I recently wrote an article on Positive Psychology News Daily: “How You Tell the Story of Your Life.”

Here’s another example of a story you can tell yourself that then puts your body or your mind into automatic action:

A friend of mine who is a computer scientist and very interested in using the scientific method to prove things wanted to lose weight. But he didn’t want to change his eating habits or start exercising, so all he did is start measuring his weight on the bathroom scale every morning and writing it down. Within thirty days, just from the daily observations and recording, he had dropped ten pounds.

What is the story that the mind tells the body? Isn’t this just like the hotel workers in the PPND article who were told their daily activity is plenty of exercise, and who then went on to lose weight?

UPDATE: An online friend told me that the above wasn’t 100% clear. Did he think that he would lose weight? Did he expect it?

Yes, he thought that just by paying attention to the weight that it would decrease, and it did. The story he told himself is that he doesn’t want to consciously change any habits, but that he wants to weigh less. So, in fact, he was making subtle automatic changes that were comfortable to him. And his reasoning is that he never felt the changes, and he believes that the changes in his habits (enough to make his lose ten pounds in a month) occured because he was focused on this idea, and told himself subconsciously the story that he was going to lose weight. Without knowing how he would do it.

“Moral excellence comes about as a result of habit. We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.”
~ Aristotle

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
~ Aristotle

“Watch your thoughts, for they become words.
Watch your words, for they become actions.
Watch your actions, for they become habits.
Watch your habits, for they become character.
Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”
~ Anonymous

“The three hardest tasks in the world are neither physical feats nor intellectual achievements, but moral acts: to return love for hate, to include the excluded, and to say, “I was wrong”. ”
~ Sydney J. Harris

“He who controls others may be powerful, but he who has mastered himself is mightier still.”
~ Lao Tzu

“You cannot change your destination overnight, but you can change your direction overnight.”
~ Jim Rohn

“Everyone tries to define this thing called Character. It’s not hard. Character is doing what’s right when nobody’s looking.
~ Anonymous

Now that we know how to get out of a bad mood, here is the shortcut below.
Bad moods most often start in the head. With a thought. About something bad. A person can decide to either allow that thought to grow or to nip it in the bud. Here is what nipping a bad-mood-creating thought in the bud looks like:

This is something a friend of mine asked me about recently. Suppose the thought is “she hates me” about a person that you know who may be acting less friendly towards you recently. This is what might be running through your head at the time:
“Why is she acting less friendly? What did I do? Why doesn’t she like me? I haven’t changed. But maybe something I said offended her. Maybe she thinks I’m rude. Or mean. What did I do?”

Using the A.P.E. method, here are the three phrases that will be he most effective to quickly nip the bad mood in the bud. First of all, address the Alternatives:

Alternatives: “A more accurate way of seeing this is…”

A more accurate way of seeing this is … that maybe she is having some personal issues and is more tense, and maybe that’s coming across as not friendly.”

Then the Perspective:

Perspective: “The most likely thing to happen is … and I can …”

The most likely thing to happen is … that she won’t talk to me for a few days and then her mood will blow over and she’ll be friendly-friendly like before, and I can … just give her space in the meantime and wait for her to get there.”

And finally, Evidence:

Evidence: “That’s not true because …”

That’s not true that she hates me because … she passes me an extra pen today during class, and she held the door for me after class, and she didn’t NOT speak to me – she was just curt in her words.”

So, there you have it – the three A.P.E. sentences to turn to when in a bad mood … or when a bad run-on, negative dialogue gets stuck in your head like an Alvin-and-the-Chipmunks tune.

ENJOY trying these sentences out!

Our first question was, should you get out of a bad mood? Suppose that our answer is already, YES. Now, what do we do? (Update: After you read this, you may want to keep handy the three sentences for the A.P.E. Method.)

Karen Reivich, co-author of The Resilience Factor, suggests some concrete steps. In a talk she gave at our Positive Psychology classes, Karen gave the best three suggestions I’ve heard for getting out of a bad mood. These are practical and immediately usable.

The problem with bad moods is that they stop you in your tracks, they hinder you from doing other things that can lead to continued small successes and that can move you forward in life. Additionally, as Dave Seah points out, you can’t always be waiting for the muse. Most often in life, you need to do things whether you’re in a bad mood or a good mood. For example, compare a person who takes actions to move his life forward only when he’s in a good mood (or when the muse strikes him) to a person who takes actions to move his life forward no matter what mood may have set on him temporarily. Who will likely be more productive?

Here are the three principles Karen Reivich teaches to get out of a bad mood. I remember these as A.P.E.

A – Alternatives
P – Perspective
E – Evidence

Karen Reivich suggests that these are best used “When you need to disarm negative thoughts so that you can stay focused on the task at hand.” At the same time, these are not necessarily the best techniques to use “When you need a thorough, thoughtful and comprehensive understanding of a problem.”

