Each year, a friend of mine, when wishing family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances a “Happy New Year,” almost always follows it up with the rather dour postface of “let’s hope it’s better than the last one.” Sometimes they even run through some of the lower points from their preceding 12 months.
It’s not surprising that they do that as most human beings have a tendency to focus on the negative. It’s biological and innate; it’s hardwired into us. It’s habitual. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be changed. It’s possible to build a habit of thinking more positively, even if you’re currently the most negative person you know.
Positive psychology contains a vast range of tools, exercises, tips and tricks to help you do just that. Whereas most forms of psychotherapy focus on mental illness, positive psychology firmly fixes its gaze on mental wellness. “What can be done to make you feel happier and more fulfilled in your day-to-day life?” it asks. “How can you learn to flourish?”
One of its many, many laboratory tested exercises (i.e., a bunch of researchers have made people undertake these things and then rated their mood and physiology in a variety of ways) is one specifically designed to help you reflect upon events in a more positive way. And it does so by getting you to review the day, or the week, or even the month.
On a bad day, something nice will have happened (but it’s usually the bad thing you focus on) and, on a rotten week, several good things will also have happened (but it’s usually the rotten things that you reflect upon). But, by ignoring the bad in favour of good, despite your natural inclination, by writing them down in a diary or notebook, you are slowly and steadily building that habit of thinking more positively.
But, what does this mean for the new year and your happiness? Well, why not review your whole year? News and current affairs (and pop music) shows do it all the time.
So, another positive psychology exercise builds on the above by asking you to get hold of a bell jar, or some such similar receptacle. And, for a sense of occasion it asks that you get it in time for New Year’s Day. Then, over the coming 12 months, whenever something nice happens, you write that event or situation down on a piece of paper and pop it into the bell jar.
Note by note, nice thing by nice thing, into the jar it goes. A compliment here, a bonus there; a trip on a sunny day, a night out with friends, you name it. Large or small, any and all events go in the jar. And then, on New Year’s Eve next year, you can gather around the jar with family and friends, or simply on your own if you enjoy being solitary and introspective, and then reflect on what a lovely year you’ve had.
“Happy New Year,” you’ll say. “I hope it’s as good as this one was.”
You’re not denying that bad things have happened; you’re just choosing to ignore them for once, in favour of the good.
Won’t that be nice?
So, I wrote a book. It’s available to buy right now as you’re reading this and it would be awfully remiss of me if I didn’t blog about my book in my own actual blog so, here it is.
It’s called The Four Thoughts That F*ck You Up (and how to fix them) and it’s a hopefully humorous and insightful (I leave that for you to decide) book about rational emotive behaviour therapy (REBT).
REBT was invented in the mid 1950s by a psychotherapist called Albert Ellis. It’s actually considered to be the first form of cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) to be developed. And it’s brilliant.
REBT is the form of CBT that I practice and promote. It follows the philosophy that it is not the events in life that disturb you, but what you tell yourself about those events that disturbs you. So if you are thinking, feeling and acting in ways that you don’t like, but don’t seem to be able to change, it’s not because of the thing, but down to what you tell yourself about the thing, change what it is that you tell yourself and you get to change how you think, feel and act.
Now, it’s not saying when stuff happens, that it doesn’t have an influence, because it does but, it’s only an influence. So, even in the face of something difficult, or challenging, or downright negative, you can still remain in control (or regain control if you think you’ve lost it) by looking at what you tell yourself in the face of that difficult, challenging or negative thing.
This means that nobody makes you angry, nothing makes you anxious, and nobody and nothing can drive you to drink, drugs, distraction, despair or doughnuts. It’s what you tell yourself about those things and people that does that.
REBT says that there is always a thing (or an activating event) and a reaction to that thing (a consequence) but, between the thing and the reaction there will be a specific thought process (known as a belief) that drive the reaction about the thing.
So, REBT is all about beliefs. My book is all about the four beliefs that REBT says lie at the heart of psychological disturbance (i.e., that f*ck you up) and the four healthy equivalents that can help keep you calm and rational. It also has a step-by-step guide to help you work on a specific problem
Someone recently asked me why I wrote it. That answer could be a whole blog in itself but, briefly, I’ve been in practice now for over 15 years and just for once, when I was finishing therapy with someone and they asked if there is any reading material I could suggest, I wanted to be able to say, “why yes, there is this very book right here.”
And now I can.
It’s available on Amazon and Waterstones and WHSmith, or directly from the Penguin Random House website and it’s available from all good online bookshops in your country, area and/or territory (so it’s not just available in the UK).
I am reliably informed that it is both “super-wise” and “warm and funny.” And it wasn’t my friends that said that. It would make for a good Christmas stocking filler, or last-minute Christmas gift idea. And for those of you looking a little further ahead, it would be a great way of coming up with and sticking to any one of a number of New Year’s resolutions.
If you haven’t bought it yet, I hope you consider buying a copy. If you have already bought one, I thank you for doing so. And, either way, I hope you will enjoy it, are enjoying it and/or have enjoyed it.
Personally, as much as I enjoyed writing it, I will never forget the thrill of standing in the WHSmith bookshop in Paddington station on the day of publication and seeing out on the shelves already.
All the feels.
It would appear that symbols of triumph over adversity are sadly lost on some people, even when said symbols are quite literally flourishing right in front of them.
I’m lucky in that the housing development I live in is built on the edge of what was once a churchyard. The church is long gone, but the grounds remain, and so what is now a lovely little park actually sits on my doorstep. It features a large lawn, a war memorial, several trees, squirrels galore, park benches and even a picnic table. It also often contains people walking their dogs or just chilling out in the space.
It’s certainly a beautiful view from my living room windows and one that I never fail to appreciate.
Sadly, in the four years that I’ve lived here several trees have been lost to the storms, felled by ferocious winds that are now a constant feature of the British weather.
One such tree was literally split in two by a particular violent episode about two years back. One half of it fell to the floor and one half remained. However, the remnants of its once proud boughs and trunk were, for safety’s sake, quickly chain sawed down to a mere stump that stood a little over waist height.
Undaunted by the spate of adversity it had faced, the tree stump decided to carry on regardless. The following spring, tiny shoots poked their way out from the reduced trunk and quickly grew into small branches. Each branch sprouted buds that blossomed and became leaves. For two whole summers, it wore those branches and leaves like a verdant, pagan crown. You can see the results in the picture at the top of this post.
I loved that tree stump; it was like a glorious “fuck you” and “bring it on!” to the challenges that life can chuck your way.
Sadly, as of today, that stump is no more. Bristol City Council in its infinite wisdom, or lack thereof, decided to butcher it, to take a chainsaw to that glorious symbol of fortitude and reduce it down to a mere plinth.
It will neither bud nor blossom again.
If asked for a comment, I’m sure some official at the council would say something bland and officious about health and safety.
You can survive any predicament in life, except for the things that kill you, and while that tree survived the storms, it could not survive officialdom.
Goodbye valiant little tree stump, I will always value the life lessons you taught me even if Bristol City Council will not.