Choosing your thoughts

Choosing your thoughts
Sad monkey thinking

I recently had a chat with a friend of mine who said every-time he has a negative thought he just says STOP and ascribes that thought to evil, then moves on with his day. He's doing very well these days.

This is a very interesting idea. It reminded me of the concept of CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), which is this: Thoughts -> Emotions -> Behaviour, which then results in more thoughts based of of the outcomes of your behaviour. So if you engage with a negative thought it leads to negative emotions which results in negative behaviour which then feeds back into negative thoughts. The opposite is also true. Positive thoughts lead to positive emotions lead to positive behaviour, which lead to more positive thoughts. So there is a flywheel effect in both directions.

Negative thinking as entropy

For people who are more negatively inclined for whatever reason, genetics, up bringing etc, feeling bad can just seem like reality. But sometimes I think this way of viewing things absolves the person of responsibility in choosing their state of mind. That their neurotic state is an affliction they have to carry rather than a choice. I have certainly be guilty of this.

I'm interested in the idea that negative thinking is actually just another form of entropy, it seems that negative thoughts take no effort whatsoever, they show up and you can just sink into them. This is equivalent as weeds growing in your back garden, or slowly but surely the breaks on your bike becoming less effective, or your house getting dusty. If left to themselves things tend towards chaos. The same is true of your internal dialogue.

Thinking positively as a responsibility

If negative thinking is just another form of entropy, then as a free agent you have a responsibility to act against that entropy. This always seems to be the choice between good and evil. That there is a way things ought to be (based off your constraints)  but the universe is moving in all sorts of random directions and you have to put things right. It's easy to go with the flow of things falling apart, you don't have to push back against that flow. And when you do it can initially be painful and stressful. It requires constant effort in the opposite direction.

Dark times lie ahead of us, and there must be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right. - Albus Dumbledore.

If you are responsible for your thoughts, and choosing which ones to engage with. This means you have an ethical obligation to think positively. If your room is a mess, you know intuitively that theres something morally wrong about ignoring the mess and continuing to pile shit on top of that dodgy chair day after day. I think the same is true for negative thoughts. To chose to engage with them is unproductive and actually leads to more mess.

The question is ignoring those thoughts a falsehood, are you tricking yourself by not engaging with them? I would argue that negative thoughts when examined objectively have far less of a basis in reality than one feels when they are actively engaged with them. So usually the deceit is in the opposite direction you are being tricked by your negative thoughts.

Creating distance between you and your thoughts

Its all very well and good saying you have an ethical duty to choose positive thoughts over negative ones, but it doesn't seem to work like that in everyday life. It's not like opening the cupboard and choosing between Weetabix and Coca Pops. Your thoughts just seem like a Youtube rabbit hole, one thought leads to the next which leads to the next, and there isn't a space between you and those thoughts for you to actually choose. The issue is that people are heavily identified with their internal dialogue.

The point of meditation is to break the spell of identification with thought. - Sam Harris

In other words you are not your thoughts. So how can you create a distance between you and your thoughts?


In mediation the point is to pay attention first of all to your sensory perception, the feelings in your body, the sounds and sights around you, to focus all your attention on sensory perceptions, and then each time you start to think, recognise the thought itself, examine how it arose, the feelings it provoked and then let it go and come back to focusing your attention on sensory experience. This results eventually in the sense that thoughts themselves are simply objects inside this space of experience. That thoughts are not 1st class citizens but on the same level as all the other events in the space of your experience, sounds, sights, touch and thoughts all arise and fall away. The utility in this practice in day to day life, is that you can create this distance between YOU and your thoughts, making it easier to choose which ones to engage with.

CBT app

I'm developing a CBT app at the moment. The idea is that whenever you have a negative thought you examine it objectively with the following questions:

  • Can you recognise any cognitive bias in your thought?
  • Is there substantial evidence for this thought?
  • Is there evidence contrary to this thought?
  • What would a friend think about this situation?
  • What would I say to a friend in this situation?
  • What is the best thing that could happen?
  • What is the worst thing that could happen?
  • How likely on a scale of 1-10 is that to occur?
  • Has this happened before? How did you deal with it?

Once you've completed an honest review of your thought it usually becomes clear that the thought has not got much of a basis in reality, or is blown out of proportion. The thought is revealed to be something trying to pull you into the depths of despair (evil) rather than a productive activity of problem solving. This done habitually garners a mistrust in negative thoughts in generally, so you no longer immediately assume them to be true, and gives you the space to choose a positive thought instead.

Increase feel good molecules with exercise & cold water

This one isn't as much about creating a distance, but making it much less likely for negative thoughts to occur in the first place. By increasing the availability of feel good molecules (dopamine & serotonin) in your brain, negative thoughts are fall less likely to arise in the first place and positive ones are promoted.

And extreme example of this is how MDMA is used to treat people with PTSD in talk therapy. People with PTSD suffer from flashbacks when they begin to talk about their traumatic experience so much so that the experience is relived entirely again. By dumping a load of serotonin into the brain with MDMA, the person can talk about their experience without having this extreme stress response (serotonin counteracts the stress hormones). This allows the person to integrate the traumatic experience into their life by talking about it with a therapist.

This is more of a body to mind approach, but definitely increasing those molecules will promote positive thoughts. This combined with the previous two methods make it much easier to create a distance between your thoughts and then actively select positive ones to engage with.


To think positively, requires a practiced distance between you and your thoughts allowing you to interject "STOP". Question the thought itself, and then replace it with one of the countless other positive things to think for example "Jesus isn't great that I can walk and talk and read and write" might be one. Theres a great saying in the Taoist text Tao Te Ching:

He who identifies with Tao, Tao rejoices to guide
He who identifies with Teh, Teh rejoices to reward
He who identifies with loss, loss rejoices to ruin -
Lao Tzu

Tao here refers to "The Way" or the natural order of the universe. Teh refers to virtue or actions that are inline with the Tao.

Loss here refers to any bitter contemplation on the things in life lost, or how things are not quite right in XYZ ways. This leads people towards ruin little by little, because when one thinks negatively, it leads to negative emotions, which leads to negative behaviour such as laziness, spiteful/reckless actions etc, all justified by apathy. And then the cycle repeats.

I have found the idea that you have a moral obligation to choose positive thoughts over negative ones an extremely helpful one. It seems to simplify mental health in general. Hopefully it helps you too.

Thanks for reading,