Psychology, Self-Development, Videos

How to Change Your Attitude to Change Your Life

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The following is a transcript of this video.

“Do not be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emerson in His Journals

There is perhaps no task we can set before ourselves that offers greater rewards than striving for mastery of the world within. For no matter what has happened to us thus far, nor what may befall us in the future, greater inner harmony can only improve our well-being. This task is also unique in that it requires no additional resources to begin, no help from others and it can be worked towards at any place and at any time. As we saw in our previous video all that is required is a willingness to experiment and a knowledge of some of the tools we have at our disposal. In this video, and several to follow, we will explore a variety of these tools and we will look at how to integrate them into life experiments that can help us unlock a more flourishing state of mind.

The first tool we are going to examine is cognitive re-framing. Cognitive re-framing is a method for self-induced thought change. It can be used for many purposes such as minimizing the impact of intrusive thoughts, correcting the faulty beliefs that give rise to irrational fears, or even escaping the downward pull of depressive ruminations. When implemented successively, cognitive re-framing shifts us away from thought patterns that make us suffer to those more conducive to a good life. In this video we are going to explore how we can use cognitive re-framing to re-structure our attitude. For our attitude is very often what keeps us locked in a stagnant life of suffering and our attitude is one element of the world within that can be modified to a remarkable degree.

If we are to have any hope of achieving this type of transformation we need to accept that our current attitude is not a singularly accurate product of our life thus far. It is easy to overlook this fact and to believe that a poor attitude on our part is justified by what we have had to endure. A difficult upbringing, mistreatment by others, or plain bad luck can easily convince us that our attitude, while perhaps not ideal, is based on the reality of our situation. This belief, however, overlooks two important considerations. Firstly, humans are susceptible to all sorts of biases, prone to self-deception and capable of the greatest delusions. But even if we were to grant that much of what sculpted our attitude is based in fact, and not on our distorted view of these facts, this brings up the following set of questions: ‘Which facts?’, ‘Why those facts?’ and ‘Why not others?’ For as William James put it, the world is a “blooming, buzzing confusion” and for order to emerge, whether it be the order of a scientific theory, or the order that creates our sense of self and our attitude toward life, we must be selective about which facts we focus on, which ones we diminish and which ones we completely ignore. Or as Arthur Koestler explains:

“Without the hard little bits of marble which are called ‘facts’ or ‘data’ one cannot compose a mosaic; what matters, however, are not so much of the individual bits, but the successive patterns into which you arrange them, then break them up and rearrange them.”

Arthur Koestler, The Act of Creation

Our past may be the source material from which the foundation of our attitude was built, but this material can be sculpted in many ways and cognitive re-framing can help us achieve this feat.For to re-frame is simply to create new patterns of self-order by changing the way we perceive the facts of our life and by changing the way we string these facts together.

“To reframe means to change the conceptual and/or emotional setting or viewpoint in relation to which a situation is experienced and to place it in another frame which fits the “facts” of the same concrete situation equally well or even better, and thereby changes its entire meaning. The mechanism involved here is not immediately obvious, especially if we bear in mind that there is change while the situation itself may remain quite unchanged and, indeed, even unchangeable. What turns out to be changed as a result of reframing is the meaning attributed to the situation, and therefore its consequences, but not its concrete facts. . .”

Change – Principles of Problem Formation And Problem Resolution

We are now going to look at how we can integrate cognitive re-framing into a life experiment that can help us cultivate a more empowered attitude. The first step in this experiment is to “begin with the end in mind” (Steven Covey). We should ask ourselves the following questions: Who would we like to be? What do we value? And what do we want out of life? We should write out our answers, as this exercise and the ones to follow, will be more effective if we put pen to paper. With our end in mind we then need to ask if there is anything about ourselves, or this world, that absolutely precludes this possibility? If no insurmountable barriers exist, then we have formed what the psychologist William James called a living option.

With our living option in mind the next step is to make use of an exercise called mental contrasting. This entails writing out how we see our life unfolding if we remain as we are now, in contrast to how our life will become if we move toward the ideal of our living option. This exercise will not only increase our awareness of the necessity of change and the good that will befall us if we do change, but it will also create a heightened emotional state which can make the next step of this experiment more effective. For as Michael Mahoney writes in Human Change Processes:

“it is in the crucibles of personally meaningful intense [emotions] that patterns of experiencing may be most powerfully re-scaffolded”

Michael Mahoney, Human Change Processes

Or as Arnold Bennett put it:

“There can be no knowledge without emotion. We may be aware of the truth, yet until we have felt its force, it is not ours. To the cognition of the brain must be added the experience of the soul.”

