Imagine if you could change one “little thing” in your daily life and improve your mental health — and maybe even that of those around you. This “little thing” would differ from person to person and time to time and this column explores the power of using positive language in determining our affect as a path to improved mental health.
Affect is variable based on one's environment and is a determining feature of our mental health. Shifting your affect in a positive direction may similarly shift your mental health.
If you are like me, you have probably noticed you tend to take a more positive outlook on life with certain people. I have two friends, who when I am with, I make every effort to take a positive perspective and I choose my words in conversation with them to facilitate this. As a result, I often experience an improvement in my own mental state. This improvement could be from their company, but there is a chance some of this benefit also comes from my deliberate choice to use positive language in our conversation.
Positive language easily describes the good, but not all situations in our lives fall in this category. Can positive language be used to describe ‘the everyday’ and negative situations with the same benefit? Recently published research (e.g., Knuppenburg & Frederick, 2021) showed using positive language to describe any type of event has a beneficial impact on our affect and likability. So, how do we focus our language in this way? Many have their own methods, but one reframing strategy is to play a mental game—do your best to strike the word 'not' from your vocabulary. Focus on the “can” versus the “can not” in your day. Start by doing this for one hour (you may be surprised how challenging this is) and work your way to longer intervals.
Let’s consider an example of how this might work. Entering a new relationship, perhaps you tend to worry, imagining all that could go wrong and end it. Thoughts like, “This person can not really like me this much” may arise. Using the strategy discussed here, you would, instead, focus on what might go right to help your relationship grow, leading you to thoughts like, “I am happy this person really likes me and look forward to where this might go.”
To maximize the benefits of this reframing strategy, extend the use of positive language to your internal speech. Internal speech, often referred to as one’s inner voice, is the way we talk with ourselves in our own minds. The content and tone of this internal speech provides clues as to how we think about ourselves. Our internal speech can also drive factors of mental well-being like mood, self-esteem, and motivation.
The more you practice this reframing strategy, the better you will get. The better you get, the more benefits you will see in yourself and those around you. Why others? Because others absorb and mirror our affect and also benefit from hearing the positive perspective that comes from using positive language.
The message may be the same, but it turns out the way you say “it” matters, whatever “it”’ may be. Give this reframing strategy a try — it will not hurt and it may even help you on your own mental health journey.
Christina M. Frederick, Ph.D., is a cognitive psychologist and the Director of Research with Sapience Practice in Reno, Nevada. She has spent her career in research and teaching and has a passion for working with others on research.
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