Help me think happy thoughts
October 20, 2010 7:29 AM   Subscribe

[Stressed not Depressed Filter] Help me think happy thoughts. I feel like I'm sliding down a slippery slope.

I've been depressed before and I don't want to go down that road again. I'm a pretty stressed out person. But when I think about it I realize I should be happy. I have a good family, good job, money in the bank, food on the table etc.

But I can't stop thinking about doom and gloom.

Example: in the shower this morning I kept thinking about terrible scenarios and/or how this or that situation in my life sucks right now. I would recognize what I was doing and think about something happy like a shopping trip or the weekend off. But before too long I am back to making everything out to be the worst case scenario.

I have some coping mechanisms such as thinking about how life is "peaks and valleys" or "light and shadows" and that right now I might be in a valley but there is light up ahead of the tunnel. Or I think about good things in my life. In extreme cases I sort of bang my hand against my leg to get myself distracted.

So, tl;dr: How do I think happy thoughts on a consistent basis? How do I keep myself from defaulting to doom and gloom?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (15 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
As a quick response: maybe you should start not by thinking about happy things per se, but about things that AREN'T doom and gloom. "Neutral" is a hell of a lot closer than "awesome," right?

Sometimes when I feel especially emotional I get upset at happy things because they're so different from some of the hard times I've felt. I worry that the happy things won't come again, or they won't be as good. Well, poppycock! Focusing on the happy things scares me like that. So I try to just focus on what actually happens, not the distortions, and let myself be pleasantly surprised by the good things that come up.
posted by Madamina at 7:37 AM on October 20, 2010

Mindfulness could be really helpful for you. The Mindful Path Through Worry and Rumination and The Mindful Way Through Depression are great. Both books have exercises that you can do that will help you acknowledge the thoughts you're having, and then let go of them so they don't consume the rest of your thoughts, or snowball into something bigger. Eventually, you start having less of the thoughts to begin with. It takes practice, but it has been incredibly helpful for me. One key thing is that you can't necessarily control your thoughts, you can only control how much they affect you and you can stop them from taking up too much brain space.

Are you active? Even just a brisk 30-minute walk helps me clear my mind. You get a nice little burst of happy-making and stress-reducing neurotransmitters from even moderate activity.
posted by SugarAndSass at 7:38 AM on October 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

I go through the exercise on MoodGYM, which is free online cognitive behavioural therapy, whenever I feel sad. It helps you identify negative thought patterns and explains why they're nonsensical.
posted by teraspawn at 7:40 AM on October 20, 2010 [3 favorites]

It sounds like you are catastrophizing. I do the same thing, all the time.

Here's a great article on it and what to do when you find yourself doing it- a couple of excerpts:

Here are 3 things you can do to come back to the present moment and get a reality check on life.

Acknowledge Catastrophizing - The first step to doing anything is awareness of what is happening. We must first notice and acknowledge when our mind is spinning with worry about the future. Then label it catastrophizing or worrying, whichever word works best for you. The trick is not to get caught up in the content; we'll get to that later.

Anchor the present moment - There are a myriad of ways to do this. Many people like to use the breath as an anchor because it is always with us and keeps us alive. So you can bring your attention to this and just saying to yourself, "in" as your breath comes in, and "out" as your breath goes out. If this is too difficult, you can bring attention to the bottom or your feet (farthest place from your worrying mind) and just notice factual sensations. You can even just choose to close your eyes and listen to sounds, noticing the pitches and tones rising and falling.

Intentionally play the what if's game - This is very different than the mind spinning about this. Actually ask yourself, "what if this happened?" Think about it and then provide and answer. With that answer, you may have another "what if" question, and intentionally ask and answer that one. Go ahead and do this until there are no more questions. It often helps to write this down.
Go ahead and try this to work with the catastrophic mind. As always, please share your thoughts, comments, and questions below. Your interaction here provides a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.
posted by TheBones at 7:56 AM on October 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

Look at positive thinking as a physical exercise, as opposed to strictly a mental one.

Mental habits become physically ingrained in our brains - the pathways and connections we make repeatedly become faster and easier to make as they get "burned in." Redirecting your mind, therefore, becomes literally more physically difficult than thinking in the same old way.

If you had an injury and went to physical therapy to regain function, you'd have to do something similar: daily, gradual, concerted practice to push beyond what's presently comfortable. The fact that it's difficult is a sign that you're going against the path of least resistance, and even if you fail after a certain amount of exertion, that's still progress. Every day will be a little bit easier, as long as you don't give up. It will take time, but it will get easier. Don't get discouraged.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 8:04 AM on October 20, 2010

Hate to pathologize every little thing, but as an addition to the above good advice, have you seen a doctor?
posted by luke1249 at 8:07 AM on October 20, 2010

Focus on what you are thankful for. I read somewhere that people who exercise the emotion of gratitude frequently are happier. This sounds so simple it's almost silly, but it has worked for me (to an extent). When you're doing this, don't just think of things that are "good" in your life. Instead, really try to focus on your feelings of gratitude FOR those good things.

