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Post No.: 0663thinking


Furrywisepuppy says:


Positive thinking is beneficial when we otherwise would feel like giving up on something that’s worth persisting with – that belief that one can do something, because it is within reach that one can do it even though it is difficult, may be enough to push one through towards the finish line rather than give up.


…But positive thinking does have a dark side if it is misapplied – it can lead to wishful thinking and fanciful delusions. If things aren’t going well then it can lead to blaming ourselves or feeling like failures for ‘not thinking positively enough’ or for ‘not believing in ourselves enough’, rather than accepting a situation that we cannot change or were unlucky about. Or if it concerns something that we can change and do have control over then we should be working on training our practical skills and abilities, rather than working on boosting the mere faith in our own success; which sounds like hubris or excessive self-confidence.


An attitude of ‘don’t believe in defeat’ or ‘anything will come true if only you believe in it enough’ can lead to arrogant self-entitlement – including still believing that one’s side had won a presidential election even though one’s side had lost!


Positive thinking courses and positive affirmations are aggressively promoted in multi-level marketing schemes so that members in group chats or meetings don’t hear about and therefore don’t realise that many others like them are struggling to sell any products, which gives the impression that it’s only them who is struggling. (You can learn about MLM schemes in Post No.: 0529.) By keeping the ‘doubters’ or ‘dissenters’ silent, members of the group might fail to recognise the wider systemic problems with the business model that affect more than just a few individuals. Also, if you’re struggling to recruit new members or make money then positive thinking tries to make you ignore the fact that you’re losing lots of money, and if you’re not getting rich then it’s your own fault for your own negative thoughts or negative talk, your lack of belief in yourself and in the company, rather than because it’s a scam that only benefits those who came in early in the (pyramid) scheme (the people who are highlighted in the glitzy marketing materials).


It also occurs during racial gaslighting, when people who experience racism are told to ‘stop being so negative’ whenever they point out incidences of prejudice and discrimination. It can lead to sentiments of ‘stop being a downer’ when people are trying to raise the awareness of real problems that shouldn’t really be ignored. Certain politicians often use this tactic when trying to divert attention away from their own mistakes – they urge the nation to stop dwelling on the failures (that they caused) and buoyantly hark back to the spirit of past glories through nationalistic pride or even jingoism.


People telling us to be positive all of the time can in fact sap our energy when we don’t authentically feel upbeat or confident because it’s tiring to pretend to feel something that we don’t at the time feel.


Faith, mere belief, hope or optimism is not enough to deserve something. Being optimistic in jumping over a gorge unassisted would be just plain foolish and needs a proper risk assessment! The ‘crossing of one’s fingers’ style of positive thinking is not a good strategy, especially when our actions might adversely affect others. We mustn’t forget about being conscientious and considerate. Woof.


Optimism therefore needs more – a worked-out and workable plan. Positive thinking can venture into ignorance and arrogance when it’s applied without a decent plan of action that shifts the probabilities of success in our favour and accounts for what happens and what to do if that plan fails. We cannot just think positive and believe we’ll not catch a contagious virus – we must follow hygiene practices, for instance.


But if we do follow good practices then we should think positively. It is difficult to give generic advice because that fuzzy blemish on your skin might be nothing to worry about or it might be something that one should definitely get checked out – but perhaps it’s not so much about having faith in ourselves but having faith in science and in calculated probabilities that update as the data accrues? Perhaps it’s not about being positive or negative but in being more realistic and rational i.e. having a level of confidence that’s appropriate based on the numbers? We should be neither risk-seeking nor risk-averse.


Hope is indeed psychologically important. When most things seem against you, hope may be all you’ve got to keep sane and give things with long odds a shot when the alternatives are bleak. Yet is feeling hopeful right when the calculated odds don’t rationally warrant any optimism?


It sounds uplifting for a successful person to say that all we need is to believe in ourselves and we can achieve anything we want, regardless of our background, resources or anything else. But this does beg the question why these people didn’t believe in something bigger – like world peace or something like that – because they could’ve made this come true(!) Didn’t they want to believe in something like that? Or is it that we need something far more? (Perhaps they’re clueless about what ‘unique factor’ brought them success yet they don’t wish to credit luck?)


Positive thinking cannot overcome injustices like systemic inequity, such as believing that all someone from a poor background needs to do to break into elite circles is to work hard and think positively, rather than firstly break down those injustices of ‘it’s who you know more than what you know’ and more.


