Recognizing the Positive: Moving towards contentment and the reduction of stress

Being able to recognize and perceive the positive aspect of each situation is perhaps the single most valuable ability we can possess. It creates a buffer zone against the stress we are all exposed to. It can give us comfort in difficult moments and motivate us when facing problems.

Many philosophers, writers, psychologists (especially Existential psychologists) and stress management experts talk about humans’ ultimate ability to choose. We always have a choice! If we cannot always change events, we are free to choose how to perceive these events, what to think of them and what to focus on.1

Even when faced with the worst possible situation, we have the power to focus on the positive (How can this make me stronger? What can I learn from this? There are people out there suffering greater hardships than me. Is there any way I can help them?) while de-emphasizing the terrible side of things. Of course, this is easier said than done, but you can begin moving in this direction in little steps. Try developing selective awareness for the positive and make it a lifestyle.

Here are some little things you can do that will help you come to better know and cherish the positive things in your life.

1. Learn to accept compliments and congratulations.

I have often wondered why so many people are having a hard time accepting an honest compliment. I would say, “What a lovely dress!” and hear back, “What? This old thing!” At a dinner invitation I may congratulate the host on preparing such an abundant and delicious treat. At this point, I often receive, “Oh, it’s nothing really. I just put a few things together in a hurry.” . . . Puzzling, isn’t it?

Have I ever given such responses? It is quite possible, but I surely try to shift in a different direction. So, what are we really saying when we give such a response to an honest compliment? There are a few options: “I am not worthy of a compliment” or “I am not used to being complimented, so I can’t react adequately” , “I’m not used to people giving me credit for my looks/taste/abilities” and so on.1 We have gotten so used to receiving criticism, we don’t even know how to accept a proper compliment. Sometimes, the feeling behind a compliment is sheer embarrassment. We feel embarrassed because someone has noticed something good about us! How ironic is that? Isn’t recognition what we generally want?  Someone has noticed a good thing in us/about us and is offering a friendly tap on the back – this is wonderful – accept it! There is nothing wrong with saying, “Thank you! I haven’t worn this dress in a long time, but I’m glad it still looks good” or “Thank you! I am truly glad you like the meal. I was trying to prepare a nice dinner for my guests to enjoy.”

Learning to accept compliments and congratulations will naturally take you to the next step . . .

2. Congratulate yourself.

I have to put a disclaimer here: I am not suggesting that we all should become obnoxious and self-absorbed, but there is nothing wrong about giving yourself credit for sincere effort, hard work or successful outcome. Our self-efficacy, the perception that we can face challenges and deal with problems effectively, is based on successful previous experience. If we never notice the progress we are doing, we can never build a sense of self-efficacy that can make us stronger and more determined in overcoming bigger challenges. This can be applied to virtually anything, from quitting smoking to being more productive at work. Give yourself credit for the effort and for the work. Notice the positive, the progress, every step of the way, and this will surely make the journey more pleasant and the goal closer to reach.

3. Take time to recognize the positive.

We are usually so consumed with daily routine and hassles that we don’t physically give ourselves the time to sit down and reflect. We move from one task to the next, often with a sense of urgency, we deal with distress and forget about contentment. Take some time of your day to spend with a good friend, only that friend is YOU. Reflect on the things that happened, offer support, an honest compliment and congratulations. If your best friend was in distress, wouldn’t you try to comfort him/her? Wouldn’t you try to pull them out of the dark hole they are in and show them the beauty outside? How are YOU any different? Why can’t you be your own best friend?!

Taking time to reflect on the positive can only take as little as a few minutes at the end of the day, while driving home from work, brushing your teeth, or before going to bed. Jot it down, if you wish to make it more tangible and keep a list for future reference. I’d say, you owe it to yourself.

References: 1.  Greenberg, J. S. (2011). Comprehensive Stress Management, 12th ed. McGraw Hill.

2 comments for “Recognizing the Positive: Moving towards contentment and the reduction of stress

  1. September 23, 2011 at 8:16 pm

    Good luck! Let us know how it went. :)

  2. Tenyo
    September 24, 2011 at 11:01 am

    I’m all for staying positive. This goes hand in hand with the appreciation of what you already have, as we all know but so often forget about. It can really make your life miserable if you’re constantly engaged in the race of bigger and better things.

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