Cognitive Behaviour Therapy or CBT is generally used to improve poor mental health, however, it can also be used successfully to improve overall happiness. There’s a movement within psychology called Positive Psychology which looks at using therapy techniques to assist in the maintenance of good mental health. So, rather than trying to fix mental health issues as they arise, the idea is to prevent them.
The way positive psychologists use CBT is to reduce negative thought patterns. The aim is to address the thoughts which lead to behaviours related to them. To provide you with a better understanding, the example I’d like to explain here uses CBT to improve life satisfaction and overall happiness.
How It Works
The way we think is very powerful and it can predetermine if an outcome will be negative or positive. If we approach life as if everything were difficult and that life is basically negative, we’d look for evidence for our rationale. On the other hand, if we believe life is positive and that good things happen, we will search for evidence for this as well.
So, say a person has a pretty good life and no mental health issues, but would be more satisfied and happier with life if they had a better body image. They feel uncomfortable in their own skin and opt to wear heavy clothing in summer to cover up – CBT can address the thoughts which lead to this behaviour.
How It’s Done
In therapy, CBT is often done on paper, but doing it mentally is also effective. Initially, therapists get clients to write down a behaviour they’d like to change. I’ll use the example of the person with a poor body image who is dissatisfied with their appearance – the aim here would be to improve their happiness by being able to wear clothing suitable for the climate.
Now, there’s obviously a thought pattern associated with this behaviour, so the next step is to identify it. For example: do they fear negative feedback from others and therefore cover up? Do they feel like they are hiding in more clothing? There might be a whole list of reasons why they have chosen to behave this way.
Once the thoughts associated with the behaviour are identified, things can begin to change. So in this case if it’s fear of negative feedback, a therapist would challenge whether this has actually occurred. For some, it might have been the odd isolated occasion which has stuck with them; or for others, their fear may have prevented them from doing it altogether. Therefore, no negative feedback has actually taken place. Others may have experienced more negative feedback which has verified their assumption.
Once they understand why they over-dress in warmer weather, the next step to introduce is the ‘what’s the worst thing that can happen’ scenario. If they did wear lighter clothing, what do they expect to happen? Do they think people will look and stare at them, or do they fear something more drastic like their heart will stop beating? Don’t laugh, some people do have this fear of exposing themselves to what they assume will be a negative consequence for a particular behavior.
Questioning ‘what’s the worst thing that can happen’ is a very empowering thought because it enables people to challenge their behaviour for what it is. So, if they wear lighter summer clothing and people do comment, what is the worst thing that can happen? It will probably be that it makes the individual feel bad – and ultimately, this is why they are doing what they do. No-one wants to expose themselves to feeling bad if they don’t have to.
The ultimate goal here would be to change the way they dressed in warmer weather and be able to feel good. This would improve their life satisfaction and their level of overall happiness. Many things we do lead to this and once we can identify what’s stopping us, we have the freedom to move forward, change it and have a happier existence.
Achieving Happiness By Adding Exposure Therapy
To complete the exercise here, I’d suggest the individual try wearing lighter clothing in warmer weather and in the presence of someone they trust. Only when they expose themselves to the new behaviour can they affirm their negative thoughts are faulty. This is called Exposure Therapy and is highly effective in combating self defeating behaviours.
It may take a few attempts to get them to feel comfortable with their new behaviour and be able to do it solo. And as previously mentioned, while they do this exercise they should think to themselves: what’s the worse thing that can happen? In many cases this simple change in thought pattern, combined with exposure to the behaviour, will be enough to improve their overall level of life satisfaction and happiness.
Image via psychprofessionals.com.au