The “mental filter” is a term from cognitive psychology to describe people’s tendency to focus on the negatives while filtering out or ignoring all the positives. People often pay attention to the one thing that went wrong, rather than all the things that went right.
Consider this example: Tony walks through the crowded grocery store. People are courteous, and a few smile at him as they pass in the aisles. An employee even offers to carry out his bags. Then, as Tony walks across the parking lot, a driver honks impatiently at him. He thinks, “People are always so rude” and focuses on his anger during his entire drive home. By the time he pulls into the driveway, he’s tired and cranky, and snaps at his roommate. This type of filter for negative thinking contributes to bad feelings and can maintain depression.
Instead, by removing the filter and consciously acknowledging what goes right, people often feel less depressed, and have a greater sense of overall well-being. Imagine if Tony had focused more on the friendly smiles, courteous people, and helpful employees. He may have felt calmer,
kinder, and have been less likely to snap at his roommate.
Here’s another example: on days when Amy feels feeling particularly tired or stressed, her mental filter goes into action during a jog. Thoughts like, “I hate running. This stinks! I’m so tired, bored, cold, irritated, [insert assortment of other negative feelings here].” This negativity inevitably leads to concentrating on her physical discomfort, a growing negativity about the experience, and focusing on how awfully long the trail is. By allowing the mind to dwell on these
feelings, it’s less likely that she would be willing to hit the trail the next time. Instead, Amy uses the opportunity to actively focus on the positive, turn on her “positive filter”and practice gratitude. As her feet pound against the earth, she reviews what she’s grateful for during the run. “I’m so fortunate to have a healthy body and the ability to run. I appreciate my beating heart, full lungs, the muscles and bones that carry me along. It’s a privilege to have this free time to spend outside.” With this conscious practice, her gratitude grows, and she more consistently finds herself appreciating the experience and ends the run feeling refreshed.
I encourage you to consider these examples the next time you find yourself stressed out in a similar situation and challenge yourself to refocus on the positives. If you want to go a step further, consider trying the “Three Blessing Exercise” to boost your positive outlook. Every night for the next week, before you go to bed, write down three things that went well during the day. Your items don’t need to be grand or significant (though they can be); they may be as simple as a beautiful song you heard on the radio or a smile from a coworker. This practice draws your attention toward the positive, helping to balance out some of the negative filtering that may have happened during your day. Even severely depressed people can find three things that went well every day, and when they do, their depressed mood may start to lift. In fact, a study by Martin Seligman found 92% of people who counted their blessings for one week felt happier and 94% of people who said they were depressed actually reported feeling less depressed. Maybe this week, you can focus on the positives, see your glass half full, look on the bright side, and embrace gratitude! Challenge your negative filter. Go for it!