Think happier, feel healthier

Photo of a fig

Remember, you face the reality your mind makes up, not reality itself. You can change negative thoughts to positive ones, improving your mood, happiness, and health.

Track your thoughts

Recognizing unhelpful, negative thoughts is the first step to stopping them. Use a chart like this one to help you recognize them and straighten out your thinking. After a while, you won't need to write them down.

Situation: I didn't get the promotion I expected.

Feelings and body responsesNegative thoughtsPositive responses
I'm upset, my head aches.I'm not good enough.I'm successful in many ways, and my co-workers respect me.
I feel depressed, tired.I'll never be successful.I'm a loving spouse and parent. I earn a good living.

Question pessimistic self-talk

Ask yourself these questions to challenge your automatic negative thoughts. They can help you identify triggers for negative moods, exaggerations, over-generalizations, and unrealistic expectations.

  • Have you really identified what's bothering you?
  • Are you exaggerating the importance of the situation?
  • Are you over-generalizing or thinking something can only be black or white?
  • Are you worrying about something that's not likely to happen?
  • Are you assuming the worst?
  • Are you making an unrealistic comparison or jumping to a conclusion?
  • Are you taking something too personally?
  • Are you ignoring the positive in your situation?
  • Are you expecting perfection?

Uncover your core beliefs

Woman on a bridgeYou can learn a lot by discovering the deep beliefs under your negative thoughts. Take a negative thought and ask yourself "If that were true, why would that be bad?

For example, if you're worried that your report has mistakes, you might ask, "If there are mistakes, why would that be bad?" You might reply, "It would mean I didn't do a perfect job." That leads to another question, "If I didn't do a perfect job, why would that bother me?" Everyone makes mistakes, so discovering negative core beliefs can help you give yourself a break.

Challenge your "shoulds"

Underlying beliefs sometimes come with a "should" in them. You may have adopted your "shoulds" many years ago to earn someone's approval — maybe your parents' or your friends'.

Write down your "should" and trace it back to the source. Does it represent something you care about? Does it empower you? Do you still need it?

If the answer is yes, rewrite it as a "want" or a "could." For example, "I should visit my mother" would become "I want to visit my mother." It's a more positive statement that becomes a desire on which you can choose to act without guilt.

Be grateful

Woman smilingRather than thinking about everything that's wrong in your life, make it a goal to think about positive events and experiences — your family, friends, your work, something you're looking forward to — as much as possible. How can you do this?

Make a personal inventory of all of your talents, skills, accomplishments, and qualities, big and small. Look at your list when something goes wrong, so you can put the negative event in perspective.

Make a list of 3 things for which you're grateful each day for 3 weeks.

Write a thank you note to someone, the more specific, the better, saying how much you appreciate them.

Act as if

By acting as if something good were true, you can create positive feelings and thoughts. You act yourself into a new way of feeling as easily as you can think yourself into a new way of acting.

Fake it. Pretend self-esteem. Assume optimism. Be outgoing. Act confidently. Even if you don't feel like doing something, just pushing yourself to try can sometimes shift your mood into a positive direction.

Be mindful

Set aside time to simply observe your thoughts without trying to change them. Over time, practicing mindfulness can help you become calmer through life's pleasures, pains, frustrations, disappointments, and insecurities.

Source: Adapted with permission from the Healthy Mind, Healthy Body Handbook (as published under the title Mind & Body Health Handbook), David Sobel, MD, and Robert Ornstein, PhD, 1996

Reviewed by: Andrew Bertagnolli, PhD, November 2015
Additional Kaiser Permanente reviewers

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