When something happens and you have a negative reaction, it is because of what you think the event means.
If someone gives you a dirty look, you might feel sad because you think it means they don’t like you any more. But what you think it means is only one possibility. The meaning of the event occurred to you automatically, and it's not necessarily the best thing you could come up with if you really thought about it.
What else could it mean?
That's the key question. Ask yourself, and keep asking, "What else could it mean?" Think of some alternatives and often it will change the way you feel.
When you are upset and you want to feel less upset, this is a great question to ask yourself. Ellen Langer, the researcher and author of Mindfulness, says a key to mindfulness is to question old mindsets. You have thought in certain ways for a long time and it has produced a kind of mindlessness.
To question those ways of thinking opens you up to new possibilities. The question, “What else could it mean?” can help.
When someone is diagnosed with a malignant tumor, says Langer, some people immediately sink into depression because they have the mindset that cancer is powerful and they are helpless to stop it.
But that mindset is not the only possible way to think about cancer, it is certainly not the best one, and it isn’t the most accurate one, either.
Ask yourself often, especially when something happens you think is bad, “Is that the only way to see it?”
Try to come up with different possible ways you could view the same situation.
Really it’s a dumb question. No matter how you’re looking at the situation, it is never the only possible point of view. Probably a better question would be, “What other way could I look at this?”
Or notice what you think the event means, and ask yourself what else it could mean.
Sit down with paper and pen and spend an hour coming up with different points of view you could take on the same event. That’ll shake you out of your automatic, upsetting opinion.
Now look at your list. What do you think is the most sensible point of view? Which one would help you handle the situation the best? Which one would your best friend think is the best point of view?
You can use this question with smaller events too, and you can do it on the fly. If someone treats you with less respect than usual, and you feel a little bothered by it, ask yourself what you think it means.
For example, "I think it means she is mad at me for some reason."
Now ask yourself what else it could mean. For example, "Maybe she is tired. Maybe she drank too much coffee today. Maybe she is jealous because I look so good today. Maybe she is pregnant and has morning sickness."
It only takes a minute or so to come up with some alternative meanings. And when you do, it will change the way you feel about it. You won't feel as bothered. It is a simple method that takes very little effort, but it has a real impact on your mood.
Read more: Feel Bad Less Often
Adam Khan is the author of Antivirus For Your Mind: How to Strengthen Your Persistence and Determination and Feel Good More Often and co-author with Klassy Evans of Viewfinder: How to Change the Way You Look at Things.