Guide to Self
According to Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, we encounter roughly 20,000 individual moments per day. Each ‘moment’ lasts 1-3 seconds. When you recall any evocative memory — positive or negative – it is almost always linked to a recollection of a specific moment in time. While the mind has a penchant for event tagging (i.e., marking events as positive, negative or neutral), rarely does a neutral encounter carry any emotional weight and is quickly forgotten. Your memories are nearly always positive or negative. What’s more, the mind has evolved to overfocus on the negative – negative self-definitions, emotions, words, thoughts, memories, etc. So tools to promote the positive are needed to counterbalance this negativity bias. In some instances, positive words or a sharing a cherished memory can forever improve one’s life.
Here is a brief demonstration for you…
Think about the last time you felt happy; I mean really, truly happy, even if only for a moment. I want you to imagine that scene in your mind’s eye right now. Was your chin up? Shoulders pulled slightly back? Was there a smile on your face? Who was with you? What were the surroundings? What were you wearing? Are there any smells you recall? Think about the situation in as much detail as you can.
Now, how does your body feel?
Thinking back upon happy times cultivates positive physiological responses and positive emotions. Your heart rate slows, you breathing deepens, your chin elevates slightly, shoulders are drawn back, a warmth develops in your chest, and you smile.
One proven exercise from positive psychology is the mental scrapbook exercise. The idea is to create a mental scrapbook in your head of times when you were happy, proud, excited, and/or confident – recollections that involve a variety of positive emotional experiences. That way, when you want to access a particular positive feeling to enhance the emotional quality of the present moment, you simply have to pull up that photo in your mental scrapbook to bring about the emotion you want.
Let me give you an example. Several years ago, I went in for an MRI scan on my hip for sciatica. When I booked the appointment, the receptionist asked if I was claustrophobic. Without thinking, I replied, “No.” Then I went in to get the MRI. I lay down on the table which began slowly sliding into the closed, narrow MRI tube. The tube was as wide as my shoulders. I could not move my arms except to fold my hands on my hips. The ceiling of the tube was two inches from my face. As I needed an MRI of my hip, I was slid all the way inside – head first.
To my surprise, my emotional mind went back to when I was 7 years old trapped in a mummy sleeping bag. And I began to panic. My heart began to race. My throat constricted. My chest tightened. While my emotional mind screamed at me to go Hulk and tear apart the machine which imprisoned me, my rational mind knew I had 20 minutes to spend in this tube. I I closed my eyes and reminded myself to breathe deeply. That helped a little. Then I forced myself to smile – a real Duchenne smile using the muscles around my eyes. That helped a little more. Next, I used the mental scrapbook exercise. I thought about the time I came face to face with an ancient sea turtle while snorkeling in Hawaii. I thought about playing with my boys on the beach. After calling those images to mind, I felt my body relax. I got through the 20 minute MRI without an incident.
Mental Scrapbook for Others
A friend of mine, Ebon Glenn, founder of the positive clothing line, AimHighESG, discovered a brilliant extension of the mental scrapbook exercise. Ebon discovered he could positively impact the moods of loved ones by sharing photos of family memories prior to a car ride, or a business meeting or a family dinner. The simple act of sharing memories of good times via photos served to lift his mood as well as the moods of others, thereby creating a positive emotional upward spiral.
The extension of this is to share small, powerful words with those around you. For example…
‘I’m proud of you.’
‘I believe in you.’
‘You are a genuinely good person.’
For years, I wondered whether such small phrases could positively impact people. I frequently have clients come in who are depressed, anxious, overwhelmed or angry. When we get to the topic of implementing positive changes in their lives, I make a point to slow things down, look them square in the eye and I tell them, ‘Listen, I believe in you. I believe you can do this.’ After all, what comes first, you believing in yourself or someone else believing in you? Perhaps it doesn’t matter as long as someone believes.
Do your thoughts affect you? Absolutely. Do your memories impact the emotional quality of your life? Definitely. And you can learn to manage which thoughts and which memories take up the most space in your mind…with practice.
About the Author
John Schinnerer, Ph.D., an expert in positive psychology, is revolutionizing the way in which people make sense of the mind, behavior and emotion. In December of 2011, he was one of three emotion experts (along with Paul Ekman and Dacher Keltner) to consult with Pixar on a feature-length movie in which the main characters are emotions. Much of his time is spent in private practice teaching clients the latest ways to turn down the volume on negative emotions such as anger, anxiety and stress. He has developed a unique coaching methodology which combines the best aspects of entertainment, humor, positive psychology and emotional management techniques. His offices are in Danville, California. He graduated from U.C. Berkeley Summa Cum Laude with a Ph.D. in educational psychology. He has been an executive, speaker and coach for over 15 years. He hosted over 200 episodes of Guide To Self Radio, a daily prime time radio show, in the SF Bay Area.
John has written the award-winning book, ‘Guide To Self: The Beginner’s Guide To Managing Emotion and Thought,’ which is available at Amazon.com. His blog, Shrunken Mind, was recently recognized as one of the top 3 in positive psychology on the web (drjohnblog.guidetoself.com). His new video blog teaches people the latest ways to manage anger using positive psychology. (WebAngerManagement.com). He is currently working on a destination site to teach individuals paths to sustainable happiness via positive psychology and ongoing practice at HowICanBeHappy.com.