We often come across statements such as, ‘You are what you think’, ‘Attitude determines altitude’, ‘I think, therefore I am,’ etc. Certainly, the emphasis here is on the mind and its ability to think, as thoughts shape our personality by influencing our emotions, actions and habits. But the question stands–what are thoughts and how do they affect our personality?
Thoughts are ideas, perspectives, opinions, and beliefs about ourselves and our external environment. They are of two types. “When we have a thought and harbour it, it can be negative or positive. Depending on how much we focus on a thought, its mental energy gets multiplied or divided,” says clinical psychologist Dr Joy Banerjee. For instance, when we think of going on a vacation, it is a positive thought. The more we focus on it, the more mental energy we expend on it, thereby triggering more positive thoughts. This makes us feel relaxed and happy.
So, it is safe to say that thoughts influence our emotions and affect our present state of mind. Is it thoughts alone that affect our state of mind or do external factors have a role too? Dr Banerjee clarifies, “Many a time, external incidents themselves do not affect our state of mind. Instead, it is how we perceive them or think about them that affects our emotions.”
“People differ considerably from each other in their habitual patterns of thought, feeling and action. Not surprisingly, these differences are reflected not only in what people think, feel, and do, but also in what they say about what they think, feel, or do.”
Clearly, how we think affects how we feel–our emotional state of mind. But emotions alone don’t make up our personality. There are actions and habits too. So, can our actions be affected by our thoughts? Turns out, they can, albeit indirectly. Thoughts influence our emotions, and emotions in turn motivate us to take action. MIT-trained engineer and researcher Vikas Gopal Jhingran writes in his book Emote: “An army of men could be roused to such an emotional state that they were willing to give up their lives for a cause greater than themselves. (…) However, if the emotion of fear creeps into the mind of the army, it could paralyze them, leading to devastating consequences.”
We don’t need to be soldiers to relate to this. There are plenty of instances in our daily life that show how emotions affects our actions. Marketing professional Balaji Subramanian reveals how he often avoids speaking or giving presentations in public as he thinks he might be judged or ridiculed (negative thinking). This gives rise to fear (negative emotion), and therefore he never even attempts it.
If negative emotions caused by negative thinking can cripple us, can positive emotions triggered by positive thinking motivate us? The Broaden-and-build Theory of Positive Emotions, a study conducted by Psychology Department of the University of Michigan, reveals how positive emotions broaden an individual’s ‘thought-action repertoire’.
We can choose to view everything in a positive light and harbour optimism, or view things in a negative light and nurture pessimism. Ultimately, the choice is ours.
In simple words, it means the more positive we are emotionally, the more novel and action oriented we become. “Joy sparks the urge to play, interest sparks the urge to explore, contentment sparks the urge to savour and integrate, and love sparks a recurring cycle of each of these urges within safe, close relationships,” the study suggests.
In a nutshell, thoughts affect emotions, and emotions influence our actions. And over a period of time, thoughts, emotions and actions become habits. Once they become a habit, they slip past our conscious mind and get automated. They then begin to constitute our very personality, says Dr Banerjee. A study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information says: “People differ considerably from each other in their habitual patterns of thought, feeling and action. Not surprisingly, these differences are reflected not only in what people think, feel, and do, but also in what they say about what they think, feel, or do.” Such is the power of habituated thoughts, emotions and actions. They not only define our personality, but also affect how we project ourselves to the world.
At the core of who we are are our thoughts. We are defined by how we perceive external situations and react to them. In general, when external events match our expectations, we are flooded with positive thoughts. We confidently set out to achieve things. But when things go awry, we succumb to negativity. We feel sad and dejected. We even begin to doubt our own abilities. Thankfully, our thinking habits can be changed. We can choose to view everything in a positive light and harbour optimism, or view things in a negative light and nurture pessimism. Ultimately, the choice is ours.