Happiness Helper: 8 Tips to Help You Focus on Positivity and Banish Negativity

Cheerful senior woman

When it comes to finding happiness, psychotherapist Dr. John Tholen, whose new book 'Focused Positivity: The Path to Success and Peace of Mind' is out March 20, told Zoomer that “Focusing on positivity and banishing negativity is all about strategy." Photo: Sabrina Bracher/Getty images

Stress, conflict, inhumanity, disease, death — they’re all part of the human condition and we won’t get rid of them any time soon. Even everyday sadness, stress, anxiety and anger — about family, work, the way we live, or how we perceive ourselves — can cast a shadow on our emotional well-being.

Nevertheless, insists psychotherapist and author Dr. John Tholen, we can still experience happiness and feel happy much of the time.

“We don’t have much control over what happens in the world, but we can have control over which thoughts we focus on,” he says.

He calls this shifting from negative to positive a superpower. “We can select thoughts to focus on that reassure us, motivate us and inspire hope, not dysfunctional thoughts that spoil mood and motivation and are unbalanced, incomplete and often wrong.”

And he cautions, “Focusing on dysfunction is almost guaranteed to increase unhappiness.”

Tholen, 76, wrote his book, Focused Positivity: The Path to Success and Peace of Mind, after retiring from 40 years of practice as a cognitive behavioural therapist.



“Too often people get caught up in things that worry them and frighten them.”

He acknowledges that this is part of being alive.

“It’s an unfortunate part of our evolution,” he explains. “We’ve evolved to pay the most attention to things that worry us, even when there’s no emergency or danger. Our unconscious thoughts are spontaneous, automatic and out of control and they cause distress without corresponding advantage.”

That’s why, he says, it takes a conscious effort to shift our attention to more reassuring thoughts.

“When we’re confronted with something like war, there’s very little we can do. It helps to take responsible assertive action.”

He suggests we can “volunteer for some cause and lobby our legislators to do more. Taking action, any kind of action, is usually good for us. But there’s a limit to what we can do.”

It’s important, he says, “to limit our thoughts to what we can do, and once we’ve identified that, then shift to positive, reassuring thoughts and take care of ourselves.”

“Focusing on positivity and banishing negativity is all about strategy,” he explains.

Tholen offers these eight tips – and many more in his book – to put that strategy into effect and make it work:

1. Start the day by writing a list of things to be grateful for and review it during the day. A gratitude list could include people, circumstances, personal attributes, “even a positive event somewhere in the world.”

2. If you wake up at 3 a.m., and can’t sleep because of worries, keep that gratitude list on your nightstand and look at it and think about it. Whatever you do, don’t check your phone or start doomscrolling.

3. Don’t linger on social media or broadcasts that report the worst about what’s happening in the world. Instead, pick one trusted news source and limit the time you spend consuming news.

4. Use social media in a positive way to find support groups that connect you with other people who are more advanced in their adjustment to your problems.

5. Manage self-criticism and engage in positive, uplifting, reassuring self-talk, e.g. “this too shall pass.”

6. Keep in mind that the most important goal of social interaction is removing barriers between people, not making a good impression or obtaining some desired material object.

7. Sometimes feeling positive requires self-assertion. In this case, take the following steps: get the facts; identify objectives; address your own emotions; practice aloud.

8. Let go of regret or remorse about past events. Let go of fear and worry about unavoidable events that might happen in the future. Let it be.

A version of this article was published ahead of the International Day of Happiness on Sunday, March 20, 2022.


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