So you want to stay focused on the task at hand, on moving your life forward. What do you do?

A – Alternatives
You can generate alternative beliefs. For example, if the bad mood started with thinking, “I haven’t done anything productive at work in the past year. I haven’t contributed anything. I’ll never contribute anything. And not only do I stink at work recently, but everything else is going down the drain too.”… then what are some alternative beliefs that you could seek?

Karen Reivich characterizes the possible alternative beliefs into three categories (that are introduced with great thoroughness by Marty Seligman here):
Me / Always / Everything.

If your beliefs tend to focus on “me” – “I did this, I got myself into a decade worth of trouble,” then try to look outwards a little bit … not too much – do not rationalize away your own potential contribution to the situation. But do look outward if you tend to blame yourself. Do look at the environment, the surroundings, and provide other possible explanations. (Create an alternative).

If your beliefs tend to focus on “always” – “I’m never good at my work, I always mess up at the office, this never goes right for me,” then train your brain to find the one thing that you consistently excel at during work. Feel that pride – no matter how small – in that one thing that you own, that is yours, and that you can reliably think about to know that you are good at that part of work. (The point is to create one alternative, so it is not always).

If your beliefs tend to focus on “everything” – “And not only am I not good at my work, I can’t meet a great girl/guy, I’m terrible at keeping in touch with friends,” then train your brain to find the one part of life in which you have control. Feel that control in that part of your life – no matter how small that part may be – maybe brushing your teeth, maybe emailing a certain friend regularly. (Create an alternative thought-pattern: not everything.)

P – Perspective
A friend of mine Emma who is also a practitioner of Positive Psychology says that she once heard something say something so visual that she will not forget it.

“Imagine the biggest issue you have – the biggest, most terrible problem or set of problems that you can come up with. Now blow them up – imagine them even bigger and more terrible. Imagine close to the worse that can happen. Imagine all those problems spinning around like the tornado in Dorothy’s Kansas at the beginning of the movie. …

Now take that entire storm and all those issues and shrink it down and put the entire storm into a teacup.”

And that’s exactly how I see it – a white porcelain tea cup on a white porcelain delicate plate, and a small steam above the teacup where the remains of the storm can be seen. It is the super-literal description of the phrase “storm in a teacup,” and talk about perspective!

Do that – put some perspective on the issues. What are the probabilities that everything will go wrong? Usually not 100%. Put the perspective of time on it (probably not as intense if you were to look back on this from 50 years in the future). Put the perspective of seriousness on it (these are bad moods, but nobody should be dying from this). Put the perspective of “me” on this (how impenetrable does my problem look compared to starving children). The perspective of comparison is called downward social comparison… but in psychological studies it has proven to be effective in precluding depression.

The goal in finding perspective is to create flexibility in thinking. It is not to create an excuse for things that may actually have gone wrong, but it is to minimize the impact on your life of certain thoughts.

E – Evidence
Find concrete evidence to the contrary. If you are in a bad mood because you are berating yourself, then create evidence to the contrary. If the argument is that you’ve never done anything good in your work for the past decade, get a piece of paper and list two things that you have done well. That’s it – two things. Two concrete examples.

Lesson & Take-Away: If you’re in a bad mood, and want to switch to being productive and focused, use these three techniques to get out of your bad mood:

  • A – Create Alternatives for why something may be happening to dispute negative, bad mood thoughts,
  • P – Put the issue in Perspective to get out of a bad mood, and
  • E – Use concrete Evidence to discount the bad-mood self-talk in your head.

When a person stops thinking about one thing and starts thinking about something else, often the switch in thoughts is triggered by an emotion. Specifically, moving from one thought to another can be described as removing one thought from conscious thinking, and replacing it with another thought into conscious thinking.

Why do you start thinking a new thought? Why does a new thought move into your conscious thinking? It might be that you start thinking a new thought because you touch, see, and hear something (Damasio (1999)), because you have a feeling and that triggers this thought (Damasio), because you have a thought that triggers this thought (Damasio & LeDoux (1996)), or because you become for an instant more self-awareness (LeDoux). And there are probably even more other stimuli that may trigger a new thought.

I’m interested in looking at emotions as triggering a thought moving into conscious thinking. Part of Merriam-Webster’s definition of emotion is that it is “subjectively experienced as a strong feeling . . . typically accompanied by physiological and behavioral changes in the body.” An emotion is a set of sensations.

How can emotions trigger thoughts? Not every emotion has to trigger a change in thought. For example, a person can have three different emotions while thinking about the same topic, but on the fourth emotion, the person may switch to thinking about a different topic.

What is the basis for the assumption that emotions can trigger thoughts?

