I now believe that much of the current propaganda about positive thinking is at minimum misguided and likely counter-productive for many people. It amounts to self-help snake oil. This represents a change in my own beliefs brought about by my own experience, my observations of others, and a lot of reading and thinking about it.
Action Is More Important Than Attitude
What matters is not your attitude but your actions. When I looked in the mirror 18 months ago I didn’t see a body I thought was perfect. I saw an aging body that was overweight without being obese, but flabby and out of shape. I was angry at myself for letting myself go like that and risking my future well-being. Should I have looked at myself in the mirror and said “You’re beautiful” (when I knew I was not) and “You’re perfect just the way you are”? I don’t think so. My negative and honest thinking spurred me on to do something about it. I’m still out of shape but I’m 45 pounds lighter and I’ve kept it that way for over 6 months. I didn’t say daily affirmations. I didn’t “manifest” a perfect body. I didn’t imagine a body I would never have. I simply changed my diet and stuck with it, even though at times it hurt a lot. I substituted positive and determined action for positive thinking. I thought negatively and lost the weight, but far more importantly made a permanent change in my diet that improved my health.
We Are All Different
We humans are very different from one another in our personalities and in general about 1/2 of that difference is genetic. This is also true for the trait of optimism and researchers have linked some of that to a gene for oxytocin. It seems absurd that some general advice that is so hardwired into people can simply be changed by “Thinking Positive” and that the results would be “positively” the same for all our dramatically different natures. How much harm has been done to people who think they are defective in some way because they have failed to change themselves into a positive thinker; something that may be very difficult if not impossible for them? It’s easy for some people to maintain low body fat and it is next to impossible for others. It’s no different for personality including an optimistic or pessimistic outlook.
I have never considered myself a generally optimistic person and in every test I’ve ever taken my results show a pretty pessimistic personality type. I’m cynical and sarcastic by nature. I get angry, especially at stupidity in myself and others. I’m sure some of this is learned but some of it is also just the way I was wired from birth. I’ve tried to be more positive and to some to degree I’ve been successful. But at bottom I can’t simply change my personality and I’m not sure I want to anymore. I don’t see how it helps me or anyone else.
Looking on the Bright Side
Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying here. I’m not telling you it’s healthy to be negative about everything, and who likes to be around someone who is constantly bitching and complaining? I’ve done a lot to shut off my negative self-talk and rumination. I’ve mostly stopped constantly replaying things that piss me off over and over in my mind. I’ much more accepting of what is without lying to myself about reality. I’m much calmer, more relaxed, and more satisfied than I’ve ever been before. But I’m not a fake positive thinker and I never will be.
I think it is good to not be attached to outcomes. I think it is wise to accept what is without necessarily being satisfied with it. It’s critical that you don’t become a victim of circumstances that are out of your control. It’s a great learning experience to extract lessons from your failures. But…
If You Are a Real Person, Life is Not Perfect
Sometimes things just suck and are not perfect regardless of what Leo Babauta says. It’s OK to not be positive when life throws you a screwball. I don’t think it is healthy to say otherwise and I notice this usually comes from people who have reached a point in their lives where it is easy for them to say that to others. Everything wasn’t perfect for Leo when he was in debt, out of shape, overweight, smoking, working multiple jobs etc. Now that he changed a lot of that he tells us that everything is always perfect and we should think the same way. Well I disagree and to insist otherwise is to lie to yourself.
A Little Optimism Goes a Long Way
I’m pretty sure that optimistic people have less stress and live longer. I’m not sure they are more successful in other ways. I’m also not sure that a naturally pessimistic person who tries to be positive all the time would live any longer. The stress of going against his nature may kill him sooner. This is the part that is missed in a lot of the bull that is peddled nowadays.
I’ve come to the conclusion that the best approach is to kill the unnecessary negativity, but to live within your nature. It’s probably a good idea to be a little more positive than you should be given your situation, but not so much that you lie to yourself about anything important. If I’m going to die from pancreatic cancer it doesn’t help me to pretend that everything is perfect.
Like everything else I’m not really sure about all this. However, I think the positive thinking approach has gone too far. I’ve tried it and it didn’t work for me. I think I’m happier (?) being the crank I was born to be without being overly obsessive or ruminating on the negative. I get over being upset much faster than I used to and I don’t get upset nearly as often either. I’ve learned that shit happens and that I should just move on. The very best thing I ever did was drop my attachment to outcomes. If things don’t work out the way I wish (and they almost never do), then I try to take it in stride and just go on after making the appropriate adjustments.
It’s OK to be negative if that’s the way you are, just don’t over do it. Try to use those negative feelings as motivation to do something different.
Happy Thanksgiving to all you Americans who are celebrating today.
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