Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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Happy New Year: Are You?


HAPPY NEW YEAR: ARE YOU?

Are you ready for a truly happy new year? Do you feel positive, optimistic and energized or burdened by life problems and personal stress? As usual, my message is a hopeful message: you have the power of choice and you can turn 2007 and years to come into positive, productive experiences. "Father Time" will bring us both joyous opportunities and serious difficulties, but we always have a choice of how to lead our lives.

This month I'm going to overview the "big four" choices. We need to learn how to: 1) overcome negative thinking; 2) maximize positive thinking and optimism; 3) practice a problem-solving approach to life's difficulties; 4) seek out and maximize positive life events.

Easy to say -- hard to do -- but possible for everyone! It's inspiring to my clients and others to hear how some of the best psychologists and psychiatrists developed their cognitive-behavioral techniques out of life experiences of personal pain. Matthew McKay, Ph.D., describes his early life as, "I was plagued by fear -- of being alone, of rejection, of being far from home, of failure. Fear controlled my life, tremendously limiting what I could risk or achieve." Martin Seligman, Ph.D., developed his theory of happiness and optimism based on his personality as a "grouch." David Burns, M.D., became a psychiatrist despite having to drop out of medical school for a year to deal with a serious phobia about blood.

So let's start with the first goal, decreasing negative thinking. To begin, you must become aware of your negative internal commentary. It's important to realize that our thoughts are just that, ideas we choose to think rather than representations of reality. Negative thoughts cause negative states of being: lowered moods, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, guilt. When your internal negative commentary is judgmental, it becomes especially destructive: lazy, stupid, irresponsible, slob, all are difficult to live with. Be aware that most people have strong automatic habits of negative thinking. As soon as you bring these thoughts into awareness to block or counter them, they often retreat to your subconscious background thinking, setting up additional roadblocks to change. Constant vigilance is important! You will need to learn how to counteract and even argue with your negative thoughts. An earlier article described one system, Mind Over Mood, among others available to assist in this process.

One of the most effective strategies to counter negative thinking is the second of our big four: replace your negativity with positive and optimistic thinking. It's impossible to "not think" about something, as you have to bring it to mind to try to block the thought. Replacement works better. If you can consider your cup "half full" or "half empty" -- why not "half full? "(Note I didn't say "full", because unrealistic thinking can also be unhealthy.) You can choose to focus your thinking on the more positive aspects of any situation. When you do so you can feel your mood brighten and your troubles lighten. Check out the articles on happiness and optimism on my website. When you choose to view life issues optimistically, you will see problems as solvable and temporary rather than permanent, situation-specific rather than pervasive.

While the first two goals center on changing your thoughts, the second two lead to action-oriented behaviors. Life does deliver problems with some regularity which can lead to defeated withdrawal and helplessness. Instead, view life problems as challenges to be solved. Instead of obsessive worry, put on your thinking cap and mobilize your resources. While all problems cannot be solved completely, you can make a dent in most of them.

While solving problems is a necessary step, seeking out positive life activities is a proactive strategy to optimize your life. Allow yourself pleasurable self-care. Make your necessary self-care activities (for example exercise and sleep) as positive as possible. Seek out activities to balance out the negative aspects of life: humor, beauty, art, music, spirituality, contact with nature, among others. Random and non-random acts of kindness also bring peace and fulfillment to the giver.

My message for 2007 is that happiness is not an elusive goal but is within the reach of everyone. Recently a local newspaper carried an article "Mapping the path to a life of bliss" subtitled "simple exercises help, studies find." The article discussed the positive results obtained from a daily exercise of thinking about three good things that happened that day. A participant who originally "thought it was too simple to be effective" found positive results such as "I never have trouble falling asleep, and I do feel happier."

For more information on the big four, consult the Reading Room and Advice Line sections of my website. Articles discuss various aspects of the big four as well as ways to overcome obstacles to positive change. You can make the changes yourself or with the help of a therapist. And -- have a great 2007 and beyond!