Is your glass half empty or half full? Is the unknown number on your ringing cell phone an annoying telemarketer or a friend with exciting news? Is the unexpected call to your boss’ office going to lead to retrenchment or a promotion?
If you chose the second option in each question, then you are most likely an optimist. These types of questions are said to be a litmus test to determine individual perspective.
Most of us are either optimistic or pessimistic about certain situations, events and possibilities. Positive thinkers tend to be more optimistic and less pessimistic. But they are not delusional either. Perception may be unique to everyone, but it is also important to be realistic.
There are instances where thinking negatively may be based on the harsh realities of the world, a little dose of healthy paranoia and fears based on painful past experiences.
But does negativity dominate your thinking? Do you tend to expect a bad outcome rather than a good one? Is pessimism permeating across your entire life – your relationships, career, health and thoughts of the future?
Positive thinking and positive emotions are known to play a constructive role in your growth and development, from your relationships, to your career and achievements in the future. Realistic optimism in most situations is the mark of a positive thinker.
In recent years the positive thinking movement has gained new momentum and has even been recognised by the sciences, as is seen in the field of positive psychology.
“It takes but one positive thought, when given a chance to survive and thrive, to overpower an entire army of negative thoughts.” – Robert H. Schuller
Who are positive thinkers?
Positive thinkers come in all shapes, colours and sizes – literally. They are not a specific type of person, or even a specific personality. Neither are they the 70’s hippie stereotype, hugging trees and jabbering about cosmic energy in the universe. Positive thinkers can be found in everyday life – from workers, entrepreneurs, leaders, parents, students and just about every other differentiation that we can use to classify the human population.
What positive thinkers are not is depressed, extremely fearful, stagnant or overly critical people. Positive thinking has a direct impact on your life, your health and your relationships. While we all have some thread of positive thinking woven into our psyche, positive thinkers radiate a certain type of demeanor that makes them stand out in a crowd.
There is no clearly distinct way to classify all positive thinkers. Entrepreneurs must be positive thinkers if they truly want to be successful despite the odds often being against them. Leaders must be positive thinkers if they want to garner confidence and imbue the same in their followers. Positive thinking is one of the key features that differentiates the successful from the unsuccessful.
But success does not always mean wealth or power. It is just as deeply associated with happiness and contentment. Positive thinkers can maintain an optimistic attitude no matter how dire the situation. Positive thinkers can keep up their spirits even when faced with adversity. Positive thinkers can visualize a better outcome in the future despite the negativity, criticism, uncertainty, and despair around them.
However, positive thinkers may not be as easy to spot if you are not a positive thinker yourself. While they may generally smile more, be well liked by others and are usually successful, positive thinkers can at times be quite the opposite. Nevertheless, they can attract people and opportunities, or at least find it when it is not obvious to others and tend to progress in whatever they undertake – be it in their health, relationships, parenting, academics, career growth, business, and leadership.
What is Positive Thinking?
Positive thinking is basically an optimistic mental attitude. People who are said to be positive thinkers are usually more optimistic than pessimistic. To say that a positive thinker is an optimist can be misleading. Every person tends to have optimistic and pessimistic perspectives depending on the situation.
However, in a positive thinker, the optimistic perspective/attitude is more dominant. The negative thinker is the opposite and tends to be pessimistic about most situations.
Positive thoughts and emotions
Thoughts and emotions are facets of the mind as is the case with cognition (attention, reasoning, memory and so on) and self-awareness. It is often difficult to separate thoughts and emotions when talking about positive thinking.
The association between thoughts and emotions are both of causality and correlation. Positive thoughts causes and correlates with positive emotions. And positive emotions cause and correlates with positive thoughts.
When we are in love, we feel an overwhelming sense of joy and excitement among other positive emotions. We, therefore, tend to think positive thoughts about the person we love and dream a pleasant future with this person. This is an instance of where positive emotions leads to positive thoughts.
Similarly, when we are positive about a situation (positive thinking/attitude), we are more likely to experience positive emotions.
Therefore, positive emotions and thoughts are largely intertwined and positive thinking in a broad sense includes positive emotions just as much as positive thoughts. While it is not possible to ‘force’ a positive emotion, we can condition ourselves to think positive thoughts which progress into positive emotions will ultimately.
Optimistic vs Pessimistic vs Realistic
Why some people are more optimistic about a situation than others is not clearly understood. It is largely influenced by conditioning and experiences from as early as childhood. But this does not explain all the factors that contribute to becoming a positive thinker as opposed to a negative thinker.
However, it is important that optimism is well placed and does not mask reality.
In other words, it is important to be optimistic and not delusional. Pessimists tend to hide behind the reasoning that they are being realistic. However, their negative view may not be based on fact, knowledge or experience. Both positive and negative thinkers will have what seems like optimistic and pessimistic views about some situations for good reason. These views are therefore said to be realistic.
Seeing a potential negative outcome in certain situations is sometimes warranted. If you walk at night in a neighborhood known to be dangerous then the possibility of falling victim to crime is well founded. Naturally, a person would feel fear and want to avoid the situation. This is not being pessimistic, but rather realistic.
