A Compelling Source of Bad Moods You Can Easily Avoid

>> Thursday

IT STARTED OUT innocently enough. I asked a friend of mine whether he thought the world would be a better or a worse place 100 years from now. Worse, he said.

We had a little discussion about his answer and then went on about our business. A few days later, he said he wanted me to look at a magazine called Colors. Published in Italy, it illustrated some of our global problems graphically. For example, on the back cover were two pictures: One was a man in a polyester jump suit standing on a well-manicured lawn with a nice house in the background, and he was feeding a tidbit to his well-groomed poodle.

The other picture was five or six young boys, dirty and ragged, living in a hole in the street.

The magazine did a good job contrasting how wealthy many of us are in industrialized countries with how horribly many people live in developing countries.

Later, my friend asked me how I liked the magazine.

I replied, It was disturbing.

It's REAL! he said with a self-righteous tone that said "I'm not a person who is afraid of facing the truth."

And that was the beginning of my crusade against bad news. What disturbed me was not the reality of it. I'm well aware of how miserably much of the world lives compared to how even a poor American lives. What bothered me was that the "information" in the magazine was delivered in a context of hopelessness. There wasn't one tiny scrap of any indication anywhere in the magazine that you, the reader, can do anything about it. The world is a horrible place, it seemed to say, and you are helpless to influence it.

If the information had been delivered in the spirit of Here's some bad news, but here's what you can do about it, the same information would have been motivating rather than demoralizing.

But if the reader feels helpless about it or thinks the situation is hopeless, the magazine did harm, and the reader would have been better off without it. Studies have shown that most television news leaves the viewer depressed because it is primarily bad news that the viewer can do nothing about. The problems are too big or too far away or too permanent to be able to change. This sort of news encourages a pessimistic view of the world.

Pessimism produces a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness. In other words, pessimism can lead to depression. This is not just an opinion. Lots of research has been done on this subject. A tremendous amount of evidence exists and it all points in the same direction. Pessimism makes people less capable of acting effectively, even in their own best interests. It produces apathy and lethargy. It makes people give up.

Pessimism is bad for your health, bad for your relationships, and bad for the planet (because pessimism not only stops constructive action, but IT IS CONTAGIOUS).

Raw, in-your-face reality is good, but only halfway there. The other half is what can be done about it? If nothing can be done about it, why tell anyone? If something can be done about it, why not give that news too? It is a crime against humanity to do otherwise.

Because of the shock value and attention-getting power of tragedy, horror, and cruel irony, a pessimistic, unconstructive attitude is infecting the minds of more and more people.

It must be stopped. And you can help. Here's how:

1. Stop tuning into any news that makes you feel helpless, distrusting, fearful, hopeless, and that doesn't give you the sense that you can do something about it. If you want to "stay up on the events of the world," try to find sources that don't create pessimism.

2. Pick the global problem that most bothers you and do something about it. If you think there's nothing you can do, then first cure yourself of your own pessimism.

3. Share this article with people you know. And if someone tells you some bad news, tell the person about this information.

4. Read some good news.

5. If a friend of yours seems pessimistic, help her or him become more optimistic. Optimism does not include burying your head in the sand or in the clouds. It is a balanced look at reality. It is practical and effective. As I say in the second chapter of Self-Help Stuff That Works:

In a study by Lisa Aspinwall, PhD, at the University of Maryland, subjects read health-related information on cancer and other topics. She discovered that optimists spent more time than pessimists reading the severe risk material and they remembered more of it.

“These are people,” says Aspinwall, “who aren’t sitting around wishing things were different. They believe in a better outcome, and that whatever measures they take will help them to heal.” In other words, instead of having their heads in the clouds, optimistic people look. They do more than look, they seek. They aren’t afraid to look into the situation because they’re optimistic.

Optimism will give you the strength to confront difficult realities with open eyes. Optimism has the potential to be even more contagious than pessimism. If nothing else, optimists tend to have more energy. Optimism is very good for your mood.

But there is something else: Optimism is more ethical. It is more life-giving, more enjoyable. It is more right. Pay more attention to the news you bring into your mind and you will enjoy a healthy good mood more often.

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Is It a Good Idea to Vent Your Anger?

He looked at me with a smile that obviously lacked any positive feeling. "I hate this job," he said, "I'm getting to the place where I can't stand these customers!" He was no longer smiling. "There's no place for me to vent. I can't tell the customers anything. I'd lose my job!"

"John," I said, "Let me tell you a story — a true story. Once upon a time (a few years ago), a team of researchers wanted to find the best way to deal with anger. They experimented with children at school. In one group, whenever a child got mad at another child, they had him act out his anger with toy guns and stuff. With another group, they had an angry child express his anger verbally. In the third group, all the researchers did was give the angry child a rational explanation for why the other child did what she did. And you know what? The method that worked the best was the last one."

"The rational explanation?" asks John, obviously needing a rational explanation.

