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.


That Sudden Change of Plans

Staying Happy, Stories from the Road, Trucking

Driving along the idyllic US Highway 95, across a several hundred mile stretch of empty wilderness that goes from Idaho, through Oregon, and down into Nevada, I noticed my “check engine” light come on. Not too alarmed, I checked my gauges. Everything normal, engine sounds fine, feels fine, and smells fine. I continue driving but a moment later the check engine light is joined by the “engine protect” light. Somewhat concerned I double check my temperature gauge. Normal. Hmmm. Must be low on fluid. Should have checked that last stop. Maybe I should –
Now the engine light starts flashing. I have time enough to think aloud, “uh – that’s not good.”
Suddenly the engine turns off. The dash console lights up like a Christmas tree, and I lose power steering. Just coasting now. There’s no shoulder to pull off onto, the road drops off steeply into a ditch. I turn the ignition on and off try to restart the engine, and it finally fires up again. I am looking around for any place to get off the road now. I see a spot but the whole thing happens again before I can get there. Luckily I am able to coast and using all my strength to turn the wheel (now unassisted by power steering) I manage to get off the road.
Under the hood, I find that the coolant is indeed low, and I soon discover why. Alerted by flecks of coolant on the fan and elsewhere in the engine, I look for and soon find a steady dribble of coolant leaking from the radiator. Time to call in the bad news.
After alerting my company’s over-the-road breakdown department, I put all the water I can find on the truck into the coolant reservoir and continue driving. I keep hoping to find a fuel station or some place that will have more water, but all I find is an abandoned looking gas station with a closed sign in the window. A few miles later the engine stops again.
So here I sit. Luckily there is at least phone reception here (can’t imagine how or why this is so) and I am able to communicate my plight to the OTR department. Help is on the way in the form of 2 gallons of water from the nearest service station. After that, the goal is to make it 1.5 hours further to Winemucca, NV for repairs. Meanwhile the load I am carrying is getting less and less likely to be delivered on time.

Unexpected set backs like this happen occasionally on the road. One minute you’re driving along knowing exactly what to expect for the next few days and the next minute your plans have been changed for the next week. It takes some flexibility to roll with these punches, especially if the change in plans is precipitated from something you yourself did. In that case it takes not only flexibility, but some kindness, compassion, and even forgiveness.
I don’t know about you, but I often find it is easier to forgive other people’s mistakes than it is to forgive my own. The pain that comes with realizing I could have done something to prevent the present crisis is deep, personal and hard to forgive and usually leads to self loathing, rage, and depression. No amount of internal dialogue or positive self talk ever seems able to untie this snarled knot of guilt and betrayal that reveals itself every time I make a serious mistake. Not long ago, however, I found a way to cut the knot without bothering to untie it. The key is to address the feeling of rage itself, not the imagined reasons behind it. I found that, though rage is not something easily dismissed, it can be postponed – postponed long enough, in fact, for the conditions which caused the rage to change. When I postponed my rage I found that, before I knew it, the initial problem was either dealt with or no longer relevant and my rage evaporated.
The reason for postponing rage was fairly simple – it clouds judgement and can easily make a bad situation worse. This, I found, was not good enough reason to dismiss my rage – I felt fully justified in being angry – but was reason enough to put it off until the situation was dealt with and there was no risk of me making things worse. The result was that as the situation resolved itself, so did my rage.
At some point I hope to learn a kindness toward myself that does not feel anger at painful mistakes, but in some ways I think reacting to pain with anger is natural so I don’t really know if there is a way to erase it completely. At any rate, postponing anger allows me a bit more flexibility in my life when I am confronted with unexpected changes, and perhaps this method may help you as well. Whatever lies in store on your personal road, enjoy the ride and never lose hope; because change is just around the bend.