Similarly expecting to lose weight and have a good physique with months of exercise and diet is not being optimistic. Naturally, a person would be excited about this prospect and want to reach their goal. It is being realistic, provided that all other things remain equal
Realistic thoughts are based on the truth about the world we live in; it may stem from negative experiences earlier in life, and sometimes just be a little healthy paranoia and caution.
Positive Thinking Helps to Build Skills
In a paper that has become one of the most cited about positive thinking, Barbara Fredrickson discussed some of the lesser known benefits of positive thinking, like its impact on skills. In the paper titled “The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions,” Fredrickson points out that people who have a more positive mindset have an enhanced ability to develop skills that can be of value later in life.
Fredrickson discusses how positive emotions prompts interest which creates knowledge and intellectual complexity. Positive emotions are often said to be the basis of positive thoughts. If you are happy then you will think happy thoughts. The two are closely intertwined and difficult to dissect individually.
But we all know that positive emotions and thinking can contribute to skills development even without the research to back it up – when you are open and positive about experiences, you are likely to learn more from it and carry and use this knowledge in life.
How many times did you think that maths was not of any use in life? Do you remember the angst of having to open your physics textbook? What about that grumpy history teacher who made you loathe the classes?
All of these are examples of negative thoughts and emotions that you have associated with a specific subject or experience. Likely, you probably are not good at math now in adulthood, or remembering historical facts, or understanding the physics behind some of today’s technology.
Nobody chooses to learn something that they do not enjoy. When we opt to learn, we are usually passionate about the subject. We believe it will benefit us in some way, if not to at least satisfy our curiosity. Sometimes we are forced to learn but if the experience is positive and we enjoyed it then we will likely retain what was put forth to us for a long time to come.
Learning does not have to only occur in a school. It occurs every time we seek knowledge and open to new experiences.
Many of today’s business success stories are about remarkable who had no formal education in the industry that they eventually made their mark in. They built skills through experience. They were often self-taught. They all had a yearning to know more about a subject that they enjoyed or were passionate about.
In contrast, the formally educated professionals in the field often never reached such heights. Rather the academics and professionals in the field were employed by these ‘uneducated’ leaders in relatively mundane employment positions.
- Bill Gates (founder of Microsoft), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) and Steve Jobs (Apple) dropped out of college. They are not the only examples of college dropout billionaires. But they are good examples of leaders who thrived in a highly technical field by developing their own skills.
- South African born billionaire Elon Musk who is the co-founder of Paypal and the brains behind Tesla Motors and SpaceX only has two undergraduate degrees but surpassed postgraduate professionals and academics in different fields.
- Fashion designer Ralph Lauren, the creator of the Polo brand, dropped out of college to pursue his own business selling neckties that he designed and made himself.
None of these examples are intended to discourage formal education.
What it does illustrate is the passion and motivation to learn new skills, even without the backdrop of formal education, can allow a person to reach heights that many of us only dream about.
Had these individuals not adopted a positive mindset; been open to opportunities and experiences; and driven to learn more, their success would have been nothing more than pipe dreams.
Is Positive Thinking Just New Age Hogwash?
How many times have you told a friend or loved one to not give up hope? What about trying to look at the bright side of having been turned down for that job you so desperately wanted? Or thinking of how much worse that fender bender could have been despite a hefty bill from the panel beater.
In all these instances you are practicing positive thinking. It is just another term for being optimistic.
Positive thinking has sometimes been made to sound a bit “airy fairy”. You may have read books and watched the DVDs on the subject only to discover that the big secret was to “ask the universe and be open to receiving its bounty”. Or “using the law of attraction” by sticking “vision boards” everywhere.
Unfortunately, many people want to profit from basic concepts that we have all practiced many times in life. And they would rather gift wrap it in the whole New Age hocus pocus mysticism to make it sound more alluring.
Science has fortunately taken over in recent years to demystify what should never have been mystified in the first place. Positive psychology and mind-body medicine (including psychoneuroimmunology/PNI) are two of the most notable efforts by the scientific community to bring logic and reasoning into the fold when studying positive thinking.
But do not be fooled by thinking that this is pseudoscience. Many respected academics and scientists have given credence to the positive thinking movement that has gained new momentum in recent years.
- As mentioned earlier, Barbara L. Fredrickson from the University of Northern Carolina published a ground-breaking paper called “The broaden-and-build of positive emotions” where she illustrated and explained how positive emotions and thinking can have an impact on our health, career and personal growth.
- Harvard Medical School, one of the world’s most respected institutions, now has a clinical training course in mind-body medicine co-developed by Dr. Herbert Benson M.D., a leading cardiologist.
- This is the same Dr. Benson who has is accredited as being one of the pioneers of mind-body medicine through his tireless efforts and research in the field since the 1960s. Today the Massachusetts General Hospital houses The Benson-Henry Institute of Mind-Body Medicine.
There are many individuals and institutions who have contributed through scientific investigation in verifying what most of us know – positive emotions and positive thinking are more likely to lead to positive outcomes in all aspects of our life.
So, the next time you look at the glass and wonder whether it is half full or half empty, do not brush it off as being too philosophical. It is a pertinent question. It illustrates your perspective. Your final answer reflects whether you are more of an optimist than a pessimist.