No, I’m not simply quoting the title of that very famous book published about two decades ago. I’m talking about the actual concept of positive thinking itself. What it is to be thinking positively, what it is that makes positive thought so hard, and why it can be so hard to achieve… or even to believe in. Understanding positive thinking is particularly close to my own heart, as it is by learning more about the connection between emotion and thought that I myself was able to come to terms with my own journey out of mental illness, and so it is something that I hope will help others if I talk about it. I hope that by sharing this it will not only help those who themselves are dealing with depression, but will also help those of you who are struggling through other journey’s in your lives where positive thinking might just be a key to unlocking the potential you have within you to achieve the goals that you have set for yourself.
I’m sure that many of you will have rolled your eyes on more than one occasion when someone told you to simply be positive, or how you may have thought to yourself that you’d find it easier to be more “positive” if there wasn’t so much “bad stuff” happening around you. It can seem so easy for others to offer these well intentioned “platitudes” when they don’t really understand what is going on in our own lives. These thoughts are unfortunately negative, “wrong” in the sense that they are reinforcing negativity, and even more unfortunately they are the excuses that we use to delude ourselves that it is “OK” to be negative. The thing is, that negativity is easy. You don’t have to work at it, you simply cease to participate in anything that requires an effort and you will find yourself in the trap that is negativity, and when you’ve lived that way for long enough you begin to feel comfortable with it, more accepting of it until it becomes so ingrained that you can’t imagine anything else is safe, or even possible for you, and you make excuses to avoid facing the reality of negativity such that you shut yourself off from anything positive.
Now I’m not saying that you should never have negative thoughts. Quite the contrary, I believe it is definitely OK to have feelings that are negative from time to time. It’s when negativity becomes routine, and when thoughts always stray to and stay with the negative that it becomes a problem. When excuses become easy to make to justify negativity the problem becomes a serious one in terms of your mental well being and your overall health. For many years, I personally was someone who found dozens of excuses for having negative feelings, and for dwelling on the negativity so much that it became a kind of priority in my life. Yes, that’s right. Negativity can become a priority, and this is when you are at your worst and when your health and general well being suffers the most. The can do attitude gets lost behind an I can’t façade that leads you to give up on anything that seems “difficult” and to explain it away with only the negativity that you shroud yourself in, as if it more important to you than anything else.
I was – in short – a consummate unbeliever in the power of positive thinking as a real phenomenon that I could tap into as a resource for positive change in my life. I permitted myself to live in this way and I chose to focus on negativity rather than positivity. The net impact of all of this was that I basically became lazy with regards to my health and well being, and the negativity impacted on every other area of my life, from family, to work, to my social life, and to my ability to maintain my fitness and my health. I became fat, chronically dehydrated, I ate heavily processed fast preparation foods without any thought about how they would affect me, and the impact on my health led to feeling more depressed, which led to less exercise and poorer diet in a never ending spiralling negative cycle.
The epiphany for me came on the day that I booked myself in to see a psychologist, who sat me down and explained how all of the psychology research led to a conclusion that we live the experience dictated by our thoughts. It wasn’t my negative situation that led to my negative emotion, and it wasn’t negative emotion that led to negative thoughts. It was completely the opposite. I learned that it was thought that dictated emotion, but that this connection was very difficult to see, and the cause-effect relationship between thought and emotion was so quick and so subtle that it appeared to be completely the opposite to what I would have otherwise believed. Naturally I didn’t really believe this at first, so I was taught to meditate so that I could recognise when thoughts were crowding my head, and so that I could learn to let thoughts go and allow them to bubble up into my consciousness slowly, rather than all at once. In learning to meditate, I also learned how to recognise when the thoughts were predominantly negative, so that I could let the negative thoughts go, and with them any associated negative feelings.
The meditation itself was merely a tool, and one which I still use from time to time. What was really liberating for me is that I was able to use this tool and others that the psychologist taught me to differentiate between when my thoughts were positive or negative, and to identify how I was feeling as I had those thoughts. The real breakthrough however came on a day when I was feeling quite positive about something, and then I found my head in a negative space and feeling suddenly sad. It was so incredible to witness myself in a transition from thought to thought, and in seeing how the thoughts themselves actually led to the transition in emotions, and it made me realise that this psychologist I was attending was absolutely correct in everything he had been trying to get through my thick skull. I don’t know why these guys get called “shrinks”, because I found instead that my head was being grown, not shrunk, simply by teaching me to expand my own awareness of the thoughts and emotions that I was having at different times in the day.
