Sunday, February 21, 2010

More than being positive

A column in a recent issue of Newsweek magazine has prompted me to think — always a dangerous practice.

The piece, penned by Julia Baird, was entitled “Positively Downbeat,” and the basic thesis was that positive thinking was actually making us all more miserable, rather than happier. As evidence, she sites a study from the General Social Survey by economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers of Wharton. They found, that despite three decades of economic growth in America (current tumultuous financial climate excepted), men and women are no happier now than they were in the seventies. To further hit home the point, the study found that women in 1972 were, on the average, actually more content than they are now.

Being a devotee of “positive thinking,” I was perplexed. How could it be that lighting a candle rather than cursing the darkness would make us more miserable? Intuitively, it made no more sense to me than a study that came out a few years ago, finding that low-calorie foods caused obesity. As in that report, something was obviously askew.

Ms. Baird references another author, Barbara Ehrenreich, who in her book, “Bright-Sided: How Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America,” calls positive thinking a “mass delusion.” Among other ideas, Ms. Ehrenreich argues that the foundation of positive thinking is the belief that you can will anything you like into happening: recovering from cancer, getting a promotion, becoming a millionaire.

It is in that statement that I found a foothold; believe as you wish, one must also accept that the universe will not change its rules to accommodate our whims, fantasies, or desires.
Positive thinking is not blind, naive, magical wishing. I cannot rub a crystal ball, site solemnly my affirmations, and assume that all will go exactly as I foresee. After all, I might fancy Sandra Bullock and myself alone on a tropical, romantic, desert island, while at the same time, her thoughts are, “not in my lifetime buster.” I can posit positive until the furrows in my brow are canals, and still move no closer to Ms. Bullock than the DVD I rent from the video store.
Positive thinking does not materialize nirvana for me. What it does is gives me a stake in my own outcomes; so my life becomes mine, for better or worse. Once I accept that I have the wherewithal to direct my actions, I am empowered, not anointed. With the assumption that I am a (mostly) capable sentient being with talents, ideas, and skills; also comes the responsibility of utilizing those gifts to the best of my ability.

An optimistic outlook will not guarantee a life of luxury or ease, it is simply a tool that allows us to deal with events better when they appear difficult and allow us to further enjoy them when they do not. Positive thinking transfers the impetus of action from “out there” to “in here.” But if “in here” continually seeks its happiness “out there,” it is a void that will never be filled.

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