Expecting trouble?

The editor of ‘You’ magazine, Jo Elvin, wrote a brilliant little article recently on how she used to be a ‘glass half-empty’ person, and how her life has changed since she changed the way she thought about it.  She used to believe that ‘glass half empty’ was a form of self-preservation.  If she had low expectations and trained herself to always assume the worst would happen, she thought it would save a whole lot of heartache and shock when it did.

‘There was always a tape looping over in my head: don’t get comfortable. Things are so good there must be something awful afoot any time now.’ Then she experienced a kind of ‘mini earthquake’ in her brain when she realised that expecting the worse in any situation, had never once saved her from the pain of it.

Is all ‘glass half empty’ thinking an attempt to protect oneself?  I’ve recently met Joanne (name changed) who is tortured by thoughts of the very worst thing that could happen (catastrophising) in a situation, even when there is no evidence for it, and never has been.  She believes, evidence or not, that she needs to be on the alert always because ‘bad things do happen.’

‘What a complete waste of energy,’ writes Jo Elvin. ‘I’m so relieved to have finally realised that actively choosing optimism is much better for your health. Expect the best of situations, of people, of yourself.’  The worst might indeed happen, but she adds that nurturing a knot of dread in your stomach now won’t stop that later. Or make it easier.

If you are a ‘glass half empty’ person best make the change now, as a study by Yale university has found that thinking positively can give you better health in old age and add an average of 7 ½ years to your life.  The study lasted for more than 20 years and involved some 660 women and men, and took note of things such as gender, wealth, and overall health. A ‘glass half full’ attitude had a greater effect on living longer than not smoking, low cholesterol, or being a healthy weight.

A similar study by the Mayo Clinic found the same:  800 people were tested to see whether they were optimist, pessimist, or something in between.  30 years later, the clinic checked to see how long their subjects had lived. The optimists did better- the pessimist had a 19% greater chance of dying in any given year.

The good thing is that you can change the negative tape looping around in your head.  Jo Elvin did it, and so did neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor.  Writing in ‘My Stroke of Insight’, a book describing her discovery from a massive brain haemorrhage she realised that ‘No-one had the power to make me feel anything except for me and my brain.’  And she asserted that although she was not going to be in total control of what happened to her in her life, ‘I am certainly in charge of how I choose to perceive my experience.’  ‘I made the cognitive choice to stay out of my own way during the process of recovery,’ she wrote, ‘being very careful about my self-talk.’

Negative thinking can be hard to tackle, but we’re not left to struggle on our own.  God is standing by to help us.  ‘Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the centre of your life. (Philippians 4: 6-7, MSG)

I love the worship song from Bethel Church, Redding, that includes the words, ‘I raise a hallelujah, with everything inside of me, I raise a hallelujah, I will watch the darkness flee, I raise a hallelujah, in the middle of the mystery. I raise a hallelujah; fear you lost your hold on me!’

Even better, we can be people with a glass not just full but running over. Counter intuitively, it begins by pouring some out first.  ‘Give, and you will receive. Your gift will return to you in full  —  pressed down, shaken together to make room for more, running over, and poured into your lap. The amount you give will determine the amount you get back.”  Luke 6:38, NLT.

Let’s join Jo Elvin and the millions, no trillions of ‘givers’ in the world and do it now!  Let’s tip the balance for the rest of our lives.





Louise Morse

Louise Morse MA (CBT) is media and external relations manager for the Pilgrims’ Friend Society. She is a writer and speaker, and author of books on issues of old age, including dementia, published by Lion Monarch and SPCK. She is a cognitive behavioural therapist, and her Masters’ dissertation examined the effects of caring for a loved one with dementia on close relatives.

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