The other day I was trying to explain to my daughter (9) the difference between optimism and pessimism. Obviously, a glass filled to 50 percent with liquid had to be used for this purpose. Even though I had previously considered whether to talk about orange juice, water or better a healthy green smoothie with spinach and banana, we spontaneously ended up with the quite common glass of milk. Half-empty or half-full, depending on a person’s attitude to life and nature. The most important thing I wanted my daughter to understand in this conversation was that it is her own choice how she wants to deal with day-to-day events and issues. That she has the choice, even in difficult situations, to focus her attention on what is good in her life and to draw strength precisely from that for overcoming mental challenges. That it is entirely up to them to become an optimist or a pessimist.
The optimist is no less often wrong than the pessimist, but he lives more joyfully.Charlie Rivel, Spanish clown,1896-1983
Change of perspective can strengthen us mentally
When we think about a problem, it is helpful to look at it from different angles. Changes in perspective allow us to gain insight – and by focusing on the positive, we can put ourselves in a posture of strength and activity.
Positive focus through inner time travel(s) and the power of imagination
Let’s imagine the following initial situation: We have a problem and do not know how to solve it. We may even have already written a pro and con list, but have not yet come to a conclusion. In scenarios like this, I always remember the saying my former autogenic training teacher taught us about stress management, and it hasn’t been lost on me since:
Solutions will be found.
Where will I deal with this problem:
- in four weeks,
- in four months,
- stand in four years?
I love every single word of this powerful mnemonic and its positive statement right at the beginning. It sounds like a mantra and can unleash its enormous power: “Solutions will be found.” Yes, even if I don’t see them right now, solutions to my problem will be found. They will show up, almost by themselves. When I combine the three time intervals of four weeks, four months and four years with this happy outlook on the future, I think to myself:
“In four weeks, I have tackled my current problem and have already successfully initiated quite a few things. In four months, I have taken decisive steps forward and may have already solved my problem. And four years from now, I can look back on it and either have forgotten about it because it’s become so unimportant, or I can even smile about it and be proud of myself because I’ve done so well.”
From my point of view, the special effect of the mnemonic is that it invites us to an inner journey through time. By imagining how we look back on a successfully mastered problem with a time gap of four years, we send a powerful message to our psyche: In principle, the problem has already been solved – this is exactly what arrives in the subconscious and gives confidence and self-assurance.
Negative focus leads to discomfort and mental imbalance
I – an optimist – experienced the effects of negative focus first hand when I had to make a list of my symptoms for my disability application a few years ago. For three days, I dealt with my health limitations seemingly non-stop. This did not fail to affect my psychological balance: I felt worse every day, I saw myself as a deficient being. How happy and relieved I was when the application was sent and days later I gradually found my way back to my emotional balance.
When is it time for professional support?
The title of this article contains a deliberately placed “also”: “Mental Health is also a question of focus.” Without this word, it would remain a superficial discussion of the topic. After all, there are mental challenges, strokes of fate, psychological crises and illnesses in life in which one can no longer manage to change one’s focus and direct it towards the positive on one’s own, but needs professional help.
In the case of life crises and highly stressful situations, early professional support can help prevent mental illness. If one is already present, from which one may feel massively affected, it is not easy to redirect the focus to the positive in life. If one has been a cheerful and optimistic person before, refocusing on the positive, supported by therapeutic and medical guidance, may be easier.
However, the diagnosis of a mental illness can shake those affected to such an extent that, in addition to acceptance of the illness and time, personality development is often necessary in order to be able to accept oneself in the new state of being. To feel lovable and right again – even if you can’t play in meritocracy in the same way you did before. At its best – or so I have experienced – a mental health crisis or illness can provide opportunities to move away from harmful patterns and develop healthier ways of working and behaving.
Focusing on the positive increases your own mental health
Modern concepts of illness and health inspire a new view of the individual experience of one’s own condition: even with the permanent presence of symptoms (physical as well as psychological), those affected succeed in feeling satisfaction and thus well-being by focusing on positive aspects of life and one’s own strengths as well as on what is still feasible – despite continuing impairments. There is tremendous power in this view, which is also found in Positive Psychology. It allows one to feel quality of life even in less than ideal circumstances – which has a direct positive impact on mental health and can increase it tremendously.
If we are psychologically healthy or in balance, we have it in our hands to decide ourselves about our focus. To face life’s questions and challenges pessimistically or optimistically. It is important to become aware of the unconscious processes that control our perception. If we recognize them, we can influence them – for our own good.
A quote from the Brazilian writer Fernando Sabino (1923-2004), which is often wrongly* attributed to Oskar Wilde or John Lennon, brings us full circle to the scene with the half-full glass of milk described at the beginning and to the life-affirming power of positive thinking:
In the end, everything will be fine. And if it doesn’t turn out well, it’s not the end.
About the author
Nora Hille was born in 1975, is happily married and has two children. She studied history, literature and media studies, worked in communications/public relations for 12 years and has now retired for health reasons. Today she writes articles on the topics of mental health and mental illness as a sufferer and experience expert. She also writes literary essays, poems (preferably haikus) and short prose. She regularly publishes her mental health column here at FemalExperts Magazine and is Editor of eXperimenta - the magazine for literature, art and society. Anti-stigma work is close to her heart: she is an encourager at Mutmachleute e.V. and is committed to Anti-Stigma-Texts against the stigmatization (exclusion) of the mentally ill in our society for more togetherness, tolerance and equality. In autumn 2023 her book "When Light Defeats Darkness" will be published by Palomaa Publishing. A book of encouragement about how to live a good and rich life despite bipolar illness - and the enormous challenge that this means every day for the inner balance of those affected.