Arnold Bennett

With the experience of our soul supporting us we will be psychologically primed to re-interpret our past in a way that justifies a more empowered attitude. One exercise that can help us in this regard is to write out a brief life narrative which frames the events of our past in such a way that at the end of the narrative we are firmly planted on the path of our living option. This exercise, in other words, uses our desired future to re-shape our conception of the past in the recognition that

“…what an individual seeks to become determines what he remembers of his has been. In this sense the future determines the past.”

Rollo May, Existence

An example can clarify the process of re-framing. Perhaps we are an individual who has spent years drifting through life, accomplishing little to be proud of and trapped in an attitude of apathy and despondency. To escape from this state of mind we do not need to deny our past, but we do need to look at it from a different angle. Instead of seeing our years as wasted we can focus on what experiencing life in this form has taught us: We have learned the danger of drifting, the necessity of a more active approach, and the ease with which the years can pass us by. This experience could be interpreted as the spark of necessity that lit the fuse of a more empowered existence and these ‘wasted year’ could be re-interpreted as setting the stage for redemption.

“The process of revising a life story is not one of denying facts,” wrote Michael Mahoney “diminishing the reality of past suffering, or – to put it graphically – “blowing sunshine up the ass.” It is, however, an exploration of alternative interpretations and evaluations.”

Michael Mahoney, Human Change Processes

As we strive to re-sculpt the foundation of our attitude with cognitive re-framing we need to recognize that such change will not be accomplished in a single sitting. It takes time to cultivate the new thought patterns that support a more empowered view of life and for this reason we should consider developing a journaling habit. With this habit in place each day we have an opportunity to challenge the thought patterns holding us back and to write out more empowering interpretations of life. Many great figures, both past and present, have found such a habit to be of great value. Francis Bacon, the 16th century English polymath, was so fond of this personal form of correspondence that he proclaimed:

“Let diaries, therefore, be brought in use.”

Francis Bacon

Tom Morris in his book True Success points out that when we consistently use a journal we are:

“. . .interpreting to [ourselves] the directions of [our] lives, [our] pasts, presents, and futures. Small details and big developments.  [We are] attaining clarity about [our] own hearts. . .arriving at self-knowledge as well as knowledge of the world. [Our] goals for work, for family life, and for personal development naturally [grow] out of this knowledge, as a powerful by-product of [our] habits of articulation.”

Tom Morris, True Success

If we are persistent in our use of writing to challenge who we think we are and where we think we are going, slowly but surely we will alter the way we view the world and we will give birth to a new attitude. If we are truly successful in our endeavour, this process of cognitive re-framing can be equivalent to a change of our gods. For as the Roman poet Virgil wrote “We make our destiny by our choice of the gods” and the same can be said with regards to our choice of attitude. Our attitude determines our destiny – it tells us what is possible and what is not. But unlike the gods who can seem out of reach to us mere mortals, our attitude can change and as William James wrote:

“The greatest discovery of my generation is the fact that human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind.”

William James, Principles of Psychology

Further Readings

Art Used in this Video

Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis - FRIENDSHIP - 1906 - 7
Carl Spitzweg 021
Archip Iwanowitsch Kuindshi 009
Portrait of a man - painting by László Mednyánszky-2
Ladislav Mednyánszky - Boy on the Porch - O 2823 - Slovak National Gallery
Eckenfelder A20 1884
John George Brown - The Bully of the Neighbourhood
Assistants and George Frederic Watts - Hope - Google Art Project
Thomas Eakins - Miss Amelia Van Buren - Google Art Project
Rembrandt van Rijn 198
Adriaen Brouwer - The Bitter Potion - Google Art Project
Zhukovsky 1815
Ekels de Jonge
El borracho
Luigi Primo - Portrait of a Nobleman of Ancona - Walters 37660
Portrait of the Writer Maxim Gorky
Adolphe, of The Sad Young Man, by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1894, crayon lithograph on wove paper, only state, Wittrock 55 - Montreal Museum of Fine Arts - Montreal, Canada - DSC08846
Santiago Rusiñol - After the War. The Sad Home - Google Art Project
Singer Sargent, John - Hercules - 1921
Markó, Károly - Landscape at Tivoli, with a Scene from the Grape Harvest - Google Art Project
William Bradford Ice Floes Under The Midnight Sun