What is ‘positive thinking’?

In the last two decades, our society has had a mantra: “positive thinking”! But what exactly does that mean? Does it mean you never think anything negative (or realistic)? Does it mean you have to be a Pollyanna about everything? I’d like to share my thoughts about it.

Napoleon Hill first introduced the idea of a positive mental attitude, though not by that name, in his 1937 work Think and Grow Rich. Hill was mainly focused on success and increasing income (a bold book to publish during the Great Depression), but it seems like the idea of positive thinking has taken on a life of its own and has expanded to cover pretty much everything. Far be it from me to denigrate positive or optimistic thinking. I just have a problem with thinking but inaction.

As I posted recently, some of the best advice I ever got was from a babysitter when she was teaching me to ride my bike without training wheels. “If you look at the ditch, you’ll end up in the ditch. Look at where you want to go.” That could be categorized as both a positive mental attitude and focus. What you focus on is that to which you’ll give your attention and priority. In other words, if I wanted to become a doctor, I would keep that in my mind as my ultimate goal and would start taking steps toward achieving that goal. I would not, for instance, start taking the full suite of art history courses. I would take all of the required math and science courses (though I might use one of my electives to study art history). Keeping the goal in mind helps you map your way to it.

My point here is that just thinking positive isn’t the same as achieving, but that it can help you achieve through action. Where positive thinking is problematic for me is when it’s applied with no action. If you tell a child he will be an NFL player, but that child is 13 years old and has not played in the pee wee and junior leagues and doesn’t have the grades to even try out in middle or high school, you are setting that child up for a big disappointment. That is unrealistic and even a little cruel. You can’t just apply “positive thinking” to a situation without action.

A positive mental attitude can help you in everything you do, however. For example, if that same child really wants to play football, you could help that child understand all the steps to achieve that goal, including what it will take to bring this grades up, maintain physical health, and learn what is required in order to try out. If he really wants it, then the commitment isn’t just to the goal but to all the steps on the way to that goal. But it’s just as important that you ensure he doesn’t think that his inherent value is based on whether or not he is able to reach his goal. Just working toward a goal is something to be proud of.

Another example. When I had cancer, everyone came out of the woodwork telling me to think positive, that I was going to beat it, and so on. But if I had only relied on positive thinking, it is unlikely I would have survived. Positive thinking allowed me to believe I could endure the treatment and do all of the things necessary to try my best to survive the initial cancer and go into remission. If I had “lost my battle,” it should not have reflected on the effort I put in. This is why cancer patients hate that whole “warrior” role that is thrust on us. Visualization is good, though I didn’t really find I wanted to focus that much on what the chemo was doing in my body. Visualization does work well for some, however. What I used was a positive mental attitude. I believed that no matter what happened, the doctors and nurses had my best interests at heart and just required me to submit to treatment and show up. I believed in the power of medicine and the power of prayer. I was very grateful when someone said they were praying for me. I believed in the power of my mind to take me into the ditch or into remission. I was very fortunate that the treatment worked, but a lot of that was not in my control. It depended on how my body responded to treatment. My positive mental attitude was in my control and allowed me to agree to and comply with treatment. I believed I could do it, so I did.

I have someone in my life who preaches positive thinking all the danged time, particularly if I say anything about my fears of the cancer returning. I don’t dwell in those thoughts, but I’d be lying if I said they never came up for me. I think this person is just so scared that they are buying into the false belief that your mind can manifest cancer, although they would never characterize their thoughts that way. If you can’t cure yourself from cancer by simply thinking about it and not taking the treatment, then it stands to reason you can’t give yourself cancer by thinking about it. Now, can you make yourself sick with continuous negative self-talk? Sure! Worry is a powerful depressant. Depression in all its forms can definitely take your health down. Why? Because you stop caring for your body. You don’t eat right, your sleep schedule is abnormal, and you might stop exercising in any way or even bathing. Those things suppress your immune system, making you less robust. After all, our bodies are organic machines. They need to be maintained.

So this cherished person in my life spent the better part of two hours today focused on bad things in the news, bad things happening in the family, and questionable test results. Don’t get me wrong. For those I care about, I will listen for as long as they need to talk. But the conversation got an infusion here and there of “but we need to think positive.” Part of thinking positive, for me, is knowing when to turn off the negative news and rest my mind. It’s knowing when to get away from negative thoughts in my head (about my health or anything else) and go to the kitchen to bake something delicious. It’s knowing when to get up off the couch and walk outside with the dog. As I told this person, “Worrying about things you can’t control doesn’t make anything better. It can just make you sick.”

Simply worrying about the madness in modern society doesn’t change anything. There are other things you can do, though. You can take a walk. You can pray. You can meditate. You can volunteer somewhere. Not only will that make you feel better, but it will also make the world a better place. Like the butterfly effect, each action has a reaction. One good action leads to another. If you hold a door for someone, chances are good they will do the same for someone else, but maybe not right away and maybe without thinking much about it. You’re modeling good behavior and courtesy, not just telling someone to do it. Modeling is a powerful tool for change. As Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” I have that saying on a tray in my kitchen. Just a little reminder as I get my morning coffee.

I have a magnet of the Buddha on my refrigerator with a quote: “Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without.” That is all about a positive mental attitude. Meditation is about quieting your mind. Believe it or not, that is a powerful action! If you go around spun up all the time, you don’t do yourself or anyone else any good. You can’t change anything by being stressed out. But if you can find that peace during meditation, eventually it spreads into your everyday life. By being peaceful, that eventually spreads in your sphere of influence. When I was meditating regularly, I could take myself out of a stressful situation (such as being put into an MRI or having painful IV needle sticks) by dropping into that meditative state. It’s a skill and requires that muscle memory to be able to achieve on the fly like that. I’m out of practice. I need to be able to do that again. It will make me more peaceful, and that will spread. The whole Buddhist philosophy is based on finding and maintaining your personal peace and then setting your intentions to send that peace into the world. I think it’s what most people want, deep down.

I don’t adhere to a particular faith or religion, but I do believe that God is love – however you choose to understand God. And love isn’t destructive or violent or worrisome. Love is warm and peaceful and within our grasp. What could be more positive than that?

I wish you peace and love this weekend. I wish positive things for you. I wish for you to have a quiet, peaceful mind. I wish for you to believe you can do whatever it is you need or want to do.

Be well, Jude



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About Me

An English diarist and naval administrator. I served as administrator of the Royal Navy and Member of Parliament. I had no maritime experience, but I rose to be the Chief Secretary to the Admiralty under both King Charles II and King James II through patronage, diligence, and my talent for administration.

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