The optimist sees the half-full glass as ready to overflow. The pessimist waits for the water to evaporate and claims victory.
I came across an article titled “How to Harness the Positive Power of Negative Thinking” by Oliver Burkeman on UC Berkley’s Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life website. This is a well-conceived article promoting a book by the author that takes positive thinking to task. Burkeman’s book is apparently aimed at showing us how positive thinking is overrated and negative thinking is beneficial.
I left a comment about the article on the site, but I wanted to expand a bit on my response there. I encourage you to read the article before reading my response.
It is important to keep all things in balance – positive thinking included. Clearly the overzealous goal-setting and perfectionism, described by Burkeman, are a danger in our positive thinking. We can stress ourselves out in the constant pursuit for more, more, more. When we don’t get the desired results, we can feel disappointment and more negativity for a time. And certainly, there are people who cheat and cut corners to reach their goals. None of these, however, are indictments of positive thinking. They represent positive thinking misapplied.
Clearly, some of this go, go, go win, win, win mentality has been driven by some of the giants in personal development. Burkeman touts ancient Stoic and Buddhist philosophies as an answer. He points out that these schools of thought sought a less strenuous way to be happy without the constant pursuit of something. I agree.
However, Buddhism and Stoicism are both self-denying, and to some extent, world-denying philosophies. They were not designed to create achievement of goals in the world. Where I believe philosophies like that can contribute is in keeping us balanced and sane and as we make the necessary push required to “make things happen” in our world. If your goal is simple serenity, then by all means choose Buddhism or Stoicism. If you have goals and things you want to achieve in the world, these philosophies, while comforting you, are not the ticket.
When I read articles like this one, it reminds me why I work to move my own thinking in positive directions. For negativity is the human default setting and much easier to maintain than positivity. There is also this strain of thinking here that sees negative thinking as somehow more realistic than positive thinking. This line of reasoning goes that we live in a harsh world where disappointment is commonplace and we can protect ourselves by expecting little. The message is “play it safe”. Don’t risk your happiness, when it might end in disappointment.
For the dreamer, though, this will not do. He or she sees a bigger pie and possibility everywhere. He or she knows that avoiding defeat is not the same as victory.
When you risk, you do chance setback and disappointment. We live in a Universe where risk is the cost of reward. The dreamer accepts this as part of the game.
You don’t have to be stressed or narcissistic in the pursuit of those goals. You don’t have to harm others or think only of yourself. You see, real positive thinking wants not only the best for you, but the best for those around you and the best for the world. When it is selfish, it is misapplied. When it makes you tight and stressed about achieving a certain goal by a certain date, it is misapplied.
The real issue here boils down to this, assuming you don’t plan to retreat to a mountaintop and meditate yourself to Nirvana (a worthy goal in and of itself). You are going to need to act in the world to achieve your goals. When that action is driven by fear and negativity, success is rare. When it is driven by a positive outlook and the belief that something more, even though risky, is possible – success comes more often.
We can spend our lives steeling ourselves against disappointment and defining that aversion to setback as happiness. Or, we can spend our lives working to achieve our dreams and expanding our horizons about what happy means.
Follow your bliss. Experience your bliss. Become your bliss.