Not so positive thinking
Have you ever been told, “Aw, it’s not that bad, try thinking positive?” How did that work for you? Over the last 6 months, I have become increasingly interested in the benefits and costs of ‘Positive Thinking’. Not least because the self-help shelves are loaded with tomes which laud the power of positive thinking, and generally I am drawn to their shiny, bold covers.
Early on in Lockdown 1, I started to explore what resilience looked like in the sort of pessimistic and uncertain circumstances that we found ourselves in. Not least because I started to feel a bit queasy when people said things like, ‘Look on the bright side, we get to watch Netflix all day.” At times conversations played out like a game of emotional ping-pong between the optimists and pessimists, batting the threat of death and the joy of Sour Dough back and forth across the net of life.
An old interview with US Vietnam POW camp survivor, Medal of Honour winner Commander James Stockdale has stuck with me. When asked, “Who didn’t make it out.” He said, “That’s easy, it was the optimists.” Que the collapse of many heavily laden bookshelves.
I was reflecting about the ways in which parents often try to trade their children’s pessimism for statements of un-realistic positivity, as if they can set a happy medium if they just reach high enough. The reality of the matter is that the children tend to choose harder and darker perspectives when they believe their parents live in a deluded world of unicorns and M & M rainbows. But it’s not just children: It might be socially normative to be unduly positive, but is it working for adults either?
Well not for me. Honestly, when I get ‘balanced’ by a super-positive statement I tend to think, “Wow, they are in denial. I wonder why they are repressing the truth.” I know, it’s not great but it is just where my brain goes! This is because we carry a cognitive bias towards the negative and I am reflecting the fact that I am more likely to believe bad news than good.
If you think about it, having a bias towards the negative makes sense: If am told that I am completely safe, there is nothing to do. But if I am told my life is at risk, I am rewarded for offering the information my full attention, even if the information turns out to be false. This is why, in part at least, positive thinking isn’t a useful strategy to deal with pessimism.
As a Christian leader I am also concerned about the proliferation of ‘positive thinking’ motifs within the context of faith: We need a revelation before can have a reformation. I find that Christians are particularly ashamed about acknowledging the negatives and therefore a revelation of their realities. Invariably there is always somebody who is having a harder time. Alternatively, there is blessing that they feel the need to celebrate to counter their struggle, lest they be perceived as ungrateful.
Secondarily and more importantly to me, is that I cannot find any evidence of a ‘positive thinking’ bias in scripture. At no single point in the bible do I read, “And God said, ‘Look on the bright side, for it’s not as bad as you think.’” According to Biblegateway the word ‘positive’ doesn’t even feature in the bible. That is because the bible is not concerned with interpretations of truth, it is truth.
In John 8:32 Jesus says, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” We shouldn’t be chasing ‘positive thinking’, we should be chasing truthful thinking.
With that in mind, let's return to those negative, pessimistic and catastrophising thoughts that so often bother us, especially in these uncertain times. They will not be counterbalanced by equally unrealistic positive thinking, but they will respond to a reappraisal of their own virtue. We need to be seeking to find something ‘a little more true’. As eminent psychologist and stress