I recently came across several different articles discussing how pointless positive thinking is, and how it creates ill-prepared rose tinted glass gazing imbeciles. From the New Yorker article entitled “The Powerlessness of Positive Thinking” , to Forbes, to the Huffington Post– people love to rag on positive thinking and optimism, mostly because ragging on things is easier than offering real solutions or providing helpful clarity. Of course, the astute reader would scan these articles and realize that what these journalists consider “positive thinking” is actually just immaturity and delusion- and anyone with those qualities is setting themselves up for failure.
Since positive thinking is not currently in fashion, the latest pop-psychology now suggests the power of negative thinking- which manifests itself in visualizing worst case scenarios, or as the author of “The Positive Power of Negative Thinking” calls it- “defense pessimism”. This concept is not new, and it’s certainly not the opposite of positive thinking- in fact, I would argue that both positive thinking and negative visualization are necessary to building optimism. The reason that these two things are seen as being polar opposites (optimists & realists, for example), is because our culture thrives on binaries, because it makes it easy to categorize things, people, and ideas. It’s a fast way of simplifying complex issues into neat little boxes (republican/democrat; black/white; gay/straight; rich/poor; violent/peaceful).
The current cultural view of optimists is bleak. It portrays the kind of Barney Fife charicature who walks across the street without looking both ways, because he assumes he won’t get hit by a car. Realists and self proclaimed pessimists, by comparison, revel in proclaiming the end of the world as we know it (the environment, the war, the debt!)- and they walk around smugly feeling superior to the dummy optimist. Neither one of these archetypes is helpful, in fact, I would argue that they only work together- and only in the correct ratio. You’ll read examples of silly optimists in articles that bash positive thinking all the time- like someone with no credentials who tries to “positive think” themselves into a successful entrepreneur and then fails because they don’t know how to run a business. That’s not positive thinking, it’s delusion, and clearly it’s not going to end well. Similarly, pessimism can quickly translate into apathy and lethargy- why even try if everything is already going down in flames?
I think your natural temper should indicate which side (positive or negative visualization) you need to work on the most. For example, negative visualization is my default- I am extremely analytical. Whenever I encounter any situation, I immediately go through all the variables that could cause something to go wrong. I look everywhere for holes in my future plans, convinced that in some way they will fail- regardless of how tirelessly I have prepared. This is not good. It leads to paralysis when making decisions, and an extremely high (and extremely unnecessary) stress level. I put a lot of energy into positive thinking, because chances are- I’ve already thought of all the negatives. When I decide to do something, like make a major life decision- the last thing I need to hear is what could go wrong, because odds are I’ve already spent hours agonizing over all the possibilities. What I do need to hear is that everything will work out, that most likely the worst case scenario won’t happen- and usually that’s true.
Negative visualization is a great practice if you have a tendency to be a poor long-term planner and less well versed in honest self-assessment. If you’re the type who believes that everything will work out for the best to the extent that you never research or plan ahead- negative visualization just might balance you out. It can also help grow your optimism if you have trouble feeling gratitude for day to day living. When you are faced with a difficult scenario you can try and remind yourself how much worse the situation could actually be. Chances are your office rivalry will start to seem pretty petty when you imagine what it would be like to not have a job, or to not have your health, or to not have a safe environment or a place to live. Everyone has something, and that something that you have is beyond the wildest dreams of someone else. I personally have found this to be especially effective, I think of all the people in third world countries who are worried about clean water- and suddenly the fact that someone cut me off on the subway doesn’t seem worth getting ruffled over.
I have spent a lot of time building up my positivity muscles, and the results have been incredible. For me it’s all a matter of accepting all possible outcomes. It’s not about visualizing myself as a CEO and then expecting that daydream to come true (a la The Secret, which is constantly referred to as a holy grail of positive thinking). It’s about making the best decision that I can, and knowing that even if something terrible happens- I will be able to handle it, and I’ll be able to see any challenges as a fantastic learning experience (rather than a crushing loss). That’s one aspect I don’t see in these articles, the part where you have to gain acceptance of the tenuous nature of life- which as far as I’m concerned is the pure embodiment of being a realist.
Positivity and optimism have always been strongly linked to gratitude in my life- and gratitude is perhaps the only thing currently less popular than positivity. I am not relentlessly optimistic because I think I will never get old or that nothing bad will ever happen to me- I’m relentlessly optimistic because I can always find something to be grateful for. One of my favorite quotes by Gautama Buddha puts it more eloquently than I can:
“Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot at least we learned a little, and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn’t die; so, let us all be thankful.”
If you have breath than you can have gratitude. It doesn’t mean that bad things don’t happen or that you’re blindly unaware of the world around you. Rather, it means that you have entered and explored so thoroughly the world of your own mind that you know there are recesses of your own being that cannot be touched or undone by any act of nature or humanity. That’s where your optimism lives, and if you cultivate it- it will flourish!
How do you try to cultivate optimism in your own life? Have you encountered many positivity naysayers?