Habits of the Mind

We all know there are simple things we can do to have a more healthy body, like eat well, rest and exercise.  But it only dawned on me recently that there is an equivalent sort of hygiene for the mind.  Here are three powerful “habits of the mind” that I believe contribute powerfully to long-term mental and emotional strength.  They take effort, but the payoff is huge:

Optimism.  My sister-in-law, an avid gardener, once said that she had started to think of her mind like a garden, and she was trying to be more selective about what she lets grow there.  That’s a good image for what it means to be optimistic.  Optimism involves actively looking for the good in people and situations.  It takes effort and practice.  It means choosing a pathway of positive thinking as you interpret events and consider the future.

I recently read that part of the army’s toughness training involves what they call “thinking like an optimist.”  I firmly believe, and clearly so does our military, that this is a habit of the mind that can be learned.  For some specific tips on cultivating optimism, see:  http://goo.gl/1GoXqg.

Positive self-talk and self-regard. The notion of self-talk acknowledges that all human beings talk to themselves in their own heads. We say things to ourselves quietly. We judge or congratulate ourselves based on our performance; we whisper supportive, positive, reinforcing ideas; or negative thoughts that reinforce feelings of failure.

One extremely useful mental habit is to consciously choose the conversations that you have in your head, so that rather than beating yourself up for imperfections (for example) you intentionally choose to say more kind things. Rather than, “Wow, I totally screwed up that meeting,” you might say, “That was a really tough meeting, and I held my own.  Sure there are some things I might do differently next time….”

The overarching idea is to speak in your mind to yourself as you would speak to someone that you truly care about.  The key is to catch yourself and replace harsh self-talk with something more compassionate.  To take this practice further, bring the feeling of positive regard to yourself as well.

Forgiveness.  Forgiveness is really the combination of several powerful mental habits.  I highly recommend Fred Luskin’s book Forgive For Good, where he lays out a practical philosophy and method for forgiveness. He talks about the idea of a grievance, how people form a grievance when something happens that they don’t want to have happen, when they take it too personally, and when they focus on blaming another person for what happened—or, in some cases, blaming themselves.

Luskin uses the metaphor of your mind as a television, with you holding the remote. The more time you spend tuned into the “channels” of gratitude, love, and seeing the beauty in things, the more forgiving you become, because you are spending less time involved in the negativity associated with a grievance. The book is a great read, and it lays out several other strategies for developing new habits of the mind that lead to more resilience and inner strength.

These habits of the mind can be learned in the same way that you could learn to play tennis or to develop any kind of habit—through consistent practice and effort.