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Do You Have Control Over Your Thoughts?

Happiness starts with your thoughts. If you’re able to believe the truth about happiness, then you’ll know and understand that you can be happy now, no matter the circumstances. But is it really as simple as choosing to believe? Do you have that kind of control over your thoughts?

Spoiler alert: yes, you do.

“Change your thoughts and you change your world.”

Norman Vincent Peale

As with athletic training or academic studying, learning to control your thoughts requires time and effort. But when the result is overall greater happiness and an improved perspective on life, it’s more than worth it.

The world is neutral

If you’re going to truly understand that you have power over your thoughts, then you first need to understand that everything that happens to you or around you is neutral. 

What does this mean? It means that failing a test, losing the big game, getting fired, or receiving a rejection letter are not automatically “bad” things. It also means that getting a promotion, losing weight, graduating college, or booking that vacation are not necessarily “good” things. 

How can that be?

It’s because any of these things could be seen as good or bad, depending on how you interpret them. Therefore, before you assign meaning to any of these things, they are, in and of themselves, neutral.

Wayne Dyer puts it this way: “The truth is that there is no actual stress or anxiety in the world; it’s your thoughts that create these false beliefs. You can’t package stress, touch it, or see it. There are only people engaged in stressful thinking.”

To clarify, the things that happen to you aren’t causing you stress, or joy, or anger, or peace. It’s your thoughts about what happens to you that inspire those feelings.

Your thoughts add meaning and value

Let’s consider being fired from your job unexpectedly. If you are your family’s only source of income, and you’re worried about your ability to find another job, getting fired probably troubles you. Ultimately, your thought would probably be something like “This is bad.” You’ve assigned meaning to it. 

However, what if you are fired on the same day you had planned on quitting, because you’ve been offered a better job somewhere else? In this case, getting fired is actually a blessing. Your thoughts will be more along the lines of “That was a happy coincidence.” Once again, you’ve assigned meaning to being fired, but this time, it’s positive instead of negative.

There is no meaning behind the actual act of getting fired; it is neutral. You add meaning to everything that happens to you, based on your background, experiences, and current state.

This is true for other circumstances as well. Losing ten pounds can be great if you were trying to lose weight, or discouraging if you’ve been trying to bulk up. Your child getting in trouble at school could be embarrassing and disappointing, or it could be the teaching opportunity you’ve been waiting for. 

These things can be either positive or negative. In other words, they have no inherent value. Your attitude toward any situation can tip the scales in either a positive or negative direction, depending on the thoughts you think about that situation. 

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Choosing your thoughts

The fact is that through our thoughts, we assign meaning to everything that happens to us. Because of this, it follows that we would be able to choose the thoughts we think about any given situation.

That means that no matter what happens to you, you can choose what to think about it. You can design the meaning you give to the events in your life. You are in control.

Going back to the “getting fired” example—let’s say that you were fired unexpectedly, you needed your job, and your family’s lifestyle is in danger. As we mentioned before, it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary to assign the thought “This is bad” to that scenario.

But what if you didn’t?

What if, before you let yourself think “This is bad,” you took a step back to acknowledge that losing your job is actually neutral? What if you let your mind explore other meanings you could assign to this situation? You could choose thoughts like:

  • “Now I can find a job I really like.”
  • “I’m sure I’ll be able to find something quickly.”
  • “This is a setback, but I can handle it.”
  • “When one door closes, another opens.”

Recognizing that getting fired has no inherent value opens the door for you to assign whatever value you want to it—good or bad.

“Happiness can be achieved through training the mind.”

Dalai Lama

Why it’s hard to change your thoughts

It sounds simple enough, right? Just choose what you believe.

Of course, we all know that in reality, it’s anything but simple.

In reality, our brains have been trained, over our entire lifetimes, to immediately pass judgement on our circumstances. We think that everything must be good or bad, and we judge everything to be so based on our past experiences, prejudices, preferences, and beliefs.

There’s a whole form of therapy around retraining your brain to choose the thoughts you want. It’s called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and it teaches skills that ultimately help people ditch the unhelpful thoughts in favor of the ones that will help them progress. More than that, neural imaging shows that CBT can actually change the physical structure of the brain, and the physical way that it reacts to certain stimuli.

CBT isn’t the only way to recognize and use the control you have over your thoughts, but it is one science-based example of how controlling your thoughts is possible, even if it seems hard.

(For more science behind thought work and happiness, read this.)

Try this

The next time you catch yourself thinking an unproductive thought, try some of these techniques to help you regain control of your thoughts.

  • Hit the pause button. Imagine pausing a movie you’re watching at home. Stop yourself in the same way. This will give yourself some time to remember that anything that happens to you is inherently neutral.
  • Breathe. Some negative thoughts can trigger a “flight or fight” response. Taking a few deep breaths will help you calm yourself physically and mentally.
  • Write it down. Sometimes, seeing our thoughts spelled out in front of us can help us make more sense of them.
  • Try affirmations. Affirmations are essentially positive thoughts you tell yourself to help you retrain your brain. We’re big fans of affirmations. Read this to help you learn how to write your own positive affirmations to get your thoughts back on track.

Recognizing that you have control over your thoughts is an important step if you want to reshape those thoughts. Reshaping your thoughts so that they serve you better is the very essence of designing your life.

At Design.org, we have our own unique framework and personalized tools that will help you as you work to design your thoughts and your life. It all starts with our free assessment.

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