Positive Psychology – Its about time

This is the seventh in our series of blogs and newsletters about the courses and teachers that have inspired me.  This week I’m looking at how our perception of time and the thoughts we have influences our wellbeing

Where we focus our thoughts in time and whether we have a positive or negative attitude to events, affects the way we feel and our levels of wellbeing.  Some thought patterns nurture us and help us to achieve our dreams whilst others hold us back. We have the ability to think about the past, present or future and we can events in these thought dimensions in either a “positive” or “negative” way.

Research tells us that each of us has a certain amount of mental energy which we are able to use for work, rest and play.  It also suggests that we have differing propensities to spend more of this energy thinking about the past or the future than being present and experiencing life in real time.  In addition to this, we interpret the past in either a positive or negative way and interpret the present either by enjoying the moment or by seeing life as a fatalistic stream of events outside of our control.

We can divide our propensity to think in certain ways as follows:

·       Thinking about the past in a positive way
·       Thinking about the past in a negative way
·       Being here and now and experiencing events in real time
·       Experiencing current events in a fatalistic way
·       Being future minded

Obviously there are other ways to think, such as thinking about the future in a positive or a negative way or being in a meditative, non thinking state and so on.  However the five dimensions above cover most types of thinking. We all spend time moving between these five main states, switching from thoughts about the past to help us interpret the present and then dreaming and planning the future.

Each of these styles of thinking serves an important purpose.  Happy memories help us reflect on past achievements, cherish the things and people we love.  They also help create positive emotions, which have a wonderful impact on our physiology.  Negative memories from the past serve as a warning to us to modify behaviours and avoid dangers.

Being present and enjoying the here and now helps us to enjoy life as it happens in real time.  If your thoughts constantly take you away from now, your ability to fully experience events as they happen is lessened.  Occasionally being fatalistic can be of benefit because there is an appreciation that although we strive in life to be healthy, loving and kind, sometimes we all have to let go and accept the inevitability of change.  Thinking about the future sets the stage for our growth, can fuel our optimism and helps us plot a course through life.  This constant movement and progression enables us to enjoy a stream of new experiences in the present.

The ideal situation is for us to have balanced ways of thinking.  This means that our thoughts effortlessly flow between time dimensions and attitudes without getting stuck.  The problem is that our thoughts and emotions tend to be “sticky”. To give you an example, if we have a strong negative experience, we may experience a strong negative emotional reaction which may have a profound physiological effect on our body and neurological effect on our brain.  Sometimes when we experience, or think we are about to experience a similar event, the old thoughts, emotions and physical reactions come rushing back.

Such patterns can develop quickly or build over time and before long, without us even realising it, we are caught in a pattern of ruminating over past negative experiences, replaying them again and again, blaming others, blaming ourselves and reducing our energy and ability to think about other things. Such patterns can debilitate us and lock us into the past. In such a scenario, if we have a propensity to negatively ruminate we increase the likelihood that we interpret new events in a negative manner.  The way our thoughts determine our enjoyment of experience is profound.

The happiest people tend to be able to switch effortlessly between different thought dimensions. The unhappiest people tend to spend most of their time negatively dwelling about the past or being fatalistic about their lot in life. Being happy is associated with a good balance of being future minded, enjoying the present and reflecting positively on the past.

Consider the following questions :

Are you grounded and feel warmth and love from past memories?
Is the past a place of fear that stops you enjoying the present and planning for a positive future?
Are you resigned to your lot in life?
Do you live life now and feel life as it flows past?
Do you spend your time dreaming about the future?

Increasing awareness of where your thoughts tend to lie is an important stage in personal development.  Once you know you have tendencies to think in particular ways then you can reflect on how these affect your life and what, if anything, you would like to change.

The future:
I’d like to be more future minded:
How can I set goals which will energise me and are achievable ?
What can I do to learn how to use positive visualisation to imagine a bright, vibrant future?
How can I identify what I’m best at and how can I use my top strengths best?

The present:
I’d like to enjoy and savour living in the present
How can I introduce mindfulness and meditation in my life?
How do I ensure that I spend a few moments appreciating the natural environment every day?
How can I focus my attention every day on the little things that bring me joy?

The past:
I’d like to spend more time savouring the good things from my past and my achievements:
How can I spend a few moments every day thinking about the heroes in my life?  What strengths do they have and how do they provide a guiding light in my life?
What can I do to challenge my beliefs about people or situations that have hurt me in the past?
How can I spend more time reflecting on my achievements and those of loved ones?  What did I learn from those experiences?

Maybe we have a tendency to spend less of our energy living in the present and listening to other people because as we grow older there is more information about the past contained in our memories and we are constantly drawn to reliving past experiences and interpreting the present by relating it to the past.

Following on from last weeks newsletter, we delude ourselves that we are getting wiser as we get older and that we have a safe bank of reliable data to rely on.  This is very far from the truth.  Research about wisdom indicates that there is no relationship between age and wisdom.  We need to be more like children and not take the present for granted.

The present is magical and real.  Life is to be enjoyed here and now.

Posted on March 29, 2012, in positive psychology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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