I thought life sucks, so I studied positive thinking. Now I’m positive
Sorry about the title. I couldn’t resist starting with a little humor. Now that the humor is out of the way, I can move on to the serious stuff.
A reader writes, “I have three questions about your article entitled STOP AND THINK (http://www.personal-development.com/chuck/stop-think.htm). 1. You recommend we always focus on the bright side. My question is… can’t we be TOO positive? 2. What do you think about this? Where is the line between positive rational thinking and positive irrational thinking? 3. Isn’t it possible that the scorpion in your story of the monk is poisonous? If it stings me once, wouldn’t it be stupid to pick it up again?”
I’ll answer the third question first. But before doing so, I’ll repeat the story of the monk for the benefit of those who haven’t read it.
“Two monks were washing their rice bowls in a stream when one noticed a scorpion had slipped off a leaf and was now drowning. The monk reached out, plucked the scorpion from the stream, and gently placed it on the bank. While doing so, he was stung. Moments later, the scorpion fell back into the stream. Once again the monk rescued it, only to be stung again.
‘Master, what are you doing?’ asked the junior monk. ‘Don’t you realize that it is the nature of scorpions to sting?’
‘Ah,’ replied the master, ‘and it is my nature to help those in need, even if it causes me pain.’”
The story may appear strange at first, but not when you think of it as an example of commitment. The monk is committed to helping all creatures in need, including insects and scorpions. You and I may not share such a commitment, and that is okay. What we choose to commit to is a personal matter. But the story of the monk is no different from that of a young man who puts himself in harm’s way by going off to war because he is committed to defending his country.
Now I’ll answer the first two questions. But first I have to define what I mean by “Positive Thinking.” It is not about being a Pollyanna, viewing the world through “pink-colored glasses,” or being unrealistically optimistic.
For a clear understanding of Positive Thinking, simply substitute the term “Right” for “Positive.” You see, Positive or Negative Thinking is merely a matter of Right or Wrong Thinking, Correct or Incorrect Thinking, and Rational or Irrational Thinking. Once understood in these terms, it becomes clear there is no such thing as “positive irrational thinking” (it’s an oxymoron). We can no more be “too” positive than we can be “too” healthy.
Positive Thinking is seeing what everyone else sees, but looking at it in a fresh way, a better way, the right way, THE ONLY WAY THAT MAKES SENSE. Positive Thinking is pragmatic. It’s all about thinking, feeling, and doing what works. If our thoughts, feelings, and actions advance our cause, improve our lives, and lead to happiness, they are positive.
Dr. Albert Ellis rightfully refers to Negative Thinking as irrational. After all, why would you want to engage in thinking that holds you back, limits your opportunities, and dampens your hopes and dreams?
Because Positive Thinking is pragmatic, it is also balanced. That is, Positive Thinkers recognize there is a difference between, for example, persistence and stubbornness. If Tom would like to date Betty and he keeps asking her despite her refusals, his persistence may pay off later. Yet, if he continues after she insists that he stop bothering her, his actions may change to harassment and his behavior to that of a stalker.
Positive Thinkers also temper their persistence with flexibility. True, persistence is a major key to success. For as long as we don’t give up, we are apt to reach our goal. Unless, of course, we reach an insurmountable roadblock. At such a time, instead of repeatedly failing, we need to learn from our mistakes and be flexible enough to find another route that will bring us to our goal. In other words, we need to do something different. Someone who continues to repeat his failures is not “too positive” or “too optimistic.” Rather, he is stubborn and irrational.
“There is little difference in people, but that little difference makes a big difference. The little difference is attitude. The big difference is whether it is positive or negative.” (W. Clement Stone, 1902 ~ 2002) Yes, Positive Thinkers are defined by their attitude. That is, by their beliefs and assumptions. Here are a handful of beliefs embraced by Positive Thinkers:
1. We can change.
2. We can do anything we set our mind to.
3. We find what we look for, so I always look for the good.
4. People are good (but some act badly because they are in pain).
5. I live with an attitude of gratitude. I focus on what I have, not on what I lack.
6. Life is beautiful. Some joke that positive thinking is the belief that everything is beautiful, including what is ugly, but ‘ugly’ is no more than a label. Positive Thinkers are awakened, aware, and not blind to the beauty of life. “There are always flowers for those who want to see them.” (Henri Matisse, 1869 ~ 1954)
Positive Thinkers focus on solutions, not problems. When Goliath towered over the Israelite soldiers, they saw a problem: “He’s so big we can never kill him.” But David saw a solution: “He’s so big, I won’t miss.” Rather than say, “I CAN’T do that,” Positive Thinkers ask “HOW can I do that?” They are Possibility Thinkers, for they can see the possibility in impossibility. They think like Pablo Picasso (1881 ~ 1973) who said, “I am always doing things, I can’t do, that’s how I get to do them.” They focus on their strengths, rather than their weaknesses, and their powers, rather than their problems.
Positive Thinkers believe in common sense because it is wise to do what makes sense. They welcome common sense and wisdom in all its forms. For instance, here is some common sense and wisdom passed on by the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh (pronounced Tick-Naught-Han): “People deal too much with the negative, with what is wrong… Why not try and see positive things, to just touch those things and make them bloom?” Doesn’t that make sense? Isn’t it wise to focus on the positive, nurture it, let it bloom and allow its sweet fragrance to fill us with joy? Isn’t that better than focusing on the negative, stirring it up, letting it brew, and cooking up misery?
Here is some more common sense, this time from Katherine Mansfield (1888 ~ 1923), “I have made it a rule of my life never to regret and never to look back. Regret is an appalling waste of energy… you can’t build on it; it’s only good for wallowing in.” Instead of doing things you will later regret, do things that will make you rejoice, and life will then become a celebration.
Summing up, no, we cannot become too positive because Positive Thinking is rational, pragmatic, flexible, wise, commonsense, and solution-oriented. We cannot have too much of a good thing. So, latch on to Positive Thinking. Although it will not eliminate all of your nightmares, it certainly can give birth to all of your dreams. Dr. Jonas Salk (1914 ~ 1995) put it this way, “I have had dreams and I have had nightmares, but I have conquered my nightmares because of my dreams.”