How To Destroy Negative Thoughts

How To Destroy Negative Thoughts

A systematic approach to eliminating negative thoughts and finding peace.

Andrew Mitson
Co-Founder at ReHumanity
Author of Why Are You Working So Much

Mo Gawdat’s masterpiece manual on how to be happy starts with the premise that happiness is our default state, not something you have to “achieve”.

Imagine “children with dirty faces using little pebbles as toys or holding a cracked plastic plate as the steering wheel of an imaginary sports car” — they don’t have anything, but they’re still smiling, still HAPPY.

Instead of chasing external metrics of success which we believe will make us happy in the future, happiness starts right NOW, internally.

We have a hard time getting our thick heads around this because back in caveman times, sitting around being happy all day would get you eaten…whereas worrying about the future, striving for more food and spying for predators increased your chances of survival.

But Gawdat offers a very practical way to override our evolutionary programming and just be happy.

The Happiness Equation

It all revolves around the Happiness Equation:

Happiness = Reality minus Expectations

So, for instance, if your reality is amazing (job you like, loving family, close friends), but your expectations are even higher (sports car, travelling the world, supermodel wife), the equation will turn out a negative result. You’ll be unhappy because your reality disappoints your expectations.

We see this all the time: if we’re expecting fast service (5 minutes) at a restaurant, but end up with slow service (20 minutes) we complain and nag…if we’re already expecting slower service, however, like at a fine dining restaurant, we’ll be quite alright with a 20-minute wait.

The corollary of this is that if we can just change our internal expectations, we can instantly increase our happiness!

Manual Expectation Adjustment (MEA)

But how do you actually change your expectations?

Borrowing techniques from cognitive behavioural therapy, I found a solution I’m calling manual expectation adjustment.

There are three steps:

  1. Identify the automatic thought
  2. Identify the underlying expectation
  3. Realistically adjust your expectation

This has helped me immensely in getting through some very difficult personal sh*t (death, betrayal, obsessive rumination — you know, the usual) but here is a lighter example from New Year’s day to illustrate:

1—Automatic thought: bloody hell, it’s 2pm, I’m still in bed — great way to start the New Year, aimless and hungover. 2019 is going to be a total disaster.

This thought made me feel like a total failure, naturally dragging down my happiness. But rather than letting the thought fester or beating myself down any further, I noted it and identified the underlying expectation.

2 — Expectation: every day should be super productive and full of life, and you should start the New Year as you plan to go on.

My negative automatic thought was a result of my unrealistic underlying expectation that every day should be super productive and full of life — very unrealistic and typically perfectionistic. I was beating myself up because I felt like I had wasted the day by waking up at 2pm.

Now here’s the most important part: after identifying this underlying expectation, I manually adjusted it; I corrected my expectations to be more compassionate and in line with real life.

3 — Manually adjusted expectation: actually, let’s be honest, everyone is hungover on New Year’s Day, you were out until 6am, you shouldn’t expect to get anything done today. That’s why it’s a flipping national holiday.

With my expectations adjusted, I was able to accept that today just wasn’t going to be the most productive or interesting day. I cut myself some slack, and anything interesting or productive I was able to do that day suddenly became a big win, increasing my happiness!

This same process of manual expectation adjustment works for much more destructive thoughts — but the steps remain the same.

MEA In Practice

Manual Expectation Adjustment works for virtually every negative thought or situation. Obviously in some cases, making the adjustment isn’t so straightforward — we like to hold onto our unrealistic expectations quite dearly. But below are some more real examples of MEA in practice from friends & clients.

I use the following table & prompts to streamline the adjustment process:

Not getting promoted

Getting rejected by a girl

Annoying teenagers


As Mr Twain said: “Comparison is the death of joy.”

Comparing your reality against unreasonably high expectations is like having a little Asian mother sat inside your head, constantly telling you you’re not good enough.

Manual Expectation Adjustment can help shut her up. But only if you can let go of your most tightly held expectations about how the world should work and fully accept reality.

Meditation, Buddhist philosophy and psychedelics can be extremely valuable in helping us let go of these expectations and seeing life for what it is.

But whatever the situation, all mental suffering is ultimately just a choice: a choice to cling to unrealistic, often selfish expectations about how the world should work.

The divorce rate in the UK, for instance, is 42%.

And yet almost all couples still rush into marriage with the tightly held expectation that their special marriage will hold up because they love each other just so much more than everyone else.

It’s totally unrealistic, and yet so many of us cling to expectations like this…unwilling to accept the reality: 42% of marriages end in divorce, 25% of relationships report infidelity, and people die unexpectedly all the time.

All hard pills to swallow.

But if we can adjust our expectations to factor in these truths, we can move away from our Disney-induced fantasies about happy-ever-after, and accept life’s ugly realities.

Try it out, manual expectation adjustment:

  1. Identify the automatic thought
  2. Identify the underlying expectation
  3. Realistically adjust your expectation

Over time, this practice will close the gap between reality and your expectations. Slowly, you’ll learn to accept reality for exactly what it is and make peace with this beautiful, crazy world.

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