Positive Thinking: Because Everything is Awful.

Essays, Staying Happy

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of articles that are very critical of what they call “Positive Thinking” but demonstrate a very superficial understanding (or complete lack of understanding) of what “Positive Thinking” really is.

Much of the misunderstanding seems to hinge on what the goal of “positive thinking” actually is. Let’s be clear. The goal of “positive thinking” is…(drumroll)…positive thinking. The whole point of positive thinking is finding hope and optimism in a cynical world – not gaining health and wealth. Granted, health and wealth may sometimes be enhanced as a byproduct of positive thinking, but it’s not the goal. It must also be admitted that there are plenty of charlatans and opportunists out there who have hijacked some of the terminology of positive thinking in an attempt to sell easy recipes to their own brand of health/wealth based “success,” but these are counterfeits of the real article.  

True positive thinking is for the purpose of gaining a healthy mind and enriched experience of life – not miracle healing and getting rich quick – and it is based in self honesty and personal responsibility. Let me show you. Here are a couple basic principles of true positive thinking.

1. You are not a victim – a mere object of circumstances; you are a being with strengths, talents, and will that can be brought to bear on your circumstances. Obsessing over what has happened or is happening to you does not help you. Taking action and making decisions does. Focusing on what you CAN’T do doesn’t help you. Focusing on what you CAN does. Injustice and hardship are real, but you get to decide whether your story is a tragic one or a heroic one.

2. Judging or categorizing things, experiences, or people with simplistic labels like “good/bad”, “smart/stupid”, “pretty/ugly”, may seem expedient, but it ultimately dulls our ability to discern, learn and grow.

3. Regret is not the same thing as shame. Enduring shame and guilt are a miscarriage of regret. Regret informs you that certain decisions or actions have undesirable consequences. Shame and guilt come in when rather than learning, changing, and moving forward, we instead label ourselves as someone who does those kinds of things and agonizes at our fate of being so terrible/stupid/whatever. Regret that gives birth to learning and change is healthy and productive – wallowing in shame and guilt is not.

4. It’s good to feel your emotions and acknowledge their source. Suppressing negative emotions does not help you to be a happier person. Our bodies instinctively react with sobs, laughter, or adrenaline based on various stimuli in a way that has served us well for thousands of years. Trying to stifle these reactions can only lead to frustration and confusion. Instead, focusing and channeling these reactions into constructive action can help these instincts to be more effective. For instance, anger signals us that something urgently needs to change (often what needs changing is our own perspective or approach to a problem) – our body gets a shot of adrenaline and our mind suddenly becomes very tightly focused on the issue at hand. If that energy and focus can be aimed at examining options and blasting away obstacles, then that is anger well spent. Likewise tears, while seeming to blind us and cause embarrassment, have been found to carry away stress-inducing toxins. Fear increases our heart rate, preparing us for action and boosting our senses and awareness. The trick is to take the reigns of these emotions, acknowledge the cause, and consider how you can best use your body’s natural reaction. Sometimes you just need to have a good cry and shed some of that stress. Sometimes you need to blast through the bullshit – the excuses, the distractions, the procrastination – and take action. Sometimes you need to stop and take stock of your situation, acknowledge any risks you are taking and be alert for new developments.

As long winded as this may seem, it’s just scratching the surface of what goes into truly positive thinking. There are so many other principles including things like “personal narrative,” “an attitude of gratitude,” and “laws of attraction,” that are not as simple to explain – often because we don’t necessarily understand why they work, just that they do. Ultimately though, if you are looking for health and wealth, positive thinking is not necessarily going to help you. In fact, an obsession with that kind of “success” will likely inhibit your ability to think positively. If, on the other hand, what you seek is hope and and a brighter perspective on life and maybe some practical tools to help you through the ups and downs, the bumps and scrapes, and the general turbulence that is every day life, then “positive thinking” may be something you want to look into.