Note: This is part of a series of blog posts I've been doing about adopting a more positive mindset. You can find the others in the list of blog posts.
Have you ever had a situation where your perspective on something changed, and suddenly a whole new world opened up? It’s a very strange feeling, but it can be very freeing to realize you’re not as constrained as you thought you were.
But until I read The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor, it never occurred to me that you could deliberately change your perspective. I thought it just happened.
An example of my changed perspective
I’ll give you a personal example. Back when I was 13, Mom had me go see a therapist because of my weight. (The irony is that I wasn’t even that heavy at that point.) I can’t even begin to describe how upset I was. It made me feel like I was broken, flawed in some deeply fundamental way.
Of course, I never told Mom this. I was too angry and hurt. I carried that for years, even after her death. Until I read an entry in her diary where she said one of her sisters had pressed her to take me to a therapist.
I was floored. All my resentment and bitterness had been misdirected. Yet even then I didn’t ask my aunt about it. I felt like I should just let it go. (Well, really, I don’t like confrontation.)
Imagine my further surprise when my cousin revealed that her mom, my aunt, had also struggled with weight as an adolescent and had wanted to talk to someone about it. Far from thinking something was wrong with me, my aunt had thought she was doing something good and kind for me, based on her own experience.
Nothing had changed – and yet everything had. My anger about the situation was now hollow, directionless. I realized how much energy I’d spent being upset about something that, in the end, wasn’t at all what I had imagined.
What a difference it would have made to know this sooner! Although better late than never.
The benefits of changing your perspective
Based on my experience, I know how these kinds of changes can make a big difference. But it goes even beyond what I thought.
Achor points out that our brains have limited resources, so we should consider how we want to use those resources. Do you want to stay focused on pain and stress? Or would you prefer to look at life through a lens of gratitude, hope, optimism, and meaning?
This may seem like a silly question, but it’s also easy to forget that this is a choice.
And even more significantly, if you change your perspective, you actually change your experience and your reality.
The simplest example is your perception of time. You’ve probably heard the phrase, “Time flies when you’re having fun.” You may have even experienced the truth of this.
When you’re bored or feel like what you’re doing is a waste of time, even half an hour can seem endless.
But when you’re engaged and enjoying your activity, and it seems valuable, you’re less likely to be watching the clock. And the time will go more quickly.
This is only one example of how a difference in perspective changes the objective results of an experience.
The Placebo Effect is another example, such as when people expect that taking a certain medication will benefit them – and they feel better when they thought they received the medication even though they didn’t. Achor also wrote about the Reverse Placebo, where people who would normally react badly to something (like poison ivy) don’t react when they’re told it’s something different.
Why does this happen? “One answer is that the brain is organized to act on what we predict will happen next, something psychologists call “Expectancy Theory.” Dr. Marcel Kinsbourne, a neuroscientist at the New School for Social Research in New York, explains that our expectations create brain patterns that can be just as real as those created by events in the real world.” (p. 70)
So when you consider that “reality” is simply our brain’s relative understanding of the world based on how and where we’re observing it, you can see how changing your perspective also changes your reality.
Connecting to mindful eating
This concept makes a lot of sense in the context of mindful eating.
For example, Achor mentions how if you view something as a waste of time, or boring, then that’s exactly what you’ll get. You won’t find any benefit in it, even if theoretically it’s a fun or rewarding activity.
Consider how this applies to the act of eating your food slowly and mindfully. So many people have told me they try this but get bored very quickly. But maybe that’s because they’re expecting to be bored.
What if you change your perspective to one where you’re looking forward to getting the full experience of the food? To having the delight of different flavors and textures? To enjoy thinking about all the ways food connects you to people? And feel deeply grateful for what you have to eat?
That change in perspective could transform your meal.
Then there’s the part about food preparation. Achor notes how easy it is to consider certain activities as drudgery. Maybe you feel that way about chopping vegetables, going grocery shopping, or any kind of meal preparation.
This can easily happen when you consider it as a means to an end. Maybe you think of eating a certain way as simply a necessary requirement to being healthier. But since becoming healthier doesn’t happen after eating one meal, the food prep can start to feel like work.
What if, instead, you focused on the pleasure of the “means” for itself? As an example, here’s a lovely description of someone cutting vegetables and how it made her want to taste them.
“Each round of carrot was like a mandala, paler orange patterns embedded in a matrix of deep orange. She wanted to taste it. She wanted to feel its sweet crisp flesh crumbling under her teeth, yielding up its store of nourishment…. She wanted the glowing jewel-like tomatoes and the pale fresh heart of the cucumbers with their translucent store of seeds.” (from The Fifth Sacred Thing by Starhawk, p. 263)
3 ways to shift your perspective
If this is something you want to try for yourself, Achor offers these suggestions.
Focus on why you’ll succeed. When you have something difficult to do, it can be very easy to think about all the reasons you’ll fail. The problem is, focusing on those will almost certainly make you stumble. Instead, consider all the reasons you’ll succeed. The more you believe in your success, the more you’ll try to live up to that, and the more likely you are to actually succeed.
Have a growth mindset. Sometimes you might tell yourself that you can’t do something because you don’t know how. But having a growth mindset means believing you can learn and improve your abilities. And when you believe you can do something, and that you’ll benefit by learning it, you’ll likely work harder at it.
Create your happiness. Here in America, we talk a lot about the pursuit of happiness, but Achor has a different approach. He suggests that you aim to create or construct your happiness. Because the language of pursuit implies you might not achieve it, or at least not for a long time. But if you’re creating it, you can find happiness now.
How I’ve been using this
Bringing a different perspective has been useful to me in a couple of ways.
One is getting outside on colder days. It can be easy to feel like putting on layers and boots is a duty or drudgery. But when I remind myself that I like being outside – assuming I’m properly dressed – I can focus on the pleasure of it.
This also reminds me of the quote I heard a few times in Iceland (though the photo is from Maine):
I’ve also been applying a lot of this to work. Achor suggests an approach of “job crafting,” where you think about the meaning behind what you do and what parts of it you enjoy doing. And then try to write about it in a way that would entice someone else.
What I realized in this exercise is that my biggest frustration with my job is feeling like I’m not able to do my work due to obstruction from other areas. I’m just spinning my wheels and trying to find ways to stay busy – but that’s not the same as being productive.
So I’ve been shifting things by seeing this as an opportunity to learn some new skills. And to find out what’s going on in other areas of the company in case I want to make a shift. It’s definitely helped me feel better about heading into the office.
How about you? Have you ever changed your perspective on something in a way that’s given you a positive result? I’d love to hear it!
Or if this is a new idea for you, I hope these ideas help. For me, I’m off to see how I can improve my reality for the coming week.