Positive Attitude Exercises
The Stoics were masters in keeping a positive attitude when obstacles came on their path. They were able to leverage bad feelings into resilience, productivity and insight. Because even though pain is inevitable, they knew that suffering is only in the mind.
The Stoic Resilience of Marcus Aurelius
Stoic philosophy is a practical philosophy. This means that it is not just a way of thinking but also a way of living by controlling your attitude.
For example, Marcus Aurelius, once the Great Emperor of Rome was constantly struck with bad luck during his reign. A plague, wars, floods, a crisis and family issues were all giving him stress and anxiety.
But he surmounted all these obstacles and chose not to be harmed by it. Seeing each impediment as a necessary part of the arduous path:
“The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
- Marcus Aurelius
It's what Marcus wrote about over and over in his reflections. That we should remain positive even though external events are affecting us. To stay true to the virtues we uphold and to make the best of each situation. But maintaining such an attitude isn't easy.
It's hard to stay indifferent and rational in any given situation.
But we can prepare like the Stoics did by using these 10 positive attitude exercises.
Exercise 1. Read books
When we read we gain knowledge and perspective. It is what allows us to connect our experiences to wider perspectives. In this sense, reading is a dialogue in your mind between your speaking and listening voice that can help us arrive to a certain realization.
Put differently, reading books can allow the expansion of awareness, ideas, convictions and beliefs we had about ourselves and the world.
Nevertheless, reading is only the first part of the solution.
After that you need to create the real magic, by writing down your own thoughts. Because positive attitude exercises are more effective when you provoke and engage the sub-conscious as well.
Exercise 2. Purposeful Reflection
The eye cannot see itself, just as the mind cannot perceive itself. In this case, we need a tool to make it visible. A notebook where we can write in is a great start, because a notebook can function as a mirror for your mind.
This magical mirror does not lie. What we write is immediately tested against the beliefs we have about reality and ourselves. When we write something down, we have direct feedback if it is the truth of not. Because we cannot lie to ourselves in such a situation without feeling the discomfort of the lie itself.
The honesty in writing serves as your guiding light to accurately understand and pinpoint the precise cause of the feelings. Therefore, using a notebook can help you become aware of your pitfalls and take adequate steps to improve.
Exercise 3. Gratitude writing
Writing can also focus on gratitude exercises. This helps you become aware of what positive things you have experienced in life. In addition, it also gives us a way to reflect on our progress and our past journey.
Moreover, it gives you the right orientation and focus, allowing you to re-center by realizing what is important.
Exercise 4. Mind dumps
Upon this path of self-exploration, you might want to put all of your thoughts on paper with a mind dump. This basically means that you start writing whatever comes to mind. When you then enter a state of flow, your sub-conscious mind will take over. You stop stop editing yourself and just write along.
This is your instinct taking over, with floating thoughts becoming written words. Not only will it bring you peace of mind, it also allows you gain awareness of the sub-conscious thoughts that are going through your emotional system.
Use these writing exercises to build a foundation of your sense of self. This will increase your chances to become grounded and instinctive in the moments you need it. But you can even take it a step further by actively drawing out the sub-conscious. This is one of the more active positive attitude exercises that can really help you draw out the sub-conscious part of your beliefs and general attitude.
Exercise 5. Sentence stems
The essence of the sentence stem exercise is to start with an incomplete sentence, and to keep adding different endings. The goal of the exercise is to provoke sub-conscious responses and new thoughts in order to challenge your beliefs.
If I ..
Lived 5 percent more assertively today I would …
Operate 5 percent more purposefully in my relationships I would …
Could create 5% more energy / positivity today I would …
Sentence stems can have between six and ten endings, with the sole requirement being that each ending be a grammatical completion of the sentence. By forcing yourself to complete each sentence you are creating new thought patterns in your mind. New thoughts will create new feelings and over time this can help you become a new person.
If I ..
Were to express 5 percent more of who I am I would …
Would give 5% more to smile and laugh today I would …
Could be 5% more present / conscious of my actions today I would …
Bring 5% more awareness to my life today I would …
Would have 5% more courage / belief in myself today I would ...
An effective way to handle fear, hurt or anger might be to …
Today will be a good day because …
If I would go with the flow today I would …
If I bring a higher level of self-esteem to my activities today I would ...
Sentence stems bypass internal censors
Nathaniel Branden, creator of the sentence stem method explaining the exercise;
"The exercise is as follows. As rapidly as possible, without pausing for reflection, write as many endings for that sentence as you can in two or three minutes – never less than six, and ten is enough. Do not worry if your endings are literally true or make sense or are “profound.” Write anything, but write something. "
This exercise focuses on creating an instinctive response. Because the mind has to come up with answers about yourself and who you can be when you are the best version of yourself. This way you can test what your sub-conscious thinks you deserve, what you believe about the world and what your place is in it.
The benefits of engaging your sub-conscious
"The goal of the exercise is to help you take more responsibility for all areas of your life: your career, your personal relationships, your finances, your happiness. This is the ultimate form of taking charge of your life, using self-responsibility as an important source of personal power."
