“Life is 10% what happens to us and 90% how we react to it.” – Dennis P. Kimbro
I’m fascinated by how our perspective on our health influences our mental wellbeing. We all have personal narratives about ourselves. One person I know has himself as the hero in all his anecdotes. It may start like this – “So we were all in this boat in weather that was really like a hurricane” and the story’s climax will be “and before I know it, me, who’s not even a great swimmer (the famous humblebrag) is saving all these other people!”. I love his stories because they remind me of how we may have perceived ourselves when we felt all-powerful, maybe at age 8 or 9. How does our perspective on our abilities, fitness and experiences effect our overall health?
As it turns out, our mindset has much more effect than we may have previously thought. This study, http://www.wsj.com/articles/its-healthy-to-put-a-good-spin-on-your-life-1428338415, looked at how our own personal narratives were a major determinant of life satisfaction as we age. It may come as no surprise that people who put a positive spin on their experiences and encroaching limitations were happier and more fulfilled than those who had a negative outlook.
There were 4 criteria examined:
• Agency—Did the subjects feel able to influence and respond to events in life, or did they feel battered around by the whims of external forces?
• Communion—Are the people connected or disconnected to others?
• Redemption—Did the subjects take a negative experience and find some positive outcome?
• Contamination—Did they tell narratives of good things turning bad?
Let’s look at some examples from real life:
Agency- Did my parent decline quickly because I wasn’t around to take care of her, or is the natural aging process the reason that she’s in hospice care?
Communion – Does it matter that I’m too busy to socialize, or do I need to make more time to be with friends and family?
Redemption – After I had this major illness or physical setback, can I appreciate things more because I know they’re precious and time limited?
Contamination – Just because one thing went wrong, am I doomed to keep having bad things happen? (Don’t buy into the idea that bad things happen in 3’s, it’s just a myth!)
Let’s look at some concrete steps:
- Understand why you tell the story you’ve created. (e.g. If you feel like you are always the victim, and you stop being that victim, will you still get people’s help or sympathy?)
- Take small steps. Short term manageable changes have a better chance of success.
- Note that your narrative is a part of who you are, not the sum total. You are not your narrative, it’s just part of your identity.
- Note that narratives are usually formed from previous experience, which can be viewed in more than one way. Here’s your chance to get others’ perspectives on past events, to help reframe your experience.
- Understand what you will lose and gain by changing your narrative. There are always trade-offs; be aware of what they may be.
- Look for the elements that aren’t true in your narrative. This can lead you into thinking of ways to change it. Again, other perspectives are helpful here if you have difficulty seeing flaws in your own reasoning.
- Be on the alert for the old version popping into your head. Raise the red flag whenever you hear the familiar echoes and try to replace old ways of thinking with a more positive spin.
So here’s to reframing the negative, embracing the positive and going forth with optimism and energy!