  1. First of all, it appears that on a biological level, feelings come before thoughts. Myers describes that researchers have identified pathways in the brain that allow feeling to precede thinking. Myers describes that brain research by Joseph LeDoux and Jorge Armony shows that there is an emotional pathway that goes from the eye to the amygdala (feeling) and this bypasses the intellectual cortex (thinking). Myers concludes, “This makes it easier for our feelings to hijack our thinking than for our thinking to rule our feelings” (p. 37).
  2. Additionally, Ekman (2003) says that emotions arise when something that matters to a person happens or is about to happen. Why would emotions be able to trigger a change in thoughts? Ekman says, “The desire to experience or not experience an emotion motivates much of our behavior” (p. 19). Thus, an emotion of boredom at work may trigger a desire to be in the emotion of joy, and that may trigger the behavior of taking a break from work in order to get ice cream.
  3. Another reason for this assumption of feeling triggering thought is that Haidt postulates that people have an initial reaction to most events in their lives (and he refers to this reaction as the like-o-meter: “do I like this thing?”). Haidt describes a model of moral judgment and his studies around that model. According to his experiments, feelings come first, and then people attempt to rationalize the conclusion of those feelings.

In summary, various research points to the assumption that feelings often trigger thoughts – the biological explanation, the Ekman explanation of emotions motivating behavior, and the Haidt research pointing to initial reactions being motivated by feelings ahead of thoughts.

More to come later this week and next!

Damasio, A. (1999). The Feeling of What Happens. San Diego: Harcourt, Inc.
Ekman, P. (2003). Emotions Revealed. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
Goldberg, E. (2005). The Wisdom Paradox. New York: Gotham Books.
Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis. New York: Basic Books.
LeDoux, J. (1996). The Emotional Brain. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Myers, D. (2002). Intuition: Its Power and Perils. New Haven: Yale University Press.

“As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a
single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep
physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path,
we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to
dominate our lives.”
~ Henry David Thoreau

Can you recognize yourself in any of these … ?
* “I’ve never been lucky in (choose one: money, career, love).”
* “Sure, I could have done better if only my parents had….”
* “Well, how am I going to have a healthy outlook after what I’ve been through?”

These things are the blame game. These are examples of blaming as a way of remembering past hurts. And they do hurt. And they are hurts.

And your mind grows addicted to that hurt the more you repeat it and retell that hurt. Your mind starts to look for that hurt in new situations as a way of reinforcing it. It starts to rely on it. And as with anything that becomes uniquely yours, your mind actually redeciphers it to be a good thing. It’s part of a small cognitive dissonance that mind thinks, “Well, I’m a good person, I like myself, so this bad thing has got to just be part of me – what can I do?, it’s just part of me, and I’m a good person.” And then, somehow, without you even being aware, the mind massages the message just a little to be simply, “That pain is part of me.”

The two books mentioned in the previous post overlap on this interesting concept of the person’s ego identifying with the person’s pain.

The Power of Now says that if there is a negative feeling, such as anger, guilt, self-pity, or depression, then that feeling is tied to the body as long as the mind continues to dwell on it and to play out scenarios. In this sense, the author Eckhart Tolle says that the body is connected with the pain in a “pain-body.” Furthermore, Eckhart Tolle describes “ego identification with the pain-body” as that sense that there is something of “my story” or “my life” in that cycle and that there is a pleasure that the body retains from identifying with that pain and that history.

In Get Over Yourself, Tonya Pinkins talks about letting go of the ego, dropping the drama, and getting over the victim and saint self-stories. Both the victim story (“Oh, I can’t do anything right because of all these terrible things that happened to me”, “I have a million perfect reasons to be depressed, and you would be too if you’d been through what I’ve been through”) and the saint story (“I am not going to follow my dream because it might hurt some of my close ones,” “I will switch to my dream job once the kids are in college”) are crutches for not acting now. Both stories tie negative feelings, such as guilt or self-pity to the ego, to the core identity of a person.

Breaking that ego and pain-body identification is, in short, “getting over yourself.”


I read the above quote in this book today. And, having read this phrase, I’m reminded of a line in this book, “Realize deeply that the present moment is all you ever have. Make the Now the primary focus of your life. … Always say “yes” to the present moment.”

How you do anything is how you do everything.

What if you decided to start paying deep attention and deep respect to each action you take? What would that feel like? And deep attention and deep respect to each person you interact with – even if it’s the five-second eye contact while crossing the street or a phone call from someone when you’re too busy to relax and give full attention, but what if you did anyway?

Today is today. Today is alive. How you do anything in your life at any point today shows the attitude you have to everything in your life. Respect yourself, your boundaries, your possibilities. How you do anything shows how much you respect yourself.

Take-Away: How you do anything shows your attitude towards doing the other things in your life.