The book is Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard and the authors Chip and Dan Heath are looking at the research about how we try to change and why we resist it.
They suggest that a major way to jumpstart change in our lives is to focus on what’s going well – what’s working, and not on the problems or the broken places. They call this looking at the “bright spots” – identifying the places where things are going to way we want them to, and we are moving smoothly along.
Of course that is easier to say ( or write about) than to do.
One of the astonishing pieces of information they gathered was from a list of common English words for emotions. There is a list of twenty-four words, like angry, apprehensive, excited, bewildered, frustrated, cheated, cross, depressed, and happy. In that list of twenty- four, only six are words to describe positive emotions! Another study done by a psychologist analyzed 558 emotion words. 62 % of those were negative, versus 38% positive (p. 46). So we are pre-disposed to focus on the negative – it is wired into our language.
This may explain some of the ruts you get in to as you deal with your illness and forging a new life and a new story to tell to yourself and others. On the one hand, there is a lot of distressing and difficult material, but on the other hand, you want to find ways to accentuate the positive – or at least find those rays that illumine hope and grace.
Paying attention to where you direct your attention, and what language you use is a small specific way to begin.
Where are your bright spots? What is going well? What would you like more of?
Now as you think of those places – maybe it’s a good relationship, or your work environment is healthy, or you just found a great healer or tonic – what made this bright spot happen? What makes it shine for you? How can you do more of it? Pay attention to how you feel, rather than what you think. The warm happy feeling is your tipoff that this is a spotlit zone for you.
Be mindful of your language, and recognize that it is easier to find words that describe what is difficult or painful. It is easier to think about bad experiences – they have a tendency to magnetize our attention as well as our vocabulary. But to let those emotions and thoughts bubble along without stopping them or changing course is as toxic for you as a daily diet of hot fudge and twinkies. Easy to consume, but lousy for your health.
Look at your bright spot, and now consider one small specific action that will help increase it. Let’s say you find that one thing that is going well as you work on your health is that a small amount of movement, like a 10 minute walk, makes your joints feel better. You also notice that you have a lighter attitude and outlook after you’ve walked. You’d like more of those feelings. You suspect that if you walked more, you’d get more payoff. But you know that you often overwhelm yourself with too many suggestions and then you end up doing nothing, and feeling worse.
So take what you know about what is working for you, that ten minute walk. Rehearse what the benefits for you are in terms of how you feel. Happy, relaxed, good in your body. Feel it – don’t analyze it. Now where could you add another place to get that same feeling? After dinner? In the morning? How can you keep expanding your bright spots?
This practice focuses on what’s working and takes your attention off what isn’t. The more you put your attention on those small positive places, the more you can grow and add to that good place of energy and healing.
It does take gentle repetition because our habits of mind are so accustomed to zoning in on the negative problems, but as you practice and repeat, you strengthen your attention, and make significant change – step by step!
Let me know how it goes for you.