And I guess if you don't even feel capable of this emotion, then it's definitely time to see a doctor.
posted by angab at 9:19 AM on October 20, 2010

Keep a little book with you and write down five positive things - good things that happened that day, things that make you happy, that you are grateful for, that you are looking forward to, that make you laugh, whatever you like. Doesn't matter if you repeat them, just do it whenever you need to feel a little boost of positivity.

People never seem really interested in writing things down here on askme, but I find it immensely helpful because it requires enough focus to get it on paper, so it sticks a little longer than just thinking about it. It's not a new idea, there's research out there supporting the results of this little activity... but i'm sneaking on here at work and can't find it quick enough.
posted by lizbunny at 9:27 AM on October 20, 2010

Along the lines of focusing on what you're grateful for, try taking the emphasis off of yourself and your issues by helping others. You don't have to donate lots of money or spend hours every day at the soup kitchen, but giving genuine compliments to people, showing your appreciation, giving things whenever you can are great ways to contribute to the general good of the world. and if you treat people nicely, they will be more likely to treat you nicely and pick you up when you're down.

And don't discount the fake it 'til you make it approach. You act one way, and it's a lot easier to stay that way. That goes for the other side, too: if you run around going "I suck, I suck, I suck!" all the time, it's a lot harder to think of yourself as a capable, good person.

Try to focus on things and actions, not generalizations about people. Good: "This situation with my boss is very tough." "It's taking a long time to be seated for lunch." Bad: "My boss is a terrible person." "This restaurant sucks."
posted by Madamina at 10:44 AM on October 20, 2010

Speaking from experience, here:

Sometimes the simplest and most obvious solutions work the best. Sleep enough, eat right, drink enough water, exercise regularly. Make sure you're getting all four! After that, take care of your need to socialize, to be spiritual, to do things you love, to do things that are meaningful, etc. Hope this helps. :)
-Someone who has felt that way before
posted by rinogo at 12:08 PM on October 20, 2010

If you know that you're headed for depression, you might want to start anti-depressant medications now because a lot of them take a few months to work. (Personally, I really, really wish I had started taking them earlier in my current bout of depression!) You can't always positive-think your way out of a brain chemistry issue.
posted by Jacqueline at 12:37 PM on October 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

exercise, and good movies. Happy movies. Watch comedies. Laugh.
posted by uauage at 1:48 PM on October 20, 2010

>>How do I think happy thoughts on a consistent basis?

That's tough. What works (often, not always) is thinking of something to look forward to (eg tv show), think of a reward if I have to do something I dislike, trick my brain with some distraction, make it a point to watch something funny at the end of the day.

Sometimes a good cry works (but its funny that tears don't always come out when I desperately want them to). Sometimes, I just slack off and just get bored of it. But this last one may not be a good idea in case of clinical depression. I tend to have phases, energetic and then lazy, so it sort of works.

Finally, mindfulness and impermanence. And lots of quotes. And people you can talk to. This last one is not that big a deal though, if thats a problem.

Since everything seems to be going on fine with you (job, family etc etc), maybe its boredom? Hobbies or volunteering (anything that keeps you busy) may help too?
posted by xm at 4:53 PM on October 21, 2010

I'll second The Mindful Way Through Depression and add a recommendation for The Zen Path Through Depression.

I've found both useful because they help me learn how to interrupt that spiral of anxious thoughts about abstract future dystopias and warped 'memories' of how terrible the past was.

Lately I've been making a point of going outside and sitting in parks listening to the wind rustling the leaves of the trees, or watching the waves. I don't think, I just observe. I feel the wind and hear the leaves rustling and see the way the light moves through the trees and how streams of people flow through the park and oh look, dogs playing! It reminds me of now and of my physical surroundings. It gets me out of my head, like a human reset button.
posted by heatherann at 5:13 PM on October 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Nthing a mindfulness approach, and I recommend a book called The Happiness Trap. It's based on an approach called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which focuses not on changing our thoughts, but rather accepting that we have negative thoughts and feelings - it's just part of being human. Recognizing these instead of avoiding or changing them, and identifying and focusing on your own personal values, can free you from ruminating on thoughts that don't help you achieve these values. Also, you probably need a therapist! You can find out more about ACT, and find a therapist specializing in this area here. Sorry if this sounds too much like a commercial! I've just found this approach extremely helpful for my own anxiety. Also, exercise! Good for just about everything that ails you.
posted by feidr2 at 12:49 PM on October 23, 2010

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