Positive Thinking – I Wouldn’t Touch It With a Charge Pole

‘If you think positively, positive things will happen…’. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard that over the years. It is certainly what every coach or manager seems to dredge up in order to support whatever motivational strategy they were attempting to set in motion.

Check out LinkedIn and see the all the career coach gurus spouting about all the life transformation sheep dips you can consume for a chunky fee or two, all centred on the panacea of positive thinking.

But does it actually make sense? Just what is the evidence that optimism leads to positive outcomes or conversely that pessimism leads to negative outcomes?

Now, I will willingly swallow that those who feel that there is no hope in any given situation might just give up. If that is the case, should we not simply stick to the ‘never give up’ mantra? At least there is a causal connection here with outcomes.

So, allow me to enlighten you. What is seen as optimism or pessimism is simply a value judgement that reflects whether you afforded a greater significance to known factors that might benefit or disadvantage you respectively.

Whether you are a ‘glass full’ or a ‘glass empty’ type of person makes no difference at all as long as you keep going and keep real.

It’s not so much about having positive thoughts that lead to positive outcomes. It’s about having clear thoughts about always taking some action when something is thrown at you. So positive in the sense that there is a net positive in terms of personal output, i.e. you don’t just sit idle and allow the events of your immediate world to unfold.

Well, that advice is not worth a hefty consultancy fee or a 6-session course for a grand. It’s just common sense. But the life coach charlatans have to spin it into some Svengali bullshit so that you think they’re weaving some sort of magic for which you will part with a wheelbarrow of cash.

It’s painful to see these quacks grow rich on this genre of twaddle which equates to nothing other than a false positive. A fabricated causality between the qualities of your thoughts necessarily translating into elevated personal performance and then superlative outcomes. Think about it in those terms and you will quickly translate their philosophy into nothing more than a rationale for wishful thinking.

But let me turn to the question of what I think their starting point is, which is really that of happy thoughts. These of course put you in a good mood, as opposed to sad thoughts that put you in a bad mood. Laughing stimulates the release of endorphins, but a chortle or a guffaw won’t transform a dimwit into a genius. Just a happy dimwit. And there are plenty of those about.

The dimwit’s day will I am sure be more enjoyable than if he were utterly morose. And there’s nothing wrong about that. The problem with happy thoughts is that they take a lot to maintain because reality is generally a mixed bag for all of us. Try too hard to be happy and you will ultimately become delusional. And this is really the crux of it.

The problem with making a conscientious effort to put a positive or a negative spin on anything is the spin itself. You are removing your thought-processes further away from realism and objective decision-making. Whereas pessimists might talk their way into inaction, optimists might equally chase in vain after lost causes. Both extremes signal a potential slide into something unpleasant.

Another problem with the push for positive thinking is that people are forever craving ‘positive experiences’. As a result – when reality fails to meet these expectations (as will inevitably be the case at times) – people may inadvertently get a negative experience. They then start to anticipate disappointment when they start to think about how much they really want positive outcomes.

Accordingly – and somewhat perversely – the process of thinking about positive experiences becomes a negative experience in itself. All of this is reinforced by the realisation that you are a person with deficits, which of course is very unsatisfactory for the positive vibe seeker who is by definition dissatisfied with their lot.

Perhaps real happiness is where there is just a slight imbalance that just gives you a slight edge or motivation to take that next step. Not setting impossible goals that lead to a higher probability of disappointment but creating just enough impetus to take the next decision or step. Freud used to say that the purpose of psychoanalysis was to get people from hysterical misery to a state of common unhappiness. That seems to make a lot of sense, given the variability of life and the common-sense binary probability that what happens will either fall in your favour or not. So perhaps the most relevant happy thought should be that happy and sad come in equal measures, or at least should do.

An alternative view might equally be that situations are never either positive or negative because there is no objective yardstick for such assessments. Things are things and we experience them. Suck it up and move on.

So, what does happen when people swallow this positive thinking malarkey?

Well sometimes people do achieve more, not because they have ‘thought positively’ but because they do indeed have talent, and they create worthwhile outputs. Where it starts to go awry is if they start to believe in the power of (what they like to call) positivity. At that point, they still want more and believe that their thoughts will take them to ever-improving levels of accomplishment. So, a person seeking wealth never gets to enjoy it because they never get to internalise what they have delivered in terms of good old-fashioned results from refined or well-honed skills.

The connection between results and positive thinking become ingrained, as does the dissatisfaction. Increased wealth might for example – perversely -still feel like poverty. People lose sight of who they actually are and instead focus on only how they are failing to meet their aspirational goals.

It’s like the power of prayer when there is no deity to listen. And that’s something that both believers and non-believers would readily determine as utter bollocks.

Life becomes the endless pursuit of goals that fail to deliver substantially. Then it truly becomes what happens when you are making other plans.

So, don’t worry about always chasing the next big job title or that extra £5k in your salary. Don’t stress yourself if everybody is getting the newest piece of technology or having to spend crazy money on the latest prestige car.

Don’t burn through your days making somebody rich for a few grand. At the end of your life if you could hand back the last £5k you earned (or the £3k you took home from that) to have one more year of living, you’d throw it back at them with a gusto.

If it’s shite, be honest that that’s what it is and walk away. Don’t be endlessly optimistic that it will all work out through the power of your positive thought because very often it won’t, and you’ll never get the time back.

Forget positive thinking. Just have one single approach that by definition will be the positive outlook once you’ve reflected on it – keeping it real. It’s not about convincing yourself that you have to have positive thoughts all the time, like it’s some sort of superpower. Keep your so-called positive thinking as a retrospective question, not as a delusion-forming pre-determinant. Just do what you think is right and if it works, keep doing it. You don’t even have to label it, but if you did, you would see it as action that was positive, or better still, constructive. And that is what leads to positive outcomes, nothing else.

On the other hand, if you think that wishing wells work, by all means draw out a few grand and throw it in. There are plenty of life coaches out there who are only too willing to make your dreams come true.

unsplash-logoEmiliano Vittoriosi

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