Feelings Follow Your Focus

This post is inspired by Lesson 5 of The Lift Project, a cutting-edge depression and anxiety program. Developed by lifestyle medicine expert Darren Morton, Ph.D., the program is utilized by companies and private groups. Click here to learn more. 

“Once you replace negative thoughts with positive ones, you’ll start having positive results.”                                                        – Willie Nelson –

Main point:  look to the positive

As you may recall from this blog post, the limbic system is the part of the brain involved in emotion and action. Basically, what affects your limbic system will affect how you feel–happiness, sadness, anger: each springs from this brain region.

Did you know that your “feeling” brain, the Limbo, is connected to your “thinking” brain, the frontal cortex? In other words, what you focus on will change how you feel. If you focus on positive parts of the past, present, and future, your Limbo will help you feel happy and hopeful.

Your Thoughts and Feelings

Your Limbo is wired to the front portion of your Leader, known as the frontal cortex. The Leader is responsible for higher-order thinking; basically, it’s involved in what you pay attention to and focus on. Because your Limbo and Leader are “work buddies,” what you think about will affect how you feel. Feelings follow your focus.

Here’s an example. You know that one political figure that you hate to bring up at the Thanksgiving table. If you do, you know that things will start to get emotional–heated, even? Here, the Leader conjures up negative thoughts and the Limbo follows with the emotions to boot (anger, stress, annoyance, and on).

Fortunately, this Leader-Limbo effect can work in reverse. Ask newly-weds about their wedding day and watch their mood shift! Almost instantly, they’ll (hopefully) smile, laugh, and share about their special day. Once again, feelings follow your focus.

Fun fact! Your feelings also feed your focus. While the Leader can send messages to the Limbo, the Limbo can also send messages back. This is why we can enter upward and downward spirals in our thoughts and feelings (the more we dwell on a positive experience, the happier and happier we feel).

Psychologists refer to this as a “broaden-and-build” theory of positive emotions. When we begin to think positive thoughts, we feel positive emotions, and this creates more positive thoughts! You’re on an upward spiral! This leads to “expansion”–expansion of our mindset, openness to social situations, and general will to live.

To sum-it-up: thoughts and feelings breed their own kind, good or bad.

How to Activate Positive Limbo Loops

Have you ever told a friend who’s sad to just “pick yourself up”?

That advice is about as helpful as telling someone with a broken leg to “walk it off.” The Limbo doesn’t just shake off a feeling. Instead, you can use the frontal cortex of the Leader to influence the direction that you want it to go–and take the Limbo. You do this when you choose what to think about.

Dr. William James, father of American psychology, once said: “Our greatest weapon against stress is the ability to choose one thought over another.”

The point is, your Leader is meant to lead. It’s like a mother to the Limbo, helping the Limbo to feel good by taking care of it. Because the brain has an amazing ability to mould and change itself, we can strengthen the connections between your frontal cortex and Limbo in a positive way.

As the saying goes, practice makes permanent. To live more emotionally up, perfect and practice the art of thinking positively.

Note: studies show that repetitive negative thinking, like worry and ruminating on pessimistic things, makes people vulnerable to anxiety and depression.


Here are 2 challenges to put this lesson into practice this week.

  1. Each Morning, Ask 3 Questions

When it comes to really engaging your Leader in positive thinking, questions are the answer. Questions help the frontal cortex to engage in focused, positive loops. There are three questions that direct you in an upward Limbo loop:

Question 1: What am I truly grateful for?

Don’t just give a trite answer. Pause. Give the question your full attention and think about it. Expressing gratitude has the ability to lift us emotionally. As Dr. Martin Seligman writes, “gratitude amplifies good memories about the past” which helps put is in a good mood. That mindset helps us to look to the positive in the present and future.

Question 2: What Went Well Today? 

In a fascinating study, participants were asked to write down three things that went well each day and why they went well before they went to sleep every night for one week. Remarkably, their happiness progressively increased for the next six months.

Instead of observing the “treatment effect,” which is the study’s effect that diminishes over time, the scientists showed that the “three good things” activity actually helped the participants after the study ended.

Question 3: What am I Looking Forward To?

What do you have coming up in the future that gives you the warm fuzzies every time you think about it?

When you don’t have something to get excited about, life becomes dull and mundane. It’s wise to find something to get excited about!

Another way to look positively toward the future is to be hopeful. Hope is to have positive expectations about the future. Numerous studies show that people with hope are happier, suffer less depression and stress. What do you have to hope for?

– Where there is hope, there is life

Main point: Feelings follow your focus. Look to the positive!

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