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Changes in Attitude

“It’s these changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes
Nothing remains quite the same
With all of our running and all of our cunning
If we couldn’t laugh we would all go insane”
–Jimmy Buffett

These lyrics express the importance of attitude for our mental health and also its instability. The song suggests travel –a radical change of exterior circumstances– as a means of changing our attitude. 

Wouldn’t it be great if we could just take a vacation to reset our outlook whenever things go sideways? Not a reliably accessible treatment option. Fortunately, there are simpler methods of attitude modification. Maintaining a positive attitude is essential to successful treatment, so let’s examine our ability to influence it.

Defining Attitude

Attitude could be defined as our “posture” toward things and it affects our approach to every situation. Answering the question, “How do I feel about X?” is going to determine the energy we bring to our relationship with X. In this article, I’ll use the word attitude to encompass our outlook on everything as a whole –X is your life– although you could apply it to something more specific. What is your attitude about your life?

Well, it changes. Attitudes are not stable. Our external circumstances or other people can affect our attitude. More importantly, we can change our own attitude.

This is not some toxic positivity. I’m not saying, “be happy, stupid.” I’m talking about consciously choosing optimism, no matter your emotional state. Let’s look at some concepts that can help with that. Technically, there are three ways our attitudes and associated behaviors could change.

Changing Attitude

Compliance (Desire to obey society and avoid negative consequences)

Compliance is based on consequences. We comply with social pressure to behave differently, but our beliefs don’t necessarily change. We’re often expected to smile at our jobs, for instance, even if we’re not feeling it. In the long-run, compliance usually isn’t an effective form of attitude modification, especially for atypicals. The change doesn’t last and we may question or even resent the source of the social pressure demanding the change.

Identification (Desire to mirror a role model)

Identification is based on imitating someone we admire. We change our attitude to be in a closer perceived relationship with the object of our admiration. In this way, the type of attitude isn’t a priority. It could be anything. Choose a really positive hero if this method sounds good to you.

Internalization (Desire to feel good by alignment with our values)

Internalization is a kind of attitude adjustment that arises when we discover the change to be intrinsically rewarding. It is consistent with our values. It makes us feel good because it is true to who we are. This is my preferred method.

Maintaining Constancy

Maintaining a positive attitude is the same as cleanliness. It must be renewed frequently. We want to maintain a positive attitude free of nihilism or hysterics. Remain in the Window of Tolerance and reduce the swerves into hyper or hypo emotional states. Apart from addressing external factors, like taking a vacation, there are a couple of behavioral treatments that can help manage our attitude cognitively.

First, our emotions have a powerful influence on our attitude. This is why emotional appeals are successfully used to evoke fear or desire in advertising and entertainment. These emotional states influence our attitude toward products, thus our behaviors. It can be difficult to resist the appeal of our emotions, but research shows that when we become better at predicting our emotional swings, then our attitude is less powerfully swayed by them. Knowing how you will feel in the future is not as difficult as it sounds either. Most people go through fairly predictable patterns. Recognize your patterns. Use a journal if it helps.

Second, we must believe in AND be excited about our personal agency. We must believe in our own choices and that our actions will matter. If you don’t believe that your actions will impact the environment, then you will be less likely to recycle, even if natural conservation is one of your values. Our curiosity and desire alleviate suffering, then our values guide our intentions and generate emotional drive to motivate action. We need to have faith in ourselves.

Anything we value becomes easier to accomplish with a positive attitude. Link everything to your values; specifically to the emotional charge associated with accomplishing the goals that demonstrate your values. Everything you do –from walking down the street to finishing an important report– can be tied to your values and a reason to maintain a positive attitude.

Remember that one of the definitions of attitude refers to our physical posture. You can’t hold the same pose forever. You’ll go numb and need to change. Attitude and emotions are the same. Endeavor to find your most comfortable pose, one that you are proud to return to after natural interruptions.

Attitude Modification Rundown

  • Address external factors (take a vacation)
  • Obey social norms
  • Emulate a hero
  • Refresh emotional connection to your values
  • Foresee emotional swings to diminish their impact
  • Believe you can

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