Photo by Robert Collins on Unsplash
If we want to improve our overall wellbeing, health, relationships and satisfaction with life, we may need to start looking on the bright side and see the cup as half full. Or so we heard. We think that by cultivating a positive thinking style, we’ll design a happier life for us. That is, get rid of the negative self-talk, negative attitudes of us and those around us and start looking at situations in a more optimistic way. Or not?
The concept of thinking positive was born in the USA, mainly in the ’30s, when some authors started writing about the power of thought in reaching your desired goals. These books promised to help you live a happy, successful life only through changing your thoughts. That is, get rid of your negative thoughts by observing them, intercepting them before they pop into your mind, change them into positive thoughts linked to your life objectives and you’re good to go. So, this positive thinking soon became the holy grail for living a happy life.
But, staying positive in life does not equal thinking positive. It sometimes includes thinking positive (while I don’t 100% agree to the term) yet it’s not defined solely by it.
Staying positive does not mean controlling your thoughts so that not a single negative one shows up and troubles your inner peace. It does not mean trying to think only positive thoughts all the time, no matter what. Staying positive does not mean denying that you’ve had a rough day or going through a rough time in your life right now. It does not mean to keep on telling yourself that everything’s fine when it’s not. It does not mean avoiding to look at the bad things in your life for fear of shaking your hard-earned good vibe.
Some of us are forcing ourselves to maintain a positive way of thinking, trying to cultivate positive thoughts about ourselves, situations and life around us, even when this is not our inner reality.
Staying positive and telling yourself that everything’s fine when the inner reality is other is dangerous because, in the long term, it disconnects you from your own emotional experiences and thus, from yourself.
I’ve been there. Years later, I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror without questioning who I was.
A forced optimism disconnects us from ourselves because we force our mind to not pay attention to, interpret and make sense of the negative encounters and negative emotions we’re subsequently experiencing.
Because our subconscious processes run in the background all the time, these unprocessed experiences and emotions remain stuck somewhere beneath our conscious levels and will come back to haunt us later, in the form of anxiety, frustration with life, an overall sense of dissatisfaction and questioning our identity and sense of self. All in spite of our effort to stay positive.
Your mind cannot naturally deliver only positive thoughts to you because life is not made up of only positive situations.
We cannot receive only good things in life: kindness, success, prosperity, happiness and so on. Sometimes, life gets a rough turn and things get bad. And when things get really bad, it’s not humanly possible to not have a negative reaction/emotion to it.
And when life gets tough, our mind is doing its job: processing it all, making sense of it all and delivering the conclusions to us. It’s normal and it cannot be changed. Trying to change our mind’s natural way of working is futile.
Our survival and adaptation depend on a complex, bi-dimensional working of the mind. We’re evolutionarily biased to pay attention to bad things first, in detriment of the good ones. Not paying attention to bad things can cost us way more in comparison to not paying attention to good things. Bad information is processed more thoroughly than good information because ignoring danger even once and you may end up dead.
So, when you’re constantly trying to stay positive and in good vibes only, you’re not only denying your reality but also your human nature.
What it really means to stay positive is that you are able to find meaning and resources in every situation that you encounter, no matter if it’s good or bad (or you interpret it as good or bad).
It means that you cultivate a positive attitude towards life, not a positive way of thinking. You don’t try to stop your negative thoughts from popping into your mind and blissfully deny what is bad in your life.
Cultivating a positive attitude towards life doesn’t happen overnight. It can sometimes take years, depending on your past history of experiences, your belief system and all your conditioning up until now.
So, cultivating a positive attitude towards life starts, first of all, with an understanding of ourselves and the way we function. And this means working with ourselves: understanding our emotions, values and needs together with understanding how our life experiences shaped our mind’s way of working until now.
Moreover, a positive attitude means that we understand that every situation we’ll be facing is not one-dimensional — as in only good or only bad. It means understanding that every situation has two sides. It means understanding that all things are relative.
A positive attitude also means putting your life in perspective. It means zooming out on everyday situations and understanding that what’s happening at any given moment is part of something bigger that is, your life. Your journey. That has good and bad in it. That has storms and peace. And meaning in its all.
All of this leads us to cultivate an equilibrated mind, where we can stand up not only when it’s good but also when it’s bad.
Trying to get rid of all the bad in our life, as in thoughts or persons or situations makes us fragile and unable to stand life’s constant changes.
Heraclitus said that “you cannot step into the same river twice, for it is not the same river and it is not the same man.” As a river is constantly flowing, it changes all the time. Sand and mud is built upon its banks and is eroded from its banks. At any given moment, as you’re standing in the river, the river that is passing by you now is not the same river that is upstream and coming down. Life is the same way, it’s always going to change. Relationships, income, friends, relatives are not only subjected to change but will definitely change.
Pushing your mind into the corner and demanding that from now on it will deliver you only positive thoughts is setting yourself up big time for fragility, vulnerability (in a bad way), and incapacity to absorb what life will throw at you.
On the other hand, an equilibrated mind that interprets events as they are helps us absorb any shock and situation life throws at us because:
- we can much easier identify the needed resources to help us deal with anything
- we can much easier find meaning in every encounter
- an equilibrated mind has the capacity to put things in perspective, which is the most important thing
“The fragile wants tranquility, the antifragile grows from disorder, and the robust doesn’t care too much.” Nassim Taleb
Let go of trying to think positive thoughts all the time. It won’t happen.
Focus on finding meaning and resources in every encounter.
Let your mind do its job and process all the situations while you accept every thought that’s being delivered.
Zoom out on your life with the understanding that any given moment is part of something bigger. That helps you gain perspective.
Understand that every situation will always have two sides, good and bad.
Work towards understanding yourself. Here, awareness is a big step forward.