Positive thinking is so firmly enshrined in our culture that knocking it is a little like attacking motherhood or apple pie. Many people swear by positive thinking, and quite a few have been helped by it. Nevertheless, it is not always effective, and in some cases, it can be downright harmful. There are much better ways to get the benefits that positive thinking allegedly provides.
Perhaps the statement that best exemplifies positive thinking is, “When life hands you a lemon, make lemonade.” It seems so self-evident that this is a good thing that we never question the wisdom of the adage. But it does not take a whole lot of digging to unearth the flaws in this reasoning.
First, did fate really hand you a lemon, or was this merely your initial, unthinking response? Second, is a lemon a bad thing, something that you would rather not have, but now that you do have it you will somehow salvage something by making lemonade? Finally, it is quite stressful to stand there holding onto a lemon until such time as you figure out how to make it into lemonade. Do you really have to go through this phase?
Blessings in Disguise
No matter what happens to us in life, we tend to think of it as good or bad. Most of us tend to use the “bad” label much more often than the “good” label. When we say something is bad, the odds grow overwhelming that we will experience it as such, and that’s when we are told to resort to the solution of positive thinking: we have been given something bad, a real lemon, and we now better scramble and make some lemonade out of it in an effort to salvage something out of this “bad” situation.
How tiring and tiresome!
Think back on your own life. Can you recall instances of something you initially thought was a bad thing that turned out to be not so bad after all—or perhaps even spectacularly good? Like the time you just missed a train and had to wait a whole hour for the next one, and it was horrible—except that your neighbor also missed it, so you talked for the first time and a beautiful friendship developed. You will find many such instances in your life, some of them quite significant, such as the job you desperately wanted but didn’t get, only to find that a much better opportunity came along that you would not have been able to accept had it not been for the earlier rejection.
Drop the Labels
Consider for a moment the following radical and revolutionary approach: no matter what happens to you, do not stick a “bad” label on it. No matter what. You are fired from your job, your mortgage lender sends you a foreclosure notice, your spouse files for divorce, whatever. These examples may seem so far-fetched as to be laughable. They obviously are horrible tragedies and terrible things to happen. Or are they?
Is it possible, just possible, that you have been conditioned to think of these happenings as unspeakable tragedies and hence experience them as such?
In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl narrates the tale of a beautiful girl of privilege who was grateful to be in a concentration camp because she was able to connect with a spiritual side of herself that she had never known existed. Observations like this led Frankl into his life’s work of determining why, when faced with extreme adversity, some people positively flourish while others disintegrate.
Many people who rise so triumphantly never label what they go through as bad or lament over it. They simply take it as a given, as if they were a civil engineer surveying the landscape through which a road is to be built. In this view, a swamp is not a bad thing. It is merely something that has to be addressed in the construction plan.
Why You Don’t Need Positive Thinking
If you never label something as bad, then you don’t need positive thinking! You thus relieve yourself from the stress associated with getting something bad and experiencing it as such until you figure out how to make lemonade out of it.
Do you feel the pebble in the positive-thinking shoe? If you first think something is bad and then think of how you will somehow make it less bad, there is a strong undercurrent that you are playing games and kidding yourself. For some people positive thinking works, but for many it doesn’t, and they are devastated that the model they were trying so hard to build caved in on them.
Can you actually go through life without labeling what happens to you as good or bad? Sure you can. You just have to train yourself to do this. You have been conditioned to think of things as bad or good. You can uncondition yourself. It is neither easy nor fast, but it is possible.
Let’s say you break your leg. There are things you have to do, such as go to an orthopedist, get a cast and go to therapy when the cast comes off. But all the rest you make up. “Why did this have to happen to me? Bad things always come my way. I am in such pain. Who will hold the world up now that I am disabled?” The only reason you think this way is that you were never told that you didn’t have to.
If you refuse to burden yourself with the idea that what happens to you is bad, you won’t need positive thinking and much of the stress in your life will simply disappear.
SRIKUMAR S. RAO is the author of Happiness
at Work: Be Resilient, Motivated, and Successful—
No Matter What. He conceived “Creativity and
Personal Mastery,” a pioneering course that ranks
among the most popular courses at many of the world’s
top business schools. His work has been covered by
major media including The New York Times, The Wall
Street Journal, the Financial Times, Time,
Fortune, and Business Week.