"Yes. There's been a lot of research showing that anger isn't really something that 'bottles up' inside you, and 'venting' increases your feelings of anger. Isn't that surprising? I didn't believe it at first. But you watch yourself next time you get angry and 'vent.' It makes you more angry. Anger is caused by the way you're thinking at the moment you're angry, and it seems like it's building up because you're running those thoughts through your head over and over, getting madder and madder. But it's the thoughts that are making you mad.

"Imagine you're in a restaurant with a friend," I continued, "and you order dinner. Your waiter takes your order and goes on about his business. You wait for a long time. You look for your waiter but don't see him. You're getting angry. By the time your waiter walks up (empty handed), you're really mad. 'Where have you been!' you demand, 'And what happened to our dinner?' The waiter says, 'I'm sorry. I forgot to give the cooks your order until only a few minutes ago. I'm really sorry. I am not doing well tonight. I just got the news that my brother and my nephew were killed in a car accident this afternoon.'

"On hearing this, what happens to you emotionally? Your anger disappears — almost instantly. Where did it go? If it was bottling up, it would still be there, right? You've had no way to 'vent it.' But you are suddenly not the least bit angry. The idea that anger builds up and needs to be released is just another commonsense idea that's been proven wrong.

"The reason you're suddenly not angry is that your anger was being produced by the thoughts you were thinking, and you are now no longer thinking those thoughts, so the anger is no longer being produced."

"So what am I supposed to do?" asks John. He isn't smiling, and he isn't frowning, "What do I do with my thoughts? Say my customer is being a jerk. Do I think to myself, 'My customer is a nice person; I love my customer?'"

"Good question," I said. "No, it won't help to think positive, because saying things to yourself you don't believe has no impact. If you've ever tried it, you know that's true. What you need to do is argue with your negative thoughts. Don't think positive; tear apart the negative. When you're angry, you take your thoughts for granted, as if you believed that because you think it, it must be true. But if someone else came up and said exactly the same thing out loud, you could take the statement apart no problem. But you said it, so you just accept it.

"You should treat the thoughts in your head with as much skepticism as you would the words of a fast-talking salesman. 'Hold on there, buddy,' you might say, 'Slow down and say that again...(he says one sentence)...Can you prove that? Who says? Has a study been done? Who conducted the study?' You don't take everything at face-value. You question it.

"As soon as you start arguing with your own thoughts, you'll find it pretty easy to tear them to shreds because the thoughts you think when you're angry are almost always exaggerations and distortions and unsubstantiated claims. Almost always. Like 99 percent of the time. And when you take your thoughts apart, your anger disappears."

John looked unconvinced.

"Give me one," I say, "Tell me something you were thinking awhile ago — some thought you were thinking about your customer."

"Let's see..." John recalls, "This lady was being really condescending and the other people..."

"Wait," I interrupt, "Let's take one at a time. You can't argue with several thoughts at once. 'The lady was being condescending.' That's a good one. Do you think you could argue with that?"

"Well, maybe she wasn't being condescending."

"Good. Are there other possible explanations for the way she was talking to you?"

"Yeah. Maybe she was in a bad mood when she came in and I had nothing to do with it."

"That's a good one. Give me another one."

"Uh...I remind her of her son, and she's in the habit of being condescending to him."

"Good. You're good at this. Both of those explanations have nothing to do with you. In other words, with either of those explanations, you wouldn't have to take it personally. And if you're not taking it personally, you're not going to get as angry. Come up with another one."

"Okay. Let's see...How about: She was actually having strong sexual fantasies about me and had a hard time controlling herself and her effort to control herself looked like 'condescension.'"

"Okay. Good. Now which explanation do you settle for?"

"I don't know."

"None!!!" I say, a little too loudly. "You have effectively destroyed the thought. You have proven to yourself that there are other theories to explain what you experienced besides 'She is being condescending.' Since you don't know what is the 'real' explanation, just leave it at that. It is unknown. And when there are several possible theories to explain things, and they all explain them just as well, you won't be too upset by any one of them. You have become more rational. You will act more effectively because of it. And you will feel better.

"Cognitive Therapy and Rational Emotive Therapy, two of the very few kinds of therapies that have been proven effective, both use this technique of arguing with yourself. As you can imagine, though, it takes a little practice."

"Yeah," says John, "You'd probably have to go to a therapist."

"You wouldn't, not for everyday stuff like this. You're verbally competent and not out of control. You could learn to do this on your own. Just argue with your own thoughts when you get angry (or depressed or nervous). Argue on the basis of facts and logic. Argue simply and pragmatically. Nothing fancy is required. Argue like you would if somebody else was saying to you what you're saying to yourself."

"I can do that. This is good," he says, looking a little hopeful.

"It works really well. How do you feel now."

"What do you mean?

"Do you feel angry?"

"No."

"See, it's working already!"


The Cause of Anger

When someone makes you angry, it seems that the cause of your anger is the person's actions. But what really makes you angry is what you think the action means. If you look closely at the meaning of an event, your certainty about it will fade. You'll realize it doesn't necessarily mean what you assume it means. This uncertainty will make your anger diminish.

Let's say I interrupt you while you're talking and it makes you mad. You "know" I am being disrespectful. Let's look at this closely: 1) an event happens, 2) you figure out what it means, and then, 3) you feel an emotion in response to the meaning. Step number 2 happens very fast so it seems the event directly caused your feelings. But that isn't so. And you can prove it to yourself.

