Everybody’s heard of the power of positive thinking – and if you’re like me, then the phrase is vaguely annoying. “So I’m just supposed to think happy thoughts and everything will magically work out?” That’s kind of how it’s presented, but life doesn’t exactly work that way. For example, I once had a happy thought that the lottery ticket I bought would win me $463 million, and it didn’t. Which means positive thinking is crap, right?
Not exactly. It just means we need to appreciate what it can and can’t accomplish. Thinking happy thoughts won’t change what happens to us. But it can change our perception of what happens to us – and that, as it turns out, is a really big deal.
Let’s imagine, for instance, that you are the kind of person who generally thinks that things are going to go wrong. That doesn’t mean things will go wrong for you more often than they do for me. It does mean, however, that you are far more likely to notice the things that do go wrong, and far less likely to notice the things that go right. Or, to put it another way, you’ll see others behaving badly and think it’s completely normal while people behaving beautifully will look to you like an anomaly.
If, on the other hand, you’ve decided that things will generally work out, then you’ll be far more likely to view any problems that come up as temporary roadblocks on the path to inevitable success, rather than viewing them as insurmountable obstacles. Neither approach actually changes what happens; it simply changes how we view what happens.
The trick, then, is to transform our general attitude away from assumptions of negative outcomes to assumptions of positive ones. Doing that, however, is challenging – and the reason it’s so tricky is because it first requires us to understand why anyone would assume negative outcomes in the first place.
Sometimes this is based on our previous experience. If you’ve tried online dating and had a few bad dates, it’s very easy to assume that all online dates will be bad and so why bother trying more of them? If this is the case, then it becomes very important to remember that every event is independent of every other event. A bad date with Person #1 has no bearing on your upcoming date with Person #2 (unless of course the problem is you because you’re an intolerable person, in which case stop being so cranky!). A failed math test today does not mean you can’t study harder for the one you have next month.
But sometimes our opinion of the world is not actually based on what’s happened to us, but rather on what we have decided is most comfortable. The most obvious example of this (for me, at least) is with impostor syndrome, the far-too-common idea that you don’t actually know what you’re doing. Why would anyone ever choose to think that they can’t handle something? Perhaps because it will make failure more palatable if you go into something believing that you shouldn’t have been trying to do it in the first place. In this instance, protecting yourself against potential failure becomes more comfortable than stretching yourself toward potential success, and so imposter syndrome.
In order to “think more positively,” then, there are two requirements – first, to remember that future events are separate from and unrelated to past events; and second, to decide that thinking positively is something we actually want to do.
If it is, though, we then need to contend with a third issue – the information we receive. All the positive thinking in the world isn’t going to do much good if everything around us is negative. Which means sometimes we have to curate the world around us in order to create the proper environment for positive thinking to exist. I know people who refuse to talk about politics, who won’t watch reality television, who don’t use social media, who don’t watch horror movies, who won’t follow murder trials – and in every case they’re doing it because they’ve decided the balance of information is too heavily weighted toward the negative to allow them to be happy, positive, and optimistic. The world is full of more information than any of us could ever hope to process, and every day we choose what information we allow in. It will annoy me to the day of my death that it is enormously easier to find lies and/or negative information than it is to find accurate and/or positive information – but the good stuff is out there, if we’re inclined to look for it.
Fundamentally, we are who we tell ourselves we are. If we choose to believe that the future is unrelated to the past, that it is in our best interests to assume that things will generally work out, and then seek out information that reinforces our positive beliefs, then we will be more likely to be happy and hopeful.
So as you head into 2022, I hope you’ll remember that the future is not yet written – and while we won’t get to write all of it, we will get to decide how we respond to all of it. I hope you have a wonderful new year. I’m planning to, and I’m reasonably confident that it will mostly work out.