Recently I encounter quite a lot of scepticism about positive thinking, due, in my humble opinion, to a misinterpretation of the nature of such thinking. True, the term is frequently over-used, exaggerated, made to be what it is not. Or, worse still, some believe that, lest they think positively 100% of the time, they’re doing something wrong. Or that they should ‘fake it till they make it’ if they really want to do it ‘right’, which puts honest people off.
It is a shame that a positive outlook encounters scepticism or opposition, because the Art of Positive Thinking is immensely helpful, even for long term body and mind health. Ground-breaking Nobel prize laureate, scientist Elizabeth Blackburn states this in unequivocal terms in her fascinating TED talk – “[DNA health] isn’t just a matter of age counted in years. We have control over the way we age. Attitude matters”. A ‘bring it on!’ attitude – says Blackburn – keeps your DNA healthy for much longer. Our DNA thrives on an attitude of ‘It’s a challenge, not a threat or a drain’. And this is just one scientific proof for the power of the positive mind.
Still, there are certain things that positive thinking is not, so allow me to dispel some myths about it in the hope that sceptics will be persuaded to give it room in their life – for their own benefit.
This is such a common and unfortunate misconception of positive thinking. We all experience ups and downs. We all go through difficult moments, days, weeks, periods. None of us lives under the constant rays of happiness; shadows are an inevitable part of life. Grief, pain, fear, sorrow, anger, resentment, guilt, shame – they are all living emotions, the other side of the positive emotions coin. Just like positive emotions, they have their place and function. Suppressing them, ignoring them, trying to run away from them only makes them loom bigger and hurt much more.
A positive mindset does not attempt any denial of painful feelings. Rather,
A healthy, authentically positive mindset allows room for negative feelings while not allowing them to get complete hold of us. With an encouraging, supportive hand a positive mindset pushes us gently to consider the other sides of the situation and to avoid the slippery slope of self-pity.
To appreciate the power of the positive mindset in action, watch CEO’s Isaac Lidsky’s moving and inspiring TED talk – “What reality are you creating for yourself?”. Lidsky graduated at 19 from Harvard in mathematics; served as a clerk in the US Supreme High Court; starred in a TV sitcom; and now runs a large construction company in Florida. This despite going blind age 25 due to a rare genetic disease. From a genius student with a bright future he turned into a blind cripple. For a while, feeling bereft and sorry for himself, he believed his life would be small, sad and lonely. But he changed the internal story he was telling himself and moved on to great success in his personal and professional life. His TED talk urges us all to not succumb to the negative scenarios we’re all so good at running in our mind but instead to write our own story – and reality.
Fakes don’t last and are nowhere near as effective as the real thing. I am no believer in ‘fake it till you make it’, but there’s a ‘but’ to it. Say normally you’re a pessimist. You tend to see ‘bears in the street’ (as they say in Dutch) where there are none; or you tend to perceive potentially stressful situations as immediate threats rather than challenges that can be tackled. If this is your normal modus operandi, then when you first start applying positive thinking, it will feel fake. Your brain is entirely unused to this positive pathway being used. It’s like going on a completely different neurological trail. Due to the brain’s neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to renew, regenerate and create new paths and patterns – you could indeed create new, positive pathways where before only negative ones existed. But it takes a while, like cutting out a new path in the jungle. And to begin with, while you’re cutting out this new path, it will feel awkward, or fake. ‘What am I doing here instead of there??’ kind of feeling. How come you suddenly tell yourself words of comfort, support or love where normally they would be words of anger, frustration or judgement?!
Change, any change, takes time until it starts feeling like a normal routine, and positive thinking is no different. What might feel odd, unnatural, pretentious or fake to begin with may well turn into a new and welcome habit. Practice makes perfect. So no, you don’t need to fake, just be tolerant towards your brain’s effort to carve new patterns of thought.
Anyone who consciously and sincerely cultivates a positive mind is well aware that positive thinking is not a panacea (cure all). A positive mindset may not stop you from falling into depression, attaching yourself to the wrong job or partner or sinking into the depths of grief. It may not stop you from getting into those states and, solely on its own, it will not get you out of them either. You’ll need to do more than just positive thinking for that.
What a positive mindset will, however, do is provide you with a supportive ally that can help you rise above the troubling situation, reframe it, see other sides to it and tackle it with greater and more useful energy. It will stop you from wallowing in self-pity; it will prevent you from endlessly chewing the unhelpful cud. Positive thinking is not a goal in and of itself. Rather, it is a most powerful tool to help you direct your brain, your thinking and your actions in the most helpful and productive direction(s) possible.
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It is a mystery to me why some people object so vehemently to positive thinking. What have they got to lose by trying to view things this way, I wonder. The funny thing is, most of the people who I come across who object to a positive mindset are typically the negative, pessimistic, unhappy ‘bear see-ers’, precisely the type of people who’d benefit the most from adopting a more positive line of thinking. I can only assume there is some kind of a payback, however miserable, to remain stuck in the shadow rather than explore a bit of sunshine. Which is a shame, because even a bit of sunshine brings warmth and relief to an over-worked, negative mind. But there you go, we’re all different, and accepting it with a smile is also part of positive thinking…