Last night I spontaneously decided to download a daily gratitude app onto my iPhone because, you know, self-improvement and all that…
The app completed its download, I clicked it open, and was met with the smiling face of a flower-crown adorned llama prompting me with the question:
“What is the most optimistic interpretation of this situation?”
Okay. I see what you’re trying to do here smiling llama. The so-called ‘bright side of things’ is presumably always a nice place to be, and looking on it certainly seems like a reasonable place to start.
I immediately closed the app and went to sleep making plans to delete it the following morning. I don’t know what exactly I had in mind, but I don’t need an app to tell me to be more optimistic.
Thanks, but no thanks.
Fast forward to the early afternoon of the following day and I had tasked myself with watering the collection of 30+ houseplants that decorate the various tabletops, bookshelves, and windowsills of my tiny London apartment.
I’ll spare you all the riveting details of this endeavor, but you ought to know that there are three specific houseplants of mine that need to be taken onto the balcony in order for the water to drain fully, so as to avoid over-watering — it’s a serious art this whole indoor gardening thing, I tell you.
Anyway, long story short, it happened to be a particularly windy day today, and in the 10 seconds that I turned my back on my 6ft tall Swiss Cheese plant, a gust of air had toppled it, sending its soil flying and its foliage crumpling under the weight of its own vine.
Now, watching this occur as it happened from less than 2ft away, I spun on my heels and tried to jump to its rescue, only to ram my full foot of toes into the porcelain of a nearby plant pot, sending it smashing into the balcony door where it proceeded to shatter into a pile of broken pieces.
Houseplants 1, Alex 0.
Feeling the sheer hopelessness (and physical pain) of the situation begin to set in, I thought that I might cry. Suddenly then, from the depths of my distress, I heard a voice (thankfully my own) say,
“What is the most optimistic interpretation of this situation?”
I began to laugh.
I wasn’t just laughing because smiling llama’s words of wisdom had made an unexpected, but nonetheless appreciated, reappearance — although that was a key part of the reason — but I was laughing because what the hell is an optimistic interpretation of this situation?
You know what I came up with in that moment?
- My Swiss Cheese plant got to experience what it feels like to fly
- I have gone from having only 1 piece of plant pot to having 12
- The nerve endings in my toes all work and that’s a relief I suppose
- At the very least I think I learned a valuable lesson
Not only was my anger and frustration immediately dissolved by my own ridiculous sense of humour, but the sheer audacity of the smiling llama to actually contribute something in the way of self-help was admittedly rather admirable.
My toes are still relatively sore as I type this, but, if you’ll have me, I’d like to share with you some of the science behind why this one simple question has the power to stop allowing your unfortunate circumstance to control you.
The Smiling Llama Science: aka Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
There is one key principal that lies at the heart of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and that is that the way you think determines how you feel and how you behave.
So: thoughts → feelings → behaviours. Got it?
Now, we already know as humans beings that our feelings and behaviours are incredibly difficult to change. This is why it may come as awfully good news to you, that we really only need to focus on changing our thoughts, with the understanding that our feelings and behaviours will naturally be altered as a result.
A while ago I wrote an article called, How to Rewire Your Brain to Feel Happier, Easier, that covers the physical neurological changes that take place in the brain when we begin to reframe our thoughts about a particular person, thing, or situation.
It’s worth the read if you’re interested in the more general application of positive thinking, but for the moment we’re going to focus more specifically on the unique value of the question, itself.
That is, “What is the most optimistic interpretation of this situation?”
There are three reasons that asking yourself this question works:
1. Interrupting your automatic response to the immediate circumstance creates space for rational, non-reactive thought to occur. By engaging the brain to problem-solve (aka, finding creative ways to answer the question) you actively disengage your fight or flight response.
While the brain may be the most highly impressive organ, there are limits to what it can process in a single moment. If you’ve ever asked a screaming toddler, “what’s that?” in an effort to distract them from their own meltdown, then you already know how powerful a simple re-directing of attention can be.
2. The precise phrasing of the question allows for “perspective-taking” — a proven way to increase empathy and prosocial behaviour, even towards oneself. When we shift the focus from how we might feel toward the current reality, to the way that an extreme optimist might perceive the same unfortunate situation, we effectively take on the role of the optimist for ourselves.
What’s more is that instead of being instructed by someone else to look on the bright side of things — an action that would no doubt trigger our defense mechanisms to fiercely object — we are harmlessly faced with a question we have posed to ourselves. We view this as a challenge, not a command, and it aids us greatly.
3. It is psychologically impossible for gratitude and anxiety to co-exist. It just is. We’re physically not capable of worrying about the same things we’re busy being thankful for.
So thank the fallen Swiss Cheese for remaining mostly in tact.
Thank the broken plant pot for the 4 really good years of use it gave you.
Thank the nerve endings in your toes for not only doing their job, but also for reminding you that a big part of being alive is learning to walk through the pain.
And last but not least, thank the smiling llama for giving you the tools to control your emotions when things inevitably go wrong (because they definitely, definitely will)!
Alexandra Walker-Jones — February 2021