How choosing your attitude brings meaning to your life

We must resist the temptation to remain prisoners of our thoughts and exercise the freedom to choose our attitude, no matter what

You have the freedom to choose your attitude
"Everything can be taken from a man but...the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way."
Viktor Frankl

Human beings are, by nature, creatures of habit. Searching for a life that is both predictable and within our comfort zone, we rely on routine and, for the most part, learned thinking patterns. We create pathways in our minds in much the same way that a path is beaten through a grass field from repeated use. Because these patterns are automatic, we may believe these habitual ways of thinking and behaving to be beyond our control. Thus we rationalise our responses to life and fall prey to forces that limit our potential as human beings. By viewing ourselves as relatively powerless and driven by instinct, the possibility that we can create, or at least co-create, our own reality becomes difficult to grasp. Instead, we often lock ourselves inside our own mental prisons. We lose sight of our own natural potential and that of others. In essence, we become prisoners of our thoughts.

Yet we can reshape our patterns of thinking. Through our own search for meaning, we can unfreeze ourselves from our limited perspective, find the key, and unlock the door of our metaphorical prison cell. We can change our perspective once we realise that we do, indeed, have the freedom to choose our attitude toward whatever is happening in our lives.

"Each of us has his own inner concentration camp...we must deal with, with forgiveness and patience— as full human beings; as we are and what we will become."
—Viktor Frankl

The responsibility for choosing our attitude lies solely with each of us. It cannot be transferred to someone else. This ultimate responsibility applies both to our personal and our work lives. We have made this claim over the years to various business and government clients, especially in cases where workers, including executives and managers, seem intent on complaining about their working conditions rather than doing anything to change the situation. We all know people who habitually define their work or job in a negative way.

Take, for example, Bob, who would appear to many to be a fairly successful bank executive. However, his work journey has taken him through some dramatic twists and turns, causing him much stress. Bob rarely, if ever, seems positive or optimistic about his job and, by extension, his life. He complains incessantly about his responsibilities, his colleagues, his customers, his community, and just about every other aspect of his working life. Bob’s colleagues and family hear nothing but stories of misery, negativity, and despair.

Unfortunately, Bob seems unable and unwilling to see that he is creating his own reality, that his constant complaining is hampering his work success and negatively affecting his family and his personal life. One by one, Bob’s friends have drifted away from him, not wanting to surround themselves with such negativity. His family perseveres, enduring through a sense of obligation but certainly not through a sense of joy.

The responsibility for choosing our attitude lies solely with each of us

Complaining about a miserable job around the water cooler or starting a “bitch and moan club” at the office might offer moments of camaraderie, but it doesn’t nurture meaning— for oneself or for others. The idea that work is neither fun nor fulfilling takes a huge toll on our ability to bring meaning to our work. When we habitually complain, we make meaninglessness a habit. Before long, we are so deeply invested in complaining that any opportunity to see the work experience as a rich part of our lives vanishes. Instead of taking the time to find meaning, we take the time to find and focus on meaninglessness. Such complaints trivialise our experiences— both at work and in our personal lives. When we complain, we disconnect. When we complain, we hold whatever or whoever we’re complaining about as a shield. We therefore perpetuate victimisation and helplessness.

What is a serial complainer to do? The first task is to become aware of when and why we are complaining. The second task is to stop complaining! This doesn’t mean we won’t complain once in a while; it means that we become aware of when we are complaining and that we are choosing to complain, choosing to be negative. This does not mean that we deny our burdens, our grief, and our worries and sign on to a Pollyannaish, blindly optimistic perspective of the world. Viktor Frankl certainly had the opportunity to complain. He could have chosen to be negative. However, he excavated the darkest despair and discovered meaning in his circumstances. He didn’t have to create the meaning— it was there waiting to be found. He knew well the meaning of unavoidable suffering through his experience in the Nazi concentration camps. He knew the darkest human behaviour and, at the same time, the brightest light of human possibility. Frankl carried the awareness of both potentialities, which deepened his humanity and created in him a deep and abiding faith. He saw people rise out of the most depraved circumstances and offer all they had to others. Viktor Frankl saw the manifestation of spirit on a daily basis.

When we habitually complain, we make meaninglessness a habit

When we recognise that we always have the ultimate freedom to choose our attitude, we are free to choose whether it will be negative or positive. By releasing our negative attitude, we release energy that can then be used to connect more meaningfully with others. When we authentically connect more deeply with others, we create a new community of support and possibility. When we make this kind of authentic connection, we can’t avoid meaning. It’s waiting for us around every water cooler, in every elevator, cubbyhole, taxicab, conference room, and corporate boardroom. When we open ourselves to meaning, when we stop to appreciate ourselves and others in meaningful ways, we immediately enhance the quality of our own lives as well as the lives of those around us.

Ten Positive Things Exercise

One of the simplest yet most powerful tools we use to reinforce and apply the “Exercise the Freedom to Choose Your Attitude” principle is our “Ten Positive Things Exercise.” To begin, think of a situation in your personal life or at work that is particularly stressful, negative, or challenging for you. Now write ten positive things that resulted from or could result from this situation. Write down any thoughts that come to mind, without filtering them for realism or social acceptance. Try to list as many positives as you can, going beyond ten if possible. Feel free to determine or define what “positive” means to you. After you have completed your list, review it and let the positives become possibilities in your mind. This requires letting go of your current blocked or old ways of thinking, moving beyond disappointment or frustration, and perhaps even abandoning anger. This exercise can open you to a higher level of optimism, no matter how challenging your personal circumstance.

