On some days, the world can seem like it’s full of mean people. From the person who screamed at you for accidentally bumping into them on the subway to the coworker who insulted your idea for a new project, negativity can seem omnipresent.
But what if erasing all this pessimism were merely a matter of changing your perspective? According to Dr. Mark Goulston, a psychiatrist at the University of California at Los Angeles, it is.
In his recent book, “Talking to Crazy: How to Deal with the Irrational and Impossible People in Your Life,” Goulston charts a simple strategy for dealing with negative people. You can use it on everyone — that random person on the train, or your boss, significant other, or next-door neighbour.
Before you try it, be forewarned: It might bring you to some surprising — and even counterintuitive — conclusions about your own behaviour.
Here’s what you do:
First, pick out all the negative qualities in the people around you — the ones that make you want to grind your teeth or ball up your fists. Maybe your coworker consistently nags your boss for praise; perhaps your brother only calls when he’s in dire straits.
Then think of what the opposite of these traits would be. In our example, maybe it would be an independent coworker, or a sibling who checks in and displays some interest in your life. Now, start acting as if these people were behaving this way.
Think it’s easier said than done? Check out the following example:
Say you were to rank your coworker, Terry, in terms of how “selfish” vs. “generous” she is. You think she’s selfish, so you might rank her somewhere on the scale like this:
Now you’d pause and imagine that, instead, her actions were generous. The next time she talks about a project idea, imagine that she’s doing so to get your whole team’s effort, not just hers, recognised.
The limits of positive thinking — and why action matters
You may have heard that “positive thinking” — a school of thought in the psychology world that proposes that viewing the world more optimistically can help you feel more satisfied and less stressed — has some serious limitations.
The psychologist Gabriele Oettingen proposes in her book “Rethinking Positive Thinking,” for example, that while thinking optimistically sounds great on paper, in reality it falls short. Daydreaming about a better world, says Oettingen, is a waste of time because people end up merely fantasizing about a reality rather than taking concrete actions to make it happen.
She draws on 20 years of research to back up her argument, including a study she coauthored in the 1990s that found that of women enrolled in a weight-reduction program, those who thought more positively about their future outcomes tended to lose fewer pounds than those who thought more negatively about them.
But Goulston’s strategy isn’t positive thinking. Why? It’s less about thinking positively and more about acting positively.
Take the example above. When it comes to what your coworker is really thinking or doing, you don’t know. You probably never will. And it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you change your actions toward that person — how you respond to what they say and do.
In other words, it matters less what you think (or daydream) about their behaviour and more about how you actively respond to it in the real world.
When you start to do this consistently, here’s what will happen, Goulston writes:
“The people who truly are negative may come around, at least a little. And the people who aren’t truly negative — the ones you’ve been undefined — will respond to your new behaviour with relief, gratitude, and warmth. And occasionally, you may discover that the irrational person in the relationship was actually you.”