OK, so this is a lovely little story, but where does this show the real power of positive thinking? Well, like everything that we experience in the world, there is a balance to contend with. What goes up comes down, action results in reaction, and so too where there is negativity, there is positivity. So if negative thinking leads to negative life situations, surely positive thinking leads to more positive life situations. Certainly this is how I have found things to be. By choosing to be positive in my thoughts, I have been able to see other choices and possibilities in my life that I had not permitted myself to see before.
When things start to seem hard to face, I find something positive to focus on and it drives me to make a greater effort to overcome whatever it is that seems so hard. I am open to new and exciting possibilities rather than simply allowing my thoughts to circle around things that are known, painfully “comfortable”, and that might make me miserable. I have become open to building dreams to follow, setting goals that are tough yet rewarding, and accepting failures as opportunities for growth and learning, rather than as something to feel bad about.
The greatest power is that which comes from positive thought. It leaves you feeling charged, excited, happy, and ready to accept any challenge, regardless of the eventual outcome. When you can see yourself simply resorting to I Can’t because it feels comfortable and familiar, positive thinking stops you feeling sad and miserable about what you think you can’t do, and charges you with the strength and determination to achieve what you Will do.
For example, I was in a job that I wasn’t enjoying, where I had lived through every imaginable up and down, and where I was being treated with less respect or courtesy than I deserved. I hadn’t been happy there fore several years, but I felt trapped and as if there was nothing about my life that I could change to make it better. After a few moments of wallowing in the negativity of self pity one day, I consciously let my negative thoughts go and asked myself what was positive about my life. I reminded myself that I was recently married to a beautiful woman, I had two troubled yet ultimately wonderful sons who I am proud of, and that it was only my job that was making me feel so low from day to day. I also reminded myself that I had my long service leave coming up, and that with a 3 month holiday due and some savings, I had an opportunity to start fresh and do something else, and that the savings would buy me time to put my life into order. I resigned from the job where I was so unhappy, and suddenly my mind opened up to other possibilities. I could return to my work as a software developer, I could start my own company, I could study, or I could simply enjoy some time off and worry about it later. None of these possibilities were open to me while my mind was closed and my feelings focussed on the negative rather than positive thoughts about my life.
Another example, I had found myself out of work for a few months, and my chances of being rehired in my own industry looking slimmer by the day because of both the time that had passed, and the fact that the employment market had suddenly shrunk quite considerably just as I had exited my previous job. I had debts piling up and some worrying signs that my mortgage could be foreclosed in the near future. I found myself again getting depressed, stressed, and worried about all of the things that “might” turn bad for me and my family. Again, I took a moment to stop and think about what I really wanted to do, what I could do, and what the options were that were available to me. I looked again for the positives. I was feeling rested from the stresses of my previous job. I’d had lots of time with my sons during their school holidays, and I had taken a more serious interest in fitness, and health. I had learned many things over the past few months, and I had also learned that a personal training course that I had a great interest in that would start in a few months, and that would be affordable.
Feeling really good about all of these things, I made a pre-emptive strike with the bank and arranged an extension of time for some of the repayments. I’ve contacted my superannuation provider and learned that I can access some of my retirement money if I have no other way to afford the payments on my mortgage, I’ve realised that any job that I take on now doesn’t need to be in IT – and probably shouldn’t if I’ve chosen to leave that career behind me, and that by taking such and interest in improving my health and fitness (I had recently been attending “boot camp” training) I was starting to feel physically and mentally better overall. Fast forward to today and I now have only a few weeks until my course to qualify as a PT will start, I have been able to buy lost of time to hold the bank off while I continue looking for work, I have started to apply for simple and low paying jobs anywhere that seems interesting – as long as it keeps the lights on I won’t care what the job is – and I feel as if I am at the beginning of a really exciting time in my life. I feel happier than I ever have, and my wife, kids, and parents have all noticed this change in me. All because I paused to find some positive thoughts to focus on.
So what is the secret? What is the real power of positive thinking? It is the power to take control of your life no matter how challenging your circumstances have become. The ability to turn things around for the better. The power to face any adversity, to use the failures as things to learn from and the successes as things to inspire. The power to be open to any possibility, and to recognise opportunities when they present themselves. The power to set goals, and to achieve them. The power to drive positive change in your life that empowers you rather than always holding you back, and the power to put aside depression and uncertainty and replace them with happiness and strength. The power to restore your health and vitality simply because to choose to do so, and the realisation that all of this is possible simply by choosing to find something positive in each and every situation that you are faced with.
Positive thinking is what changes you from an I hope & I Wish person to an I Can & I Will person, and therein lies it’s true potential and power.