Building Positive Associations

If you feel you are constantly butting your head against the wall yet cannot seem to figure out why, the answer to a lot of your frustration may be the last thing you want to hear: you may need to change the way you do things.

That change may not be truly radical though. Beware those who over-complicate things with abstract theory requiring a total overthrow. Likewise, beware those who peddle an overly simplistic solution to complex problems. There is no magical way of thinking that unlocks your hidden potential. This is fantasy. Lasting change is built day by day. Personal change comes one step at a time. Incremental improvement is the way to do things. Be subtle but consistent.

Positive associations in everyday life

If you work in a grey drab cubicle most of the day, and you have decorated your six-foot by six-foot space in the universe as I have, then you already get the gist of the principle I am going to discuss here. When you put pictures on the wall of your family or the quote that you love, you are building positive associations with an otherwise unpleasant experience. Working in a cubicle is at times isolating, but at least you can look up from time to time and see your kid’s smiling face looking back at you. A lady down the hall from me grows plants in her office. I’m not sure if that is next-level office living, or next level desperation.

What is a positive association?

The basic behavioral principle is immediately grasped: you need something in your environment to spur a positive mental experience alongside the uneventful hours. You can add literal positive associations like the pictures in the cubicle cited above, or more fluid associations like talking with colleagues that break up the tedium of work.

This concept can be extended to many areas of life. However, in the stress and need to get things done quickly or on a short timeline, it's easy to forget.

How to build positive associations for the hard things in life

If you are going to the gym and you hate every minute of it, you are missing a key element that will make meeting your goals easier. Understand, if you have tried and failed multiple times to stick to a gym routine, it is likely your basic approach that is flawed, not your willpower.

Making for a positive experience

Of course exercise is different with an illness. Nonetheless, exercise and movement within your physical ability can really help with the disease.

Try making friends at the gym or an exercise group so that it is now a social place, and you look forward to regularly seeing people who also motivate you.

Exercise can significantly reduce stress, revamp your energy, and makes you forget about the day. When you are stressed, try exercise. If you find you feel better afterwards, you will build a positive association between exercise and stress relief the more you do it.

Try starting your day with exercise. Over time you may come to associate a good day with exercising.

Stay focused

When you are exercising, avoid the temptation to distract yourself with television, your phone, and other diversions. This disrupts building positive associations with the work. Rather, mentally focus on your goals while you are working out. Think of what you are trying to accomplish and envision the result. When you do this, the work itself becomes more pleasurable.

You can also set some exercise goals and take the time to really experience the pleasure of meeting them. Don’t miss the opportunity. Congratulate yourself. Enjoy it.

Don't berate yourself

If you feel like you are trying to motivate yourself with a whip, berating your inner self to churn out the willpower, then you probably won't keep at it long. However, intentionally building positive associations with exercise is a great way to build lasting habits in a way that is fulfilling.

Positive associations in other areas of life

You can intentionally build positive associations with many hard things in life. For instance, if you have trouble saving money, and find yourself continuing to buy useless objects or things you tire of easily, then you need to flip the associations to get off this hedonic treadmill. What people who save more money than they spend know, is that it feels good to delay gratification. It feels even better to see your credit score increase. Over time it feels good to have a budget you stick to. It feels even better knowing you are not making others rich by paying interest endlessly.

This is done by building positive associations with delayed gratification. For instance, when you are about to buy something you don’t really need, pay off a small chunk of your debt instead. You may begin to feel a sense of pleasure in doing so.

Taking medication

You can do this with the medication for your illness as well. For instance, I love seeing my monthly dose of medication sitting in my fridge when its time for my dose. Certainly I would prefer not to have to take medication, and believe me I have had some near disastrous incidents with certain prescriptions, however, I have learned to really focus on how good I will feel for the next few weeks after I take my shot. Then I think less about the fact that I have to take medication, and focus more on getting it done and getting on with my life.

All in all, building positive associations is not about a false sense that everything is good, or telling others you prefer only good vibes. Rather, it’s a slow and steady build to get the things you want in life and feeling good about the steps required to get there.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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