Positive Thinking: When it Works and When it Doesn’t

So much of the self-help world is filled with endless iterations of 'think positive'. Yet how often does it actually work? Is it delusion, or the real deal?

We’ve all heard of the thought experiment involving a glass of water in which an optimist will see it as half-full, and a pessimist will see it as half-empty.

What this hypothetical experiment seems to overlook is the fact that, in reality, the glass of water is just a glass of water — it’s the people involved who give it meaning, whether positive or negative.

Believe it or not, we do this every day of our lives, in every single situation we face. As human beings, we’re inherently subjective in our views of the world. We put a positive or negative spin on everything we experience, regardless of how miniscule or unimportant it may be.

This doesn’t mean that all humans are either optimists or pessimists, though. It’s a sliding scale of sorts. And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Though it’s fairly obvious why having an extremely pessimistic outlook will be detrimental to your life in general, the negative effects of being overly optimistic are a little more difficult to truly comprehend.

In any case, though it may be difficult, finding a happy-medium on the scale from extreme pessimism to extreme optimism is the best way to approach each situation you face.

Three Mindsets

  • Negative Mindset

Being pessimistic is no way to live. It’s completely unhealthy to just assume everything will always go wrong all the time. Though it may be comically endearing when Charlie Brown acts as if the world is against him, it’s not so cute when put into practice in the real world.

Constant negativity pigeon-holes us into a fixed-mindset, meaning we see growth as an absolute impossibility. The worst part of such a way of thinking is you might not even realize it’s affecting you.

If you’ve ever said to yourself “I’m no good at (math, playing an instrument, sports, etc.)”, you’ve fallen into the trap of negativity, at which point it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: you feel like you’re “not good” at math, so you stop studying, which causes you to fail a test, which makes you feel as if you’re not good at math. . . and the cycle continues.

In this case, your subjective pessimism has given definition to a problem that could be fixed if viewed from an objective perspective.

  • Positive Mindset

Having an optimistic outlook is definitely a great way to start each day of your life. When you face each day feeling as if you could take on the world, you’re motivated to put your best foot forward with each step you take.

Unlike the fixed-mindset of pessimism, optimistic individuals live with a growth-mindset, knowing that each experience they face is a new opportunity to excel. What could possibly be wrong with that?

So much of the self-help world is filled with endless iterations of 'think positive'. Yet how often does it actually work? Is it delusion, or the real deal?

Unfortunately, being too optimistic can blind you to the reality of certain situations.

Though it is empowering to think that you can do anything you set your mind to, you’re undoubtedly going to fall short of your goals from time to time.

Sometimes it’ll be because of mistakes you made, but other times it will be due to circumstances outside of your control. Whether or not things ‘happen for a reason’ is beyond us, and spending too much time trying to figure out the possible causes for everything is enough to drive one mad, not to mention a terrible use of time.

Regardless of the reason for failure, the overly optimistic person will almost certainly be blindsided when things don’t turn out the way they anticipated.

Though optimists live with a growth-mindset, failure can easily pull the rug out from under them, and force them eventually into a pessimistic cycle of despair.

  • Neutral Mindset

As I’ve said, it’s inherently impossible to view the world with 100% objectivity. We cannot possibly remove ourselves from a situation without putting our own unique spin on it.

However, as I’ve also already mentioned, there is an incredibly large grey area between the extreme pessimist and the overly optimistic mindset.

By getting as near to the middle of this grey area as possible, we allow ourselves to get closer to seeing things as they are, rather than how we perceive them to be. This allows us to observe facts and weigh them objectively to determine the most likely outcome of a given situation.

Instead of thinking you failed a math test because you “aren’t a math person,” you’ll acknowledge the fact that you didn’t study, so there was no way you would’ve passed; instead of being surprised when things don’t turn out how you thought they would, being realistic allows you to see the contributing factors which were outside of your control that determined the less-than-stellar outcome.

In both hypothetical situations, having a realistic outlook will keep you moving forward, despite having failed in the past.

Healthy Optimism

I’ve mentioned the fact that it’s impossible for humans to approach situations in a completely objective manner. This isn’t a bad thing — it’s what makes us human.

Although it’s helpful to live your life in the grey area between the two extremes previously discussed, I will say that, in my opinion, it’s best to err on the side of optimism at all times.

You’ve likely heard the saying “Prepare for the worst, hope for the best.”

In other words, don’t live your life with the blind faith that “everything happens for a reason” and that “everything will work out in the end,” but also don’t just assume that life is full of misery and nothing good will ever happen to you.

Understand that, while you can only do so much to make things work out, there is so much you can do to optimize your chances of success.

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