Forget Positive Thinking, Try Positive Action
The self-help industry is mired in ideas about positive thinking that are at best ineffective and at worst destructive. If you want to be more confident or successful, says Richard Wiseman, the best thing to do is act the part
By Richard Wiseman / Source: The Guardian
For years self-help gurus have preached the same simple mantra: if you want to improve your life then you need to change how you think. Force yourself to have positive thoughts and you will become happier. Visualise your dream self and you will enjoy increased success. Think like a millionaire and you will magically grow rich. In principle, this idea sounds perfectly reasonable. However, in practice it often proves ineffective.
In another experiment led by Gabriele Oettingen from New York University, graduates were asked to note down how often they fantasised about getting their dream job after leaving college.
A Simple Way to Change How You Think and Feel
However, when it comes to change, the message is not all gloom and doom. Decades of research show that there is indeed a simple but highly effective way to transform how you think and feel. The technique turns common sense on its head but is grounded in science. Strangely, the story begins with a world-renowned Victorian thinker and an imaginary bear.
This unconventional approach paid off. First published in 1890, James's two-volume magnum opus The Principles of Psychology is still required reading for students of behavioural science.
James hypothesised that the relationship between emotion and behaviour was a two-way street, and that behaviour can cause emotion. According to James, smiling can make you feel happy and frowning can make you feel sad. Or, to use James's favourite way of putting it: "You do not run from a bear because you are afraid of it, but rather become afraid of the bear because you run from it."
Act As If...
However in the 70s psychologist James Laird from Clark Universitydecided to put James's theory to the test. Volunteers were invited into the laboratory and asked to adopt certain facial expressions. To create an angry expression participants were asked to draw down their eyebrows and clench their teeth. For the happy expression they were asked to draw back the corners of the mouth. The results were remarkable. Exactly as predicted by James years before, the participants felt significantly happier when they forced their faces into smiles, and much angrier when they were clenching their teeth.
Trick Yourself Into Feeling Younger
The As If principle can even make you feel younger. Harvard psychology professor Ellen Langer has conducted many high-profile experiments; one of her most striking involved using the As If principle to turn back the hands of time.
10 quick and effective exercises that use the As If principle to transform how you think and behave
This is the granddaddy of them all. As Laird's study demonstrated, smile and you will feel happier. To get the most out of this exercise, make the smile as wide as possible, extend your eyebrow muscles slightly upward, and hold the resulting expression for about 20 seconds.
WILLPOWER: Tense up
As Hung's experiments show, tensing your muscles boosts your willpower. Next time you feel the need to avoid that cigarette or cream cake, make a fist, contract your biceps, press your thumb and first finger together, or grip a pen in your hand.
DIETING: Use your non-dominant hand
When you eat with your non-dominant hand you are acting as if you are carrying out an unusual behaviour. Because of that you place more attention on your action, do not simply consume food without thinking about it, and so eat less.
PROCRASTINATION: Make a start
To overcome procrastination, act as if you are interested in what it is that you have to do. Spend just a few minutes carrying out the first part of whatever it is you are avoiding, and suddenly you will feel a strong need to complete the task.
PERSISTENCE: Sit up straight and cross your arms
Ron Friedman from the University of Rochester led a study where volunteers were presented with tricky problems to see how long they persevered. Those who sat up straight and folded their arms struggled on for nearly twice as long as others. Make sure your computer monitor is slightly above your eye-line and, when the going gets tough, cross your arms.
CONFIDENCE: Power pose
To increase your self-esteem and confidence, adopt a power pose. If you are sitting down, lean back, look up and interlock your hands behind your head. If you are standing up, then place your feet flat on the floor, push your shoulders back and your chest forward.
NEGOTIATION: Use soft chairs
Hard furniture is associated with hard behaviour. In one study Joshua Ackerman at the MIT Sloan School of Management had participants sit on either soft or hard chairs and then negotiate over the price of a used car. Those in the hard chairs offered less and were more inflexible.
GUILT: Wash away your sins
If you are feeling guilty about something, try washing your hands or taking a shower. Chen-Bo Zhong from the University of Toronto discovered that people who carried out an immoral act and then cleaned their hands with an antiseptic wipe felt significantly less guilty than others.
If people nod while they listen to a discussion they are more likely to agree with the points being made. When you want to encourage someone to agree with you, subtly nod your head as you chat with them. Research led by Gary Wells of Iowa State University shows that they will reciprocate the movement and find themselves strangely attracted to your way of thinking.
LOVE: Open up
Couples in love talk about the more intimate aspects of their lives. Research carried out by Robert Epstein, founder of the Cambridge Centre for Behavioural Studies, shows that the opposite is also true – more intimate chat makes people feel attracted to each other. If you are out on a date, get the other person to open up by asking what advice they would give to their 10-year-old self, or what one object they would save in a house fire.
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