The positive thinking myth.

‘So okay, we can see the glass as half full or half empty, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s half empty.’

‘Two men look out through bars: One sees mud, the other, stars.’
Frederick Langbridge.

‘Why is positive thinking a myth, Mr B?’

The happiness gurus regularly tell us why positive thinking and positive psychology will make us happy. They like to give the story of the three stonemasons: You ask the first stonemason, ‘What are you doing?’ He says, “What does it look like I’m doing? I’m cutting rock!” You ask the second stonemason, ‘What are you doing?’ He says, “I’m earning a living for my family.” You ask the third stonemason, ‘What are you doing?’ and he smiles and replies, “I’m building a magnificent cathedral.

The happiness gurus point to third guy and say, ‘There you go, if you think like him you going to be a lot better off.’ And they’re right. If you think like the third guy you will be better off. It’s called ‘reframing’. By framing a situation in a positive way you develop a healthier, less threatening perspective.

The trouble is, that’s where the story ends. It doesn’t end with the first two guys jumping up and saying, ‘Gosh, what a wonderful way to look at life! From now on I’m going to think like him.’ No, more likely, they’re going to think he’s a dill and steal his lunch. The point being, it’s no use telling people to think in a positive way because many people prefer to think in a negative way. Why? Because they’re frightened of the outside world. They believe that their happiness depends on what happens in their life. ‘If that happens, I’ll be happy. If that happens, I’ll be unhappy.’  So, they are afraid that if they think in a positive way they will be setting themselves up for failure and disappointment. Therefore, they think in a negative way, to prepare themselves for the worst.

The happiness gurus haven’t figured that out yet. They seem to think that telling us to be positive will prompt us to say, “Oh, that’s a good idea. From now on I will,” as though we have never heard of the ‘glass half-full’ or ‘glass half-empty’ concept before.

But if you’re not a positive thinker you can’t simply choose to be one. If it were that easy we’d all be doing it. Negative thinkers will only begin to think in a positive way when they lose their fear of the outside world. Then they will automatically think in a positive way. Why? Because we prefer to be happy.

This book is about how we can lose our fear of the outside world. It’s about reducing our capacity to become anxious. 

When we gain the feeling that we can handle life, we gain the ability to choose how we experience life. That’s life changing, because we become the person who sees the stars, not the mud.

In short, positive thinking does not make you happy, but becoming happy makes you a positive thinker.

Q. ‘Mr B, just because I don’t look for the bright side doesn’t mean I am a negative thinker.’
True. Some people don’t view events in a positive way or a negative way, they take what comes. It’s a good way to be.

‘A lot of people mistake “being positive” for “being happy”. You can have a positive mindset and feel very unhappy inside.’

Adeline, reader.

‘Another problem with positive thinking is that it prompts us to hang in there, in the hope the situation improves. But sometimes we need to despair, to prompt us to make the changes that deep down we know we should make. Sometimes we employ positive thinking because we fear the unknown, we fear the alternative, so we look for the best in what we have. But that’s not what we need in our life. Sometimes we need change, and being pessimistic can help us make those changes.’
Amanda Gordon. President of the Australian Psychological society.

‘Putting on a positive attitude or adopting positive thinking without changing the underlying core beliefs isn’t likely to bring sustained change. It is a lot like putting a new coat of paint over material that is rusting and peeling. For the new paint to really take and be lasting you first need to clean up the core belief structure underneath.’
From Gary Van Warmerdam’s website, ‘Pathway to Happiness

‘ . . . deliberate attempts to cook the facts are so transparent that they make us feel cheap. If we see ourselves cooking the facts then the jig is up and self-deluded joins our list of pitiful qualities. For positive views to be credible, they must be based on facts that we believe we have come upon honestly.’
Dan Gilbert.

‘The problem I see with positive thinking is that it can all too easily become a barrier to action, because it’s based on the premise that you need to get yourself into the “right frame of mind” – positive, or motivated, raring to go, or whatever – before you can start acting” . . . ‘In fact, it can be tremendously liberating to realise that you don’t need to feel like doing something in order to do it. You can just notice the negative feelings and act anyway.’
Oliver Burkeman, ‘Help! How to become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done’.

Q. ‘So, Mr B, you’re saying some of us don’t want to think in a positive manner because we are frightened of the outside world? Are there other reasons?’
Yes. Some of us pride ourselves on being rational and don’t want to appear naïve by irrationally expecting success. And some of us want to indulge in a good sulk; we want to see ourselves as the victim in some horrible injustice. Either way, the last thing we want is for some expert to tell us to look on the bright side.

Q. ‘So Mr Bashful, is the glass half full for you, or half empty?’
Ha. It doesn’t matter. Whatever it is, I’ll deal with it.

 Q. ‘Studies have shown that people who engage regularly in positive thinking are happier.’
Yes, if you’re happy it’s easy to be a positive thinker. That’s my point. Being happy makes you a positive thinker, so it’s no wonder there is a correlation.

Q. ‘If you expect to fail you are more likely to fail.’
Even if that were true, asking someone to expect to succeed is futile. If you’re not a positive thinker you can’t simply choose to be one.

‘Mr B, you mentioned “reframing”. What is it?’
It’s viewing a situation in a particular way, to avoid or reduce disappointment.
‘Looking on the bright side?’
Yes. In his book, ‘More Sayings of the Buddha’, Mark Zocchi presents a nice example: ‘When my house burned down I gained an unobstructed view of the moonlight sky.’
‘Reframing would be a good habit to get into, wouldn’t it?’
Yes. However, asking someone to reframe a situation, to look on the bright side, isn’t much help. But when a person takes responsibility for how they respond to life, and develops the feeling that they can handle life, the skill comes to them. This book is about developing that feeling.

Q. From an anonymous reader:  ‘Whenever I want to be in a good mood I will spend five minutes thinking about all the truly great things in life . . . my dog, the people I admire . . . .   I focus on the positive and it makes me happier. Yes, I really do that. And it really works.’
 That’s great if you can do it.

Q. ‘If we can’t choose to be positive thinkers what can we do?’
Two things. One: develop the feeling that whatever happens in life, you will handle it. (That’s what most of the keys in this book are about.) Then, after a while you will become a positive thinker.
Two: avoid being a negative thinker. When you catch yourself saying being self critical, or being negative, stop mid-word. Don’t complete the sentence. Or if you complete the sentence, recant it. ‘I take that back.  . . .  I’m not stupid. I simply made a mistake.’
   When you have the habit of recanting what you said you will nip the negative thought in the bud, (because you don’t want to be bothered having to recant it). You’ll find yourself not bothering to take up the opportunity to be negative, which is what you want.

Q. ‘Mr B, Dr Martin Seligman’s study shows that if for a few weeks a person does certain exercises (such as writing down things you’re grateful for, and writing down good things which have happened to you in the day), that person will become measurably happier.’
Yes, noticing your good fortune is one of the keys to core happiness. That’s different from positive thinking.

Don’t tell an ill person to have a positive attitude. Click here to read why.

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