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Action 21

Know your thoughts, choose your actions

Science shows that our thoughts about things that happen to us can have a big impact on how we feel and how we act. Not just the big events in life but small everyday issues or hassles. But our thinking isn't always obvious and or accurate. Becoming more in tune to our patterns of thinking can have a big impact on our happiness, our behaviour and relationships with others.

Why do it

This is one of the foundational skills of resilience and has been scientifically shown to have a positive impact on happiness.

It is easy to believe that when bad things happen to us that it is the event itself that is driving how we feel as a result which then causes us to react or behave in particular way. For example when we feel a surge of anger after someone pulls out in front of us when we are driving or guilt when we miss a deadline.

However, research has now shown that it is not the event itself that causes the emotional reaction but the automatic thoughts that run through our head in immediate response to the event. But our emotional reaction can be so fast that our thoughts aren't obvious.

Whilst in many situations our thoughts and so our emotional responses will be appropriate, there can be times when they are not. If our thoughts are inaccurate, particularly in response to negative events, they can drive stronger emotions and reactions than need be. What's more we can fall into patterns that can be detrimental to our happiness not just in that instant but longer term.

There is now strong evidence to suggest that if we can become skilled at recognising our thoughts in response to things that happen and when these are inaccurate, we can become better at understanding and managing our emotional responses and so at choosing our reactions.

This can have a significant impact on our own happiness as well as on our interactions with the people we live, work, or study with.

Where to start

1 Breaking things down into ABC

The first step is to learn how to untangle our thoughts, feelings and actions.

Dr Albert Ellis, one of the founders of cognitive behavioural therapy, developed what is often called the A-B-C model, which is a useful way of separating things out.

A is the Activating Event, or thing that happened; B is the Belief, or the thoughts that immediately run through our head; and C stands for Consequences - the emotions we feel and how we react as a result.

What Dr Ellis found was that the way people interpreted life events, and the things they said to themselves (B) had a huge bearing on how they felt emotionally and how they behaved (C).

The examples below show how different thoughts about the same event can impact on our feelings and behaviour. Do you think more like Tim, Laura, Mel or Dave?

Example 1 Activating event

You are working hard for a looming deadline. Your boss asks you for the second time that week how the report is going and reminds you that she would like to read it before it goes to the clients.


Belief - "She thinks I am useless and not capable of doing this on my own. She thinks I am being really slow and should have finished this by now."

Consequences - Feels stressed, worried and sad. Cannot concentrate on the report and end up making unnecessary errors. Do not sleep well that night.


Belief - "Phew! This is an important project and I am glad that she keeps checking in and will read this through before it is sent off."

Consequences: - Feel reassured and supported. Carry on working on the report, check it through before sending to the boss for review

Example 2 Activating event

You have had a bad day. On your way home you see a friend you haven't seen in a few weeks across the street. You look up and wave and he seems to just ignore you.


Belief - "Why would he have just ignored me? I must have done something to upset me. Or maybe he just doesn't like me that much."

Consequences - Feel sad and quite down. Make no plans for that evening. friends. Avoid seeing or calling him for a while. Don't call any other friends


Belief - He seemed really distracted and looked a bit out of sorts. I hope he is ok.

Consequences - Feel fine - a bit concerned. Call him when you get home to check he is ok.

2 Challenging our thoughts

Tuning into to our beliefs or thoughts (B) is unfamiliar territory for most of us. Usually, an event (A) will trigger some kind emotional response in us that will then influence our behaviour (C). More often than not - unless we take the time to stop and reflect - we are either unaware of our thoughts about the event (B) that triggered the emotion, or we leave our interpretation unchallenged.

It might be, of course, that our interpretations are correct and the way we feel and act in response is appropriate. But by tuning into the things we say to ourselves (B) more systematically and carefully it enables us to challenge those thoughts thatareirrational or unhelpful by asking ourselves questions such as:

  • What evidence do we have that our thoughts are true?
  • What are other possible alternative explanations?
  • How helpful is this thought for me?
  • If this thought is true:
    • What is the worst that could happen and how likely is this?
    • What is the best that could happen and how likely is this?
    • What is honestly the most likely thing that will happen?
    • What can I do to address it?

This can stop us from getting into negative places or negative spirals unnecessarily - and enable us to take control of how we choose to respond.

From Example 2 above, Laura could challenge herself by asking herself what evidence she has that she has upset her friend or she could think of what might have caused him not to notice her - perhaps he wasn't wearing his glasses or has been under a lot of pressure at work and so was pre-occupied. By thinking these alternative thoughts she is likely to feel less down and is more likely to make contact with her friends.

Why not try the A-B-C model using examples from your day, or an event that has been on your mind recently? You may find it helpful to write it out as in the example above. In describing the activating event (A) be sure to stick to the facts of what actually happened - it is easy to include our thoughts.

Keep practicing - good habits take effort but they are hard to break too!

3 Spotting the patterns

If you become adept at tuning in to the way you think about things and interpret events, you might start to notice that you say the same kinds of things to yourself over and over again.

Perhaps you are someone that always blames yourself. Or that always blames others when things go awry. Or someone that thinks they are not good enough, that others are always better than them. Perhaps you are prone to worrying about things all the time - even things that might not, and often do not, happen.

As the examples in the A-B-C table above demonstrate, each way of interpreting an event has an impact on our emotions and behaviour. If we develop particular unhelpful thinking patterns, it is likely that particular emotions will also become familiar to us. For example - people who blame themselves will be more likely to experience feelings of guilt or sadness, whereas people who tend to blame others will feel more anger. People who feel they aren't good enough are likely to feel sadness, embarrassment or shame.

So. It is a good idea to be particularly wary of your 'stock phrases'. They might not always be wrong, of course - but it is wise to learn how to spot them quickly and to challenge them when they pop into your mind. This can help you to avoid getting stuck in unhelpful downward spirals.


Ellis, A. (2007). How to Make Yourself Happy And Remarkably Less Disturbable. Calif.:Impact

Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach To Getting The Life You Want. Chapter 6.New York: Penguin Press

Reivich, K & Shatté, A. (2003).The Resilience Factor: Seven keys to finding your inner strength and overcoming life's hurdles. NY: Broadway Books

Seligman, M.E.P. (2006). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. NY: Vintage Books