When I was being educated psychologists talked a lot about sort of a negative personality versus a positive personality – are you an extrovert or an introvert?
Are you pessimistic or optimistic? Do you have learned helplessness or a sense of efficacy?
And we were told that basically the brain is fixed by about the age of five with a brief period of growth in adolescence and then you are sort of stuck with whatever you inherited.
Well, in the last 10-15 years psychological research has just blown the lid off all those theories.
We now know that the brain responds to conditioning throughout life, that by thinking you can actually change the habitual patterns of thought in your brain, and that you can therefore deliberately create, say, an optimistic personality even if you have a negative personality or a pessimistic personality.
The problem is that the brain sort of has ruts in it, these strong neural paths that are created by thinking similar thoughts over and over and over again.
And when you try to change those patterns of thoughts it’s a little like driving a truck along a rutted road and trying to steer it out of those ruts and create new ruts.
So at first, different ways of thinking feel very alien and they are actually difficult. It’s a struggle. It’s like learning algebra or French the first time.
So what you have to do is be willing to go through that period of thinking unfamiliar and awkward-feeling thoughts.
So one of the easiest ways that people can do this and it’s a famous way, is to keep a gratitude journal.
Just write down five things for which you are grateful every single day, no matter how pessimistic you are.
Psychologists have shown that this pulls the brain out of negative or fearful states and pulls it into a new zone of appreciation, seeing the positive and generally being more optimistic.
People who have done this for a long period of time, so for example in 2005 the Dalai Lama and some of his associates had their brains mapped and it was found that those who had participated in what is called loving kindness meditation for the longest periods had the thickest, most dense neural activity in an area of the brain associated with happiness.
In other words, by focusing on loving kindness these men had actually changed their physical brains, the structure of the brain so that they were more naturally inclined to feel happy.
That is wonderful news for you and me. It means that with a little practice we can start to make serious changes in our brains and with a lot of practice we can pretty much create a whole new personality if that’s what we want.