‘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.’ – Anon.
Studies have found a strong correlation between positive thinking and happiness. The researchers conclude that if we want to be happier, we should become positive thinkers.
But that’s wrong.
You may have encountered the story of the three stonemasons. You walk up to the first stonemason and ask, ‘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 so I can feed my family.’ You ask the third stonemason, ‘What are you doing?’ He smiles and replies, ‘I’m building a magnificent cathedral.’
The inference is that the third guy is better off than the first two, because he has transformed the mundane into something beautiful. By giving his work meaning he will be happier.
It’s called ‘reframing’. By framing a situation in a positive way we develop a healthier, helpful perspective.
‘When my house burned down I gained an unobstructed view of the moonlight sky.’
And that’s right: if you think like the third guy, you will be happier. The trouble is, that’s where the story ends. The first two stonemasons don’t stand up and proclaim, ‘Gosh, what a wonderful way to look at life! From now on I’m going to think just 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 don’t want to think in positive way. They prefer to think in a negative way. Why?
(1) Trying to control our thoughts is almost impossible. Thoughts bounce around inside our skull like lotto balls. And, when we fail to control them, we might feel we have failed ourselves, and that it’s our fault that we aren’t happy. That’s a lousy message to send ourselves!
(2) Some of us pride ourselves on being rational, and to irrationally expect events to go well feels fake and disingenuous. So, instead of feeling better, we add to our cynicism.
‘ . . . 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 instruction to “think positively” is counterproductive. Loosely translated, it means ‘tell yourself a lie about the way things are for you and the way you feel about it and this will make you feel better.” – Toby Green.
(3) One big reason why many people cannot ‘reframe’ effectively is because they believe 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. They therefore prefer to think in a negative way, to prepare themselves for the worst.
Therefore, it’s no use telling people to reframe incidents in a positive way because many people feel vulnerable doing so, and won’t. Besides, if it were that easy we’d all be doing it!
I’m not against the idea of positive thinking but I am against suggesting to someone they do it. Negative thinkers will only begin to think in a positive way when they realise that their core happiness does not depend on what happens in the outside world. Only then will they recognise the power they have, and automatically begin to think in a positive way. Why? Because we prefer to be happy.
Of course, if your house burns down or you’re tortured or starving, you won’t be happy. But I’m talking about our long-term day-to-day general feeling of well-being when nothing in particular is happening: core happiness.
In short, positive thinking does not make you happy, but becoming happy will make you a positive thinker.
So, how do we come to fully accept that hour core happiness does not depend on what happens in the outside world? By developing the feeling that whatever happens in life, we could handle it. Put another way: by feeling resilient. It’s then we become the person who sees the cathedral.
And it’s what this book is about.
Some problems that can result from trying to be a positive thinker:
(1) If someone tries to become a positive thinker, they may end up successfully presenting to the world a positive image while still feeling anxious or despairing! That’s a good way to become conflicted, and even more anxious.
‘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’
(2) One way to deal with our dark emotions is to recognise our dark thoughts and explore them. That won’t happen if we pretend they aren’t there.
‘. . . if anything, positive thinking is actually a form of spiritual bypassing because it is used by people to avoid their deeper issues such as persistent unhappiness, deep-rooted anger, and emptiness.’
(3) ‘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.
(4) 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’.
Don’t tell an ill person to have a positive attitude. Click here to read why.
Here are some other happiness myths:
– The positive thinking myth. We are often told that we need to look on the bright side if we want to be happy. We need to see the glass half full. But is that helpful advice?
– Myth: we need money to be happy. Surely we need money to be happy, don’t we? Without it we would be in dire straits. So, why is it a myth?
– Myth: to be happy we need to be kind. Countless times we are told that becoming a kind person will make us happier. Why isn’t that true?
– Myth: We are happier with only a few possessions. Will having fewer possessions make us feel happier? How does that work?
– Myth: We need to suffer before we can be happy. Helen Keller once said: ‘The hilltops would not be half so wonderful if there were no dark valleys to traverse.’ Is she right?
– Myth: We need to reach our full potential. The life coaches offer to help us become better people, yet in another breath tell us to accept ourselves for who we are. What’s going on?
– Myth: With wisdom comes happiness. Time and again we see in the movies a strong correlation between wisdom and happiness. Do we need to be wise to be happy?
– Myth: We need close relationships to be happy. It’s the biggest, most common myth about happiness of them all. Nearly everyone says it. Yet, it’s not true.
– Myth: We need good health to be happy. That seems obvious, doesn’t it? After all, we won’t be happy suffering the black plague. But does good health bring core happiness?
– Myth: We can choose to be happy. This is one of the most pernicious myths going around. Of course we can’t choose to be happy!
– Myth: Happiness comes from having low expectations. Don’t expect much and you won’t be disappointed, goes the saying. But does that equal happiness? Of course not.
– Myth: We need to foster compassion to be happy. The Buddhists are particularly keen on the idea of fostering compassion. So, should we foster it?