Positive thinking works nicely for privileged groups though. It’s easier to feel assured when things are going well for us – just like it’s easier to get on with one’s teammates if one’s team is winning, to be resilient if one isn’t impoverished, to be less grumpy if one isn’t in chronic pain, to not scratch if one doesn’t have an itch, to not be angry with society if one doesn’t face prejudice, to be kinder if one doesn’t face social ostracism or stigma, to care about others if they cared about you, to forgive if one’s life turned out fine in the end, to love one’s parents if they’re not abusive or neglectful, to feel brave if one has helpful support behind oneself, to work hard if one is getting highly rewarded and recognised for one’s efforts, and so on.


We can therefore lack empathy for those who are having a hard time when we expect them to be sanguine, or when we’re feeling great (or moreover feeling self-superior) ourselves. We can be too judgemental and preachy without enough understanding of other people’s situations and/or backgrounds.


It’s still helpful for the most part to look for the light in a dark situation – the opportunities rather than just the threats – but being optimistic isn’t always adequate when concerted and tough practical action would be more appropriate, like regarding the mitigation of and/or adaptation to climate change, rather than carrying on as usual with the way we currently live and ‘hoping for technology to come to the rescue’.


No one is saying that negative thinking is therefore healthy. Positive perspectives are still, overall, healthier – we should still try to find the positives in everything. We can enhance our perspective, such as ‘seeing the glass as half full’ or seeing something as ‘a blessing in disguise’. Is one becoming bald and ‘losing hair’ or is one ‘gaining forehead’?!


Imagine yourself as a poorer person living in a poorer country and ask if the current problem you’re facing right now is an example of a ‘first-world problem’? For example, instead of thinking that you’re ‘suffering’ during the 1 week of the year that your car is broken, be grateful for the 51 weeks of the year that it’s been working. That cola might not taste the same as your usual brand but is it that bad that you can’t even drink it and be glad that you won’t go thirsty?(!) You might be bored of the same dinner again but at least you’re not going to starve. A lot of people don’t realise how good they have it – from cars with power steering and without manual chokes, digital cameras that produce images that don’t need developing first to review and are quick and cheap to retake, the web as a source of information instead of needing to go to the local library, online shopping and convenience foods, makeup that’s easy to apply, air conditioning and central heating… There’s a cornucopia to be upbeat about!


An alternative perspective is that if your major concern in life is how you look, or the football results, or spilling wine onto the new carpet, or your holiday getting postponed – then your life cannot be that bad at all! If that’s your major concern right now then you’ve got no serious health concerns, no crimes have significantly affected you, you’ve no substantial money problems, or no loved one has recently died – otherwise these issues would surely occupy the top of your mind instead (or you’ve gotten your priorities wrong).


It wasn’t quite a ‘leveller’ because everybody hardly suffered equally during the pandemic. But for most people – living in lockdown in a peaceful, ‘developed’ country for several weeks or months was still better than trying to live one typical day in a war-torn city. Answer is it a real ‘life-or-death’ problem or not? Is there an imminent danger? Is it something that’ll become yesterday’s news tomorrow, next week or next year?


Now it’s not about avoiding our problems – we should tackle our problems rather than hide from them or allow them to multiply. But we should break those problems down into smaller, manageable and actionable parts, and then deal with them one part or step at a time. If you can, then compartmentalise the problem to deal with later when you’ll have the time to deal with it. Ask for advice and delegate too.


But perhaps employing positive perspectives isn’t exactly the same thing as positive thinking. Positive thinking can occasionally be over-applied and can have an ironically dark side. It’s more useful if it’s accompanied with some goal and action that one will carry out, rather than mere optimism and ‘crossing your fingers’ or ‘burying your head in the sand’ and hoping that a problem will just disappear or a victory will just appear.


So this post isn’t about saying that ‘a pessimist is never disappointed’. I’ve written many posts about the value of positivity and optimism for our happiness and for achieving other kinds of successes in life. This is about saying that we shouldn’t be blind optimists. Because of excessive optimism – unicorn start-up companies are routinely overvalued, and foreign conflicts are initiated with arrogance. The power of positive thinking isn’t unlimited nor a substitute for positive actions. And it’s not healthy to try to be upbeat all of the time either because it’s sometimes the worries that motivate us to change a situation for the better or to tackle a problem before it might grow too large and unmanageable. It’s not realistic or therefore healthy to believe that life should only be about experiencing ‘good vibes’ and silencing or ignoring those who want to raise concerns or share their disheartening stories.


Merely thinking optimistically is seldom enough and is no substitute for putting in other kinds of tougher effort and critical thinking. Thinking positively can give us the impetus to put in that tough effort though – to see it as worth it. Positive thinking and single-mindedness can be helpful if it gives us the final push to go ahead with a sensible and well-thought-out plan.


Woof. You can use the Twitter comment button below to tell us what you think about the limits of positive thinking?


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