“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
– William Shakespeare
What do you think of the painting above? Is it a masterpiece? Garbage? Exciting or boring? The painting above is simply a painting, but the ways that you describe the painting are unique to you and your values, previous life experiences, and even your mood in this moment.
When it comes to the human experience, none of us seem to think alike. You like vanilla ice cream, your spouse likes chocolate. You loved that movie, but your co-worker hated it. You think your kid would look great in a specific outfit, while your kid says he wouldn’t be caught dead in it! How can two people experience the same thing, yet come away with completely different impressions and feelings? Interestingly, this finding is not limited to ice cream, movies, or clothing, but extends to literally every interaction we have with the world around us. Revisiting Shakespeare’s quote, most things are not “good or bad,” but it is our unique personal experience that often dictates what we think is good bad, right, and wrong.
Understanding cognitive psychology
Cognitive psychology is the scientific study of how humans attend, perceive, and interpret the world, leading to the actions that flow from those thoughts and impressions. From a clinical psychology perspective, focus is directed toward understanding how one views the world around him- or herself, and how those unique personal experiences impact thinking, and consequently, overall health and wellness. Borrowing from the Shakespeare, we see that most experiences and things in our world aren’t universally agreed to be “good or bad,” but that those evaluations are unique to each one of us. For example, the loss of a manager at work might scare one employee into thinking about the prospect of a new boss, while another employee might become excited by the same news as she applies to fill the now vacant position. Same news, two different perceptions.
When we understand and accept that people “see” the world differently, it then allows us to try and understand things through their world view, or for us to help others see a new angle that we are experiencing with the same object or situation. Interestingly, we can change our perceptions — and we often do — when we experience consequences that dictate a change in our thinking. For example, you might think you hate seafood, only to change your mind after enjoying a seafood dinner at the new restaurant in town. Similarly, you might be skeptical of electric lawn mowers until you try one, or excited about bitcoin until you lose money and subsequently change your thinking. Again, what is good, what is bad?
When we direct this conversation toward overcoming life problems, each one of us has the opportunity to frame our future problem-solving actions as overcoming a challenging situation, or we can succumb to the perception of a threat and quickly give up. Yes, how we cognitively frame situations has everything to do with focus, motivation, and resiliency — factors that directly impact our chances for future success.
We often assume that most people think like us, but the reality is that we all have our unique interaction with the world around us and that opinions vary widely and often. One man’s garbage is another man’s treasure is another way of examining Shakespeare’s “nothing is good or bad” quote, as what one person finds of value might be completely worthless to you. Use the ability to think independent of others to help “see” things around you in ways that allow you to stay positive, optimistic, and excited to use your best efforts to overcome any challenges and hurdles you might face.