The “Ten Positive Things Exercise” can be applied to many situations. Imagine doing this exercise with this instruction: List ten positive things that would happen if you died today. Most people are not used to discussing, contemplating, and exploring the positives associated with someone’s death, let alone their own! Having done this exercise with many groups, we can assure you that once people get over the initial shock and resistance, they relax and actually have a great deal of fun looking for the positives in what is perhaps the most catastrophic situation imaginable. Many people start to see a silver lining or hopeful side in something even as terrible as their own deaths. On one occasion, we had a participant state as a positive: “My wife can finally marry the person she always wanted to marry!”

If we can find something positive to say about our own death, it should be easier to find something positive about our work situation, family life, and so forth. Use this exercise to help you find the positives in such varying and challenging circumstances as losing your job, being in a car accident, and others.

Try these:

  • List ten positive things that would happen if you lost your job today.
  • List ten positive things that would happen if your department at work was eliminated.
  • List ten positive things that would happen from a breakdown in the production line at work.
  • List ten positive things that would happen with an across-the-board 20 percent budget cut at work.
  • List ten positive things that would happen if you were in a car accident.
  • List ten positive things that would happen if your credit card was lost.
  • List ten positive things that would happen if your romantic relationship ended today.
  • List ten positive things that would happen if you gained weight.

Each of these situations can be viewed from many different perspectives. No matter how desperate the situation or condition may be, we can always find something positive upon which to focus our attention. When we view the situation in a different light, new ideas, solutions, and opportunities are more likely to come to the surface. Our experience with conducting this exercise in group settings has shown that the positive energy among participants increases dramatically as they learn new things about themselves, each other, and the specific situation they are facing. Everyone learns to release themselves from their self-imposed thought prisons and, as a result, recognises that ultimately we are all free to choose our attitude, no matter what the circumstance.

Many people start to see a silver lining or hopeful side in something even as terrible as their own deaths

Exercise in Action

We have effectively used the “Ten Positive Things Exercise” in many different settings, in a wide variety of life and work situations. Here are two examples of the exercise in action.

Father and daughter

The first example involves a client-training session we were conducting in Alaska with the U.S. Forest Service. At the end of the first day of a two-day session, we overheard comments from one of the more reluctant participants, Paul; he was not interested in the training and didn’t feel that it was relevant to him. The “Ten Positive Things Exercise” had been introduced and practised that afternoon, and Paul obviously was not impressed.

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The next morning when we returned to the training venue, we noticed Paul sitting beside two other participants, laughing. When we asked him what had happened, he reported that when he went home the evening after our session, he was shocked to learn that his teenage daughter had received a tongue piercing and was now sporting a new piece of jewellery in her mouth. Angry and upset, Paul argued with his daughter and wife; in short, he had a terrible night with his family. When he returned to the training session, looking tired and depressed, he confessed to his two co-workers what had happened. Immediately, they asked him to list ten positive things that might result from his daughter’s action of piercing her tongue. Working together, he and his co-workers identified many potential positives to be gained from Paul’s stressful experience (for example, his daughter was alive, she wasn’t pregnant, she wasn’t in jail, she had shared this event with him, and so on). By looking at these optimistic realities, Paul fostered an entirely new and positive attitude toward his daughter and even our training session! Doing this exercise put this situation in perspective for Paul and helped him to see that things could have been worse for his teenage daughter. He soon changed his attitude about the piercing.

Free even in the prison

The second example involves a unique twist. I (Alex) had been asked to conduct a workshop on the principles outlined in Prisoners of Our Thoughts for inmates at a state penitentiary. The idea of discussing ways to escape one’s inner mental prison with actual inmates, some of whom had been sentenced to serve years in prison, was an unusual and challenging opportunity. “Okay, everyone, I would like you to list 10 positive things about being in prison,” I told the group of about two dozen inmates, who looked at me like I was crazy. In a room designated primarily for education and training purposes, the inmates sat at tables arranged in a circle. Each participant had been given a pad of paper and a small pencil (confiscated at the end of the session for security reasons). They began writing. Some inmates grumbled and others laughed at what they had been asked to do, but all of them participated in the exercise in one way or another. As expected, some participants were unable to find anything positive in their incarceration, at least not until they heard what their fellow inmates had to say. Some inmates were very serious in the way they framed their responses to this exercise, while others let their imaginations soar with a sense of humour that might have seemed out of place under such circumstances. Here are some examples across the spectrum of what they shared:

  • “Society is now protected from me since I’m locked up.”
  • “I now know what I don’t want to do with (the rest of) my life.”
  • “I can be a role model for others so that they don’t do what I did.”
  • “I’m no longer homeless.”
  • “I’ve learned who my real friends are and who aren’t.”
  • “I’ve been reborn and now value life and freedom like never before.”
  • “I get to work out a lot.”

Of course, these reflections comprise only a snapshot of what the participants shared. The exercise lifted the heavy weight of the energy in the room and tapped into the human spirit. The participants no longer had to think and act only as prison inmates, so each person could experience, even with a sense of humour, the sharing of his authentic thoughts and feelings with the others. The experience enabled them to explore what some might call the silver lining in their current predicament. By being challenged not to be prisoners of their thoughts, each participant had the chance to exercise the freedom to choose his attitude despite the circumstance of being incarcerated in an actual prison.

Prisoners of Our Thoughts by Alex Pattakos and Elaine DundonThis article has been adapted from Prisoners of Our Thoughts (Third Edition, Revised and Expanded) by Alex Pattakos and Elaine Dundon; Published by Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. Used with permission from the authors.
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