shifting our perspective to optimistic scenarios

Rain splattered against the windowpane, mimicking the worried rhythm of Joyce’s heart. Her son, Allen, was due back from a camping trip with friends, and with every passing minute, the storm outside echoed the one brewing inside. Joyce’s mind conjured a parade of disturbing possibilities: lost boys, bear encounters, flash floods, car accidents.

Her default to negativity wasn’t new. Joyce, like her mother, grandmother, and innumerable others, had honed this predisposition over years. Moreover, she’d been told that worrying is what mothers (and women in general) do, that it’s “natural.” She strongly disliked the trepidation it brought, because it robbed her of the joy of anticipation, but could she do anything about it?

Suddenly, the front door opened, and Allen burst in, water-soaked but grinning, his cheeks flushed with the thrill of adventure. Joyce felt a wave of warmth wash over her, replacing the icy grip of fear. Her imagined tempest contrasted sharply with the vibrant reality unfolding before her. For an instant, she questioned how often her catastrophic forebodings had been wrong, and she easily admitted: more than 99% of the time.

There are always flowers for those who want to see them.

—Henri Matisse

The Second Nature of Worry

Like Joyce, has it become second nature for you to first imagine what might go wrong in any scenario before either seeing the situation in a positive light or taking a “wait and see” approach? For many people, mechanically defaulting to the negative is where apprehension begins. The all-too-common “what-if’s” can be particularly debilitating.

A closer look at this behavior will show that the tendency is learned and as such can be unlearned. Good news, because automatically defaulting to the negative brings with it stress and anxiety that have contagious and cumulative effects. Mindfully recognizing the mental trigger in the moment and actively redirecting one’s thoughts time and again will eventually change the old mental pattern into a healthier one. The term ‘healthier’ is chosen deliberately, reflecting the potential for mind-body improvements through adopting an optimistic outlook.

The Mind-Body Connection

Some of the most well-regarded philosophers of ancient Egypt, India, and Greece conceptualized that the human being was made up of two fundamentally distinct substances: the immaterial mind and the material body, an idea that underpins a significant portion of our belief systems today.

However, dualism has had a long history of opponents who see the mind-body as a unified whole, with the mind and body being interconnected and interplaying dynamically. Author and Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer uses the analogy of a dance to describe this relationship, where the mind and body are partners, constantly influencing and responding to each other.

Her numerous experiments over decades have centered around this connection and have uncovered evidence of how our thoughts and perceptions can influence our physical and mental well-being.

Let’s look at two of her experiments conducted in the ‘70s.

The Counterclockwise Study

Langer and her team recreated for one group of elderly participants an environment reminiscent of the past, immersing them for a week in a retreat where they were encouraged to act as if they were 20 years younger, while the other group took part in more routine activities.

The results were remarkable, revealing significant improvements in physical and cognitive abilities among the participants of the first group.

This study challenged conventional beliefs about aging by demonstrating the profound influence of psychological factors on the aging process and highlighting the potential for mindful interventions to promote vitality in later life.

The Word Choice Study

Langer and Judith Rodin delved into the nuanced dynamics of perceived control among elderly nursing home residents by altering word choice. Although not the first to study the importance of these constructs, Langer and Rodin were among early researchers to examine their impact on older adults.

The control group was subjected to instructions emphasizing external control mechanisms wielded by staff, employing passive voice phrases like “they will” and “it will be decided.” Conversely, the experimental cohort received messages emphasizing personal control and responsibility, dynamically employing verbs such as “you can decide” and “you will be able to choose.” To further fortify this sense of personal agency, the experimental group was entrusted with the nurturing of a plant, giving them additional responsibilities.

The outcome was nothing short of revelatory, unveiling substantial enhancements in alertness, engagement, and overall well-being among the experimental group in stark comparison to their counterparts in the control group. This seminal study not only underscored the profound impact of perceived control on the psychological and physiological health of older adults but also accentuated the transformative ability of subtle linguistic interventions to foster a sense of well-being.

Now Let’s Go Back to Joyce and Allen

In the following weeks, Joyce made a conscious effort to shift her perspective. Instead of dwelling on negative possibilities, she focused on the potential for joy. Slowly, with practice, her obsessiveness loosened its grip, allowing room for natural excitement. Though the old patterns were deeply ingrained, she mindfully worked to take herself out of autopilot. With each “manual” positive redirection, Joyce felt lighter and freer.

Later in the summer, with Allen off on another adventure, Joyce was more at ease. The rain outside was a reminder of the lush green world her son was exploring. The few “what-ifs” that whispered were met not with fear, but with a gentle, “We’ll see.”

In line with these and other findings, too numerous to narrate here, the tendency to consistently default to a negative scenario first has been shown to have potential detrimental effects on our physical and mental health.

Conversely, once we decide to shift our perspective to an optimistic or a “wait and see” view of the future – a decision replete with personal empowerment – it follows that the potency of language, what we are saying and thinking to ourselves, can positively influence what happens next.

Let’s Have a Conversation:

Have you caught yourself worrying about a situation you have no control over? How often has that happened? Have you tried to shift your mindset to a “let’s wait and see” attitude? In which areas of life do you think you have no control over? How do they affect you and how do you respond to them?