- Nathaniel Brendan
The added benefits Nathaniel mentions of doing sentence completion is a psychological discipline. A spiritual practice, that over time achieves insight, integration, and spontaneous behaviour change. This is probably the most powerful one of all positive attitude exercises.
You might be surprised at what emerges. Do this every day with different sentence stems, or find more information at http://www.nathanielbranden.com/.
Stoic Philosophy and Emotional Regulation
Stoic philosophy emphasizes emotional control. Not because emotions are useless, but because we should not let our internal system fo happiness be determined by it. Especially in bad situations, Stoic philosophy is about restoring our positive attitude and rising above the situation by taking a new perspective.
In other words, the way to deal with emotions means putting situations in perspective with other important things in life so you cease to worry about them. Marcus Aurelius mentioned going back to the soul to contemplate the emotions you're experiencing:
“Nowhere you can go is more peaceful, more free of interruptions, than your own soul… Retreat to consult your own soul and then return to face what awaits you.”
- Marcus Aurelius
It is probably true that relative to these important things, the situation we face in that particular moment is insignificant. That is why it is so important to be able to go back to your inner citadel;
"The Inner Citadel —a fortress of fortitude—that could be drawn on for strength in difficult times...if it had been properly stocked and built in good times. That’s what the study of philosophy is about, that’s why we do this reading and follow these exercises. To prepare for an uncertain future and to never be so naïve as to expect things to always be booming and pleasant. "
- Ryan Holiday Email "What Do You Have To Draw On?"
Sometimes we need to go to this inner place in our own soul, where we can do some triage questioning on our troubled mind.
Can we find an actionable solution to the problem we face? If that is a no, the second best thing to do is to stop worrying about it and let it go. If that is not possible, ask yourself if you can start laughing about it or take a new perspective.
Exercise 6. Imagine being at a Banquet
Imagine you are being invited to a banquet. There are plates of food going around while you are talking with other people, sharing moments and experiences of your life. Now imagine a plate coming by that is empty before it reaches you. It is easy to be angry, disappointed or anxious that you do not get what you wanted. Emotions build up, but what are you going to do? Are you going to show others that you are frustrated or put off by this inconvenience?
It is in this moment that you should realize that you are at a banquet, with people around all having a good time. Don't wreck yourself over an empty plate right? Of course it is unfair that the plate became empty, but just like life, other plates will come around. There is plenty of other food, plenty of opportunities, plenty of moments to come - so don't stress over this particular moment. Try to re-frame, zoon out and create perspective of the situation.
If this doesn't work, here are a few other mental cues for you to give you a fresh perspective.
Exercise 7. Ego is the enemy
Ask yourself from a third person perspective, what would somebody else do in my situation, or what would I suggest to somebody else in this situation?
- Ego fools you by identifying with emotions. Ego knows you best, and it plays on your weak points. So the best thing to do it to separate yourself from the ego in order to relieve the emotional pressure. Living life as a Stoic means knowing that empires of ego always fall from within.
“You must practice seeing yourself with a little distance, cultivating the ability to get out of your own head. Detachment is a sort of natural ego antidote. It’s easy to be emotionally invested and infatuated with your own work"
- Ryan Holiday, Ego is the Enemy
Exercise 8. Memento Mori
Ask yourself from a dilemma perspective, would I rather have this or death?
- Have death on the forefront of your thoughts, not knowing how many hours you have left. So do everything as if it is the last thing you would do. How do you want to be remembered?
As Marcus Aurelius said:
"Death overshadows you. While you’re alive and able — be good.
“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do, say, and think.”
Exercise 9. The obstacle is the way
Ask yourself from a utility perspective, this moment is useful for me because ..?
- Do you know what's behind mountains? Probably more mountains. Living life as a Stoic means realizing that each challenge is a stepping stone for the next challenge that you will conquer.
“The obstacle in the path becomes the path. Never forget, within every obstacle is an opportunity to improve our condition.”
- Ryan Holiday, author of The Obstacle is the Way: The Ancient Art of Turning Adversity to Advantage
Exercise 10. Amor Fati
Ask yourself, from an acceptance / surrender perspective, what can I embrace in this moment as part of my fate?
- Know you are not in control, and accept that there might be a larger plan for you that you know nothing about. It means taking responsibility for your life, but also recognizing that higher powers might be in play. Instead of refusing to yield, go along and make the best of something. Think it was meant to happen and be glad that it did.
"That one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary—but love it.”
- Friedrich Nietzsche
Rising above the situation
Emotional regulation might not be easy but we can prepare for the tough moments, consciously and sub-consciously. So start using these positive attitude exercises. Practice the virtue of taking a higher perspective.
Choose the right attitude. That is what living life as a Stoic is about:
Can give you the power
To rise over love
And over hate
Through this iron sky
That's fast becoming our minds
Over fear and into freedom
You just got to hold on
Oh, that's life
Special thanks to Ryan Holiday for all his content, emails and books on Stoicism that have inspired me to write about positive attitude exercises and the Stoic perspective on it.