Are some people born positive? Certainly, judging by the example of athletes competing in the London 2012 Olympics, this would appear to be the case. In these individuals, there seems to be a natural aptitude to stay focused under extreme conditions, and to work tirelessly towards the fulfilment of personal goals, often to the exclusion of all else. How much of this is innate and how much learned is uncertain. Sports psychologists always stress the importance of mental discipline and a positive outlook in preparation for sporting events, and not without good reason. Aside from the rigours of coping with injuries and disappointments on the track, athletes have to sustain the drive to compete through all manner of difficulties in their personal lives, and maintain a clear focus throughout.
But does merely being positive make any real difference in how we live our lives? Sitting here at this laptop, I’m struck by the constant distractions that conspire to lure me away. Boredom, mild irritability, discomfort, to name but a few. And yet the desire to see this post finished and published on the web, somehow overrides the inclination to stop. Thinking positively, then, is not the most important factor in the attainment of a goal. The initial motivation to finish has far greater significance, and contains within it, the seeds of eventual success.
But the proponents of positive thinking do have something. After all, who wants to walk around under a permanent cloud, seeing only trials and misfortune up ahead? Certainly, some of us are more inclined to darker perceptions than others, but this needn’t mean we stay this way for the rest of our lives. The difference between being positive and negative, has implications for the body as well as the mind. Negative states such as anger, jealousy and resentment, cause physiological changes that impact our wellbeing in far-reaching ways. Feelings of happiness and contentment may not be influential in overcoming work deadlines, or striving to get to the top in business, but your blood pressure will certainly benefit.
Margaret Chesney, PhD, has been studying the effects of positive thinking for years. Her conclusions are encouraging for anyone looking to improve the quality of their lives through conscious effort. The evidence, gathered from scientific research and controlled study groups, reveals a clear link between our thought patterns and our general wellbeing. Techniques for improved thinking include visualisation and affirmation, nothing new in the clinical sense, but highly effective when practised regularly. In short, with a little application, we can change our negative thoughts and become healthier as a result.
Or can we?
Author and award-winning columnist Barbara Ehrenreich has made a living out of exposing myths and social injustice. Her book Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World, attacks what she sees as delusional thinking, the type responsible for the financial meltdown of 2008, and the unnecessary pressure heaped on cancer victims, expected to ‘think’ themselves out of the diagnosis. Ehrenreich has a good reason to be bitter, having been diagnosed with breast cancer herself, and is scornful of the culture that has grown up around such life-threatening diseases. There is, of course, a clear distinction between thinking positively and being delusional. Refusing to acknowledge health problems can be dangerous, like sitting in a smoke-filled room and denying there’s a fire. But this needn’t mean we embrace pessimism as an alternative.
Most of our problems stem from an inability to live in the present moment. Too busy lamenting incidents from the past, or worrying over the future, we’re rarely able to appreciate the here and now. Eckhart Tolle asks, ‘What’s wrong with now?’, a simple enough question, with profound implications for the way we live our lives. The more we fill our heads with needless concerns for tomorrow, the less energy we have for today. Remember the wise man’s advice. ‘Worry is like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but doesn’t get you anywhere.’
Happiness, that other elusive goal, is also the subject of much debate. Its existence, for most people, usually relies upon external factors; security, health, romantic attachment etc. To pursue it as an objective in itself is often seen as childish and unrealistic. But are we looking for fulfillment in the right places? As subscribers to the Western mode of living, we tend to see improvement in materialistic terms. Better job, increased salary, new car. The onus is on financial gain and personal ambition, rather than the betterment of our inner selves. The DalaiLama penned a ruthless exposé of man’s preoccupation with financial gain at the expense of his health, and summarised, ‘He lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.’ Perhaps we need to heed this warning, and seek out alternative rewards as we journey through life.
From pre-school on, we learn the value of self-sufficiency and academic success, and yet most of us don’t even know how to breathe properly. Learning to be more positive might include an assessment of our current lifestyles, and the commitment to make the necessary changes for the better. Diet, exercise and meditation all offer huge gains to systems overloaded with stress. And stopping once in a while to think how your actions might affect other people, goes a long way to promoting equilibrium on a global scale. Positive change takes time but is ultimately worth the effort.
Perhaps the best recommendation for success comes from the philosopher Henry David Thoreau.
‘I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate himself by conscious endeavour.’