Monday, July 6, 2009

Positive Thinking, Negative Thinking, and why it’s better to be on the Fence

Since the publication of Norman Vincent Peale’s 1952 book called The Power of Positive Thinking, the world has been bombarded with a plethora of self-help books guaranteed to show us the way to happiness. But is there a down-side to these suggestions?

If we do as instructed, by a multitude of sources, to push away the negative, or bad thoughts and focus only on the positive, or good thoughts, how do we prepare for the bad times of reality?

Come with me, if you will, on a journey through the cluttered half-baked theories of my mind, but watch your step, there’s no liability insurance in here. If you trip into the corpus callosum, you’re on your own.

Part one of the half-baked journey begins with the extreme outcome of pure positive thinking. If I am truly thinking positively, then nothing at all could possibly go wrong, I have nothing to worry about, I am perfect just the way I am, and the world exists just so that I might gain pleasure from it.

If nothing could go wrong, why should I plan for a rainy day? My job will last forever, the roof will never leak, and my kids will remain perfectly healthy. There is only sunshine in my world.

If there is nothing to worry about, then I can count my life savings while walking down a dark alley without fear, my car will last forever- that banging under the hood means nothing and adds an interesting beat to the music playing on the radio, and I will never grow old. Throw away the botox; there are no wrinkles here.

If I am perfect just the way I am, why should I exercise to take off that extra ten pounds, why should I try to improve my mind with literature, the theater, or a higher degree. Why should I get off the couch?

If I buy into this extreme sport of pure positive thinking, why would I work like a dog to get ahead? Wouldn’t I be perfect enough for everything to be given to me?

Now for part two of the half-baked journey; are you still with me? We are getting really deep in the frontal lobes now.

If I remain in a positive thinking mode until I gain a serene, carefree state, does that mean my brain is unstimulated? And in turn, does that mean that the firing of neurons has diminished so much that if danger were to occur, I would not be able to act quickly enough for self-preservation? Would I react at all if I were a true positive thinker? What could happen if I stayed on the couch?

Let’s go back to the unstimulated idea. If I continue to not stimulate my brain, will my brain begin to deteriorate? After all, the old adage “Use it or Lose it” has been around longer than “Think Positively”. Let’s throw in another adage: Necessity is the Mother of Invention. That being said, if we have no necessity because we are positively thinking about everything and therefore need nothing new, why would we trouble ourselves to invent new things?

If I remain unstimulated for an extended period of time, what will happen to my mood? If there are no highs or lows, no release of adrenaline to handle excitement or danger, no need for the release of serotonin or dopamine to stimulate my brain, will these receptors be decommissioned as no longer needed? Will my mood sink into depression?

Now for the flip side of this saga.

What if I experienced continual negative thoughts? Would my life mirror the same lack of moving forward I found while hanging out on the couch with positive thinking? I may have more supplies stored in the basement with negative thinking and the door would be locked, but would my life be any more interesting? Would it be just as flat, but in a negative way?

If danger startled me off of the couch, would I be too paralyzed by negativity to react in time? If I think nothing good will ever happen, have I made this come true simply by closing the door to the possibility?

This leaves us with the good old fence straddlers.

Ordinarily, sitting on the fence is thought of as a bad thing. We are urged to choose a side, be decisive and stick with our convictions. What if I had a mixture of positive and negative thinking tempered with a good dose of reality thinking? Would my life attain a better balance necessary to survival? Would I have happy little neurons firing quickly and efficiently because they were getting a healthy dose of exercise and rest? If I use reality thinking with a mixture of both positive and negative thinking, will I be better prepared to weather hard times?

If I have a huge project due at work, would I be more effective if I used a dose of negative thinking that I don’t have enough time to complete this project, mixed in a little anxiety that if I don’t finish then my job may be finished, added some positive thinking that all I can do is my best, and stirred it around with reality thinking that I’ve proven myself by meeting hard deadlines in the past and have the ability to do so again. My project will most likely be completed on time because I have made this mixture of positive, negative, anxiety and reality work for me instead of against me. Too much positive thinking and I won’t push myself hard enough to make the deadline. Too much negative and I will give up before really trying.

The fence straddlers can enjoy a healthy mixture of both positive and negative thoughts, knowing each has its own value if kept in balance. And the view from the fence is not bad either.

Thank you for coming along on this trip through the half-baked theory region of my mind.

Now that I've shared some of my thoughts, feel free to share some of your own.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

So-called "happy and content" societies throughout the history of time have not accomplished much of anything and quickly extincted from the face of the earth.

Depression and unhappiness are adaptive for the primate species. The converse is highly over-rated. Just take a look at history of civilizations and I think you will agree.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this blog posting very much. I was the child of a relentless "glass is half empty" mother, who had a tendency to judge harshly, but saved the worst criticism for herself. When I recognized the same tendency in myself, I began to make a conscious effort to be a positive but realistic thinker. Hope for the best, Expect good things, and prepare for everything. This has served me well. That's the balance you speak of finding.

Joseph A. Banken, MA, PhD said...

To the first commenter: I agree that unhappiness could be adaptive to the primate species, but I'm not totally convinced that depression fits within the adaptive category. Unhappiness pushes us to find a solution to our unhappiness, which creates change. Depression inhibits change to the positive. I will give you that depression gave us some really great literature. If Edgar Allen Poe had been on Prozac, we wouldn't have his poetry today. I value your comment and welcome your rebuttal.

To the second commenter:
I like your "hope for the best, expect good things, and prepare for everything." We don't want to wallow in our despair, but we can use it to keep us in check for reality. Thank you for your comment.

karim said...

Very Useful post on positive thinking.

Thanks,
karim - Positive thinking