Conventional wisdom says that positive thinking, enthusiastic mood states, and inspiration are key to a good and productive life. But that’s not entirely true, at least not according to the latest psychological science.
A more accurate representation of the relationship between motivation and action is this: you don’t need to feel good to get going—you need to get going to give yourself a shot at feeling good. It is one of the most valuable and evidence-based concepts for mental health, well-being, performance, and living a deep and meaningful life.
You cannot control your thoughts or feelings. Though many people think otherwise, it is impossible. (Proof: close your eyes for the next thirty seconds, try hard not to think of a pink bear, and see what happens.) What you can control, however, is how you respond to your thoughts and feelings—your actions. And it is your actions that give rise to your moods, not the other way around. As the podcast host Rich Roll puts it, “mood follows action.”
In the literature this is called “behavioral activation,” and it is backed by hundreds of studies. In practice, behavioral activation is a central tenet of groundedness and the dynamic between inner and outer strength.
In the rest of this piece: We’ll start with how to skillfully respond to feelings. Proceed with how to skillfully respond to thoughts. And wrap up with a unified theory and evidence-based theory for living a deep and meaningful life.
Working With Negative Feelings
If I had to feel motivated to start a workout I would have done 23 workouts last year, not 230. If I had to feel inspired to start writing, well, there’d be hardly any writing. No doubt, the days you feel great are great! Ride those waves. But it’s not the end if you don’t feel great.
The extreme example of clinical depression is useful. For many people, it manifests as a feeling of nothing mattering, an intense apathy, a fatigue so bad it is painful. But depression hates a moving target. The best way out is to force yourself to get going, even, and perhaps especially, when you don’t want to.
It’s not easy to force yourself to get going, whether you are experiencing depression, in a rut, or merely feeling a bit off, wanting to hit the sleep button on life. It takes much self-discipline; which means it takes much self-compassion too. Not one or the other. Both.
Self-discipline takes you to the hard places. It offers the firm persistence to keep going. Self-compassion is what gives you the courage when you are at the gate, and what helps you get back up when you are thrown down. And then self-discipline gets you moving forward again.
Working With Negative Thinking
Intrusive thoughts are tough. Especially against the backdrop of a culture that in one way or another always seems to be saying some version of “think positive.”
I can speak from direct experience: trying to control your thoughts never works.
What does work? Engaging with the good ones and ignoring the not-so-good ones.
There is a difference between resisting intrusive thoughts and ignoring them: Resisting them takes energy and gets you tangled up in the thoughts. Ignoring them means letting them be there but not engaging in them. You don’t learn this growing up, but thoughts are not facts.
Ignoring the voice inside your head is a start. The next step is taking action. Your brain can think X but YOU can do Y—and by doing Y thoughts of X slowly fade on their own. The work of the psychologist Steven Hayes has shown this to be effective in many settings, from therapy to sport.
You do not replace negative thinking with positive thinking. You replace negative thinking with positive action. You do not wish or fight away negative feelings. You create space for them, don’t judge yourself for having them, and then take them along for the ride.
At this point, two things ought to be clear:
1) Thinking and feeling certain ways are separate from acting in certain ways.
2) Acting in certain ways is the best mechanism to improve your thinking and feeling.
What, then, are the certain ways to act? Enter: groundedness.
A Grounded Approach to Living a Meaningful Life
Groundedness looks across modern science, ancient wisdom, and daily practice to identify ways of acting that are most productive in diverse contexts. It comes up with qualities like presence, patience, vulnerability, community, movement, and so on.
But perhaps most important, groundedness says consistent doing that is in alignment with a set of core values leads to inner strength and consistent being. It offers a path to excellence with less angst and genuine confidence, which emerges from the ability to respond to all thoughts and feelings with skillful actions.
Groundedness does not eliminate pain or fear. It asks you to accept these parts of being human and gives you the skills and resolve to keep living fully anyways. Some days feel better than others. That’s just how it goes. Know your values. Show up. Live your values.
Groundedness says that you don’t need an unwavering purpose. You need to realize that sort of stuff comes and goes. Embrace it when it’s there, but just focus on right action when it’s not.
As they say in addiction recovery, “Do the next right thing.” Get good enough at this and you’ll have yourself a deep and meaningful life.