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Why 'Positive Thinking' is Futile

Bridget Wood

By Bridget Wood

Have you ever tried ‘positive thinking’? It’s one of many tools recommended in this era of self-discovery, mindfulness and ‘being your best self’. In a world that’s increasingly trying to mould you into something you’re not, pursuing that long journey to understanding your true self is wise – but here’s a tip: you may just find you give up ‘positive thinking’ because it makes you too sad.

This is because negative thinking is an essentially biologically healthy thing you must have, and to attempt to disown this part of yourself and be an one-sided ‘happy person’ will breed the opposite in order to bring you back into balance. Just like physical body is always seeking to maintain homeostasis, the mind seeks to maintain equanimity. The more extreme the happiness, the more extreme the sadness in order to counteract it (it’s no coincidence that comedians are prone to depression).

Like a magnet has both positive and negative charges, Chinese philosophy has yin and yang, and nature has simultaneous creation and destruction, we humans are no different. Our emotions are a feedback system to let us know we have a lopsided perception about something, and our intuition is always attempting to guide us to see both sides. The more polarised our emotions (extreme happiness or sadness, anger or depression), the weaker our intuition becomes and the more we look outside of ourselves for answers.

Zeus has ordained that there be summer and winter, plenty and poverty, virtue and vice and all such opposites for the sake of the whole.
— Epictetus

The pursuit of fulfillment is wiser than the pursuit of happiness. Fulfillment means to fill your life with what’s inspiring to you, and it’s most rewarding when you can provide a meaningful service to others through what lights you up most. A key aspect to fulfillment is practicing gratitude for all that you are, and all that you experience. Happiness is an emotion that is fleeting; it’s not ever-present, therefore the endless pursuit of it perpetuates human impulses for instant gratification and hedonism.

A beautiful analogy for the mind says if you don’t plant flowers there, you’ll continue to pull weeds. When you organise your day, and your life, with high priority tasks that inspire you and fill you with energy, you have less room for lower priority things that frustrate you and deplete your energy. Every single thing we do in life has elements of both pain and pleasure (which is what makes the whole), and we will more readily endure the pain on the journey of pursuing what we love. Since it’s at the border of support and challenge that we grow the most, it’s wise to choose your own inspiring challenges (or the Universe will do it for you – you can’t escape growth).

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing, the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way
— Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Gratitude turns what you have into enough. Let’s focus on that.