Wait until the next time you get mad at someone. Then try to discover one thought you have about what they did. Since the meaning of an event occurs to you so quickly, it's very hard to see. So you have to backtrack. You have to do a slow-motion replay. Ask yourself, "Why am I mad?" Your answer is probably, "Because he did such-and-such." Ask yourself another question: "Why would that make me angry?" Your answer to this second question is probably a statement about the meaning of the action. Now you have something to work with.

Take your statement and look at it skeptically. In our above example, I interrupted you. You thought, "He doesn't respect me." Looking at that thought skeptically, you realize it's only a theory to explain why I interrupted you. Once you look at it, you also realize it isn't the only possible explanation. Try to come up with other explanations. Maybe I've never thought much about interrupting, and no one ever said anything to me about it, so I'm in the habit of interrupting people — those I respect and those I don't. Or maybe I interrupted you because I have a poor memory and didn't want to forget my thought, so I blurted it out. You can never really be sure why another person does something. Sometimes the person himself doesn't know why he's doing it.

After you create two or three good theories (this will only take a few minutes; you'll be surprised how easy it is), your anger will fade, you'll feel better, and you'll deal with the situation more rationally. Argue with yourself this way and everyone wins.

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"Explanatory Style" Explained

>> Saturday

Your explanatory style determines whether you will be defeated by a setback or will bounce back, regain your determination, and potentially succeed. To understand what an explanatory style is, you must be clear about what I mean by "setback."

A setback is anything you wanted to happen that didn't happen or anything you didn't want to happen that happened. That means you experience setbacks several times a day. It is a rare day that everything goes exactly the way you want.

When a setback occurs, you explain it to yourself. That is a natural and unintentional result of any setback. You explain what caused it. You don't explain events deliberately; usually you attribute the causes of events automatically. The automatic, natural, habitual way you explain events is called your explanatory style.

For example, if Jim and Sue lost their jobs from the same company on the same day, they may have two entirely different explanations for why they were laid off, even if the company gave them exactly the same reason. Jim might think, "The economy is bad. That's why they laid me off." Sue might think, "They didn't lay off everyone. They must have chosen me because they noticed I didn't try very hard." Same circumstance, different explanation. And the explanation each person made was according to their explanatory style.

Look at those explanations again. Which one is better? Which explanation will dishearten the person and which will not? The answer will not be obvious to most people.

The consequences of Jim's and Sue's explanations are significantly different. Jim may feel defeated by his explanation and lack motivation to try to find another job. His explanation says the cause of his setback is widespread and out of his control. Sue's explanation, however, may cause her to decide to get a job she really wants and to put her heart into it. Her explanation was more specific and the cause is under her control.

Explanatory style will determine whether a person is demoralized by a setback or unaffected by it or even motivated by it. And this difference, as it accumulates momentum with the daily setbacks we all experience, greatly alters the trajectory of a person's life. It will also have an impact on health. Read more about it in Martin Seligman's Learned Optimism, David Burns' Feeling Good, and Adam Khan's Antivirus For Your Mind.

The approach is scientific and effective. It isn't positive thinking. There is no need (or desire) to try to believe something you don't actually believe. The approach is to think more accurately. The aim is to reduce the number of mistakes we all naturally make in our thinking, and thereby reduce the amount of helplessness we feel. When we stop making ourselves feel so helpless and hopeless, our natural determination and fighting spirit begin to rise, and success in the long run becomes more probable.

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What Can You Do Instead of Worry?

>> Friday

Noelle came to work worried about her roommate, Jana, who didn’t come home the night before and didn’t call. That wasn’t like Jana, and Noelle was worried.

But Noelle’s worry did not benefit Jana, and it harmed Noelle. Worry put stress hormones into her bloodstream, which isn’t healthy. It suppressed her immune system. If she worries a lot, it will damage the inside of her arteries, which can end in a heart attack or stroke many years hence. Needless worry is a cost without a benefit. And it’s not pleasant.

If you are worrying and want to stop, first ask yourself if there’s anything you’re going to do about the situation. If not, then start wondering what good things might be happening. Do not try to stop worrying.

Research by Daniel Wegner, PhD, of the University of Virginia and author of the book, White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts, has repeatedly shown that trying to suppress thoughts only results in thinking the thought more. If you try to suppress a thought hard enough, that thought can become an obsession.

Try to stop worrying and you’ll worry even more. What you want to do is give your mind a bone to chew on, but a different bone. Worrying is imagining something bad happening. Simply imagine something good happening, and there will be less room in your mind for imagining something bad happening. Your mind has its limits, like the RAM of a computer. Give it enough to do, and it won’t have the free space to do anything else.

If worrying is a habit for you, it won’t go away immediately. Every time you start to worry, ask yourself what good might be happening. And keep asking and wondering and then leave it at that—an open-ended possibility. Do this and something good will be happening to you: You’ll feel better and you’ll be healthier.

By the way, Jana had a wonderful time.

This is a chapter from Self-Help Stuff That Works.

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