I started on New Year's Day and at the end of the year I opened my jar with a celebratory glass of cider and looked back at all the great stuff that had happened over the year that I would have forgotten had I not written them down. It is known as my 'celebration jar' now and seeing it next to my bed each day reminds me of how much I have to celebrate.
I now teach this simple skill to young people who I feel need it more than ever. It's not just a nice 'feel-good' thing to do at the end of every day, in the long term it can make us healthier and certainly more resilient
When I suggest this idea to young people I sometimes get a weird look at first, but those who give it a go and stick with it start to see things in a new light, they start to feel better about themselves, enjoy things more, lighten up and stop comparing themselves with others. It's pretty cool actually and I guess you could say they ditch the 's**t smeared specs' for a pair of 'rose tinted' ones instead.