Positive thinking pops up once in awhile in my social media feeds. It seems a new trend is criticizing its usefulness, though I’ve also read other critics who say it’s empty, even harmful. (The New Yorker has a well-rounded article on the research of positive thinking.) I find positive thinking a very beneficial tool if it’s used properly. Here’s why (and how).
I don’t believe that only positive thinking can achieve my goals. Instead, I see it as a necessary step to that end. It acts as my internal life coach, if you will. I read motivational and self-help books, because I’d rather read about solutions to my problems than read about my problems.
Happy thoughts by themselves have never helped me achieve my dreams. For example, I spent almost two decades fantasizing about the day I’d make my living as a writer, yet I did very little to get there. That’s not positive thinking; that’s self-deception. Positive thinking is about choice.
As an example, let’s say you’ve got writer’s block. You’ve been working for an hour on a story or a piece of copy, and now your ideas have dried up. What do you do?
You can decide that yes, you do indeed have writer’s block. You start cursing it, jump on to your social media and lament to your friends (or worse, within your professional circles) about how writer’s block has once again robbed you of your inspiration. You then find that within 30 minutes, you’ve worked yourself into a nice state of creative depression and stop writing for the day. Or…
You can decide that writer’s block is pointless to dwell on. Your internal editor is simply getting in your way. You then choose a method to help get your creativity going again, e.g., free writing, mind-mapping, going for a walk, or washing your floors. Then you return to your writing, even if it’s a different piece.
In this situation, positive thinking isn’t about saying, “I’m a creative writer. I’m a creative writer.” It’s about acknowledging the situation at hand and trying to solve it instead of lying in it and taking a nap. If you have a personal affirmation that helps you get through your situation, excellent! If you don’t but you still get through it, anyway, then that’s just as fine!
Positive thinking definitely leaves room for you to connect with your friends and family about life’s troubles. You need to let your feelings out; that’s how you acknowledge your problems in the first place. It’s clearly unhealthy to keep things inside, and indeed, most art comes out of some kind of pain. (Artists then choose whether their piece will emphasize the pain or the pleasure of the experience they’re depicting.)
By sharing your troubles with others, though, you’re also on your way to finding a solution. As you talk about your problems, also listen for solutions and tell yourself that you can find a way out of whatever is ailing you.
If that thought is too big to muster (it might even feel dishonest to some), then tell yourself the first step you’re going to do. It might be as easy as going to bed for the night, as Elizabeth Gilbert wrote in her hit book several years ago, or eating a piece of fruit, or calling someone up to say thanks for a favour they recently did for you.
Positive thinking is about reminding yourself that you’re human, that your feelings are justified, and – most importantly – that you’re capable of finding a solution to improve whatever you think needs fixing. It is not about empty affirmations and self-deception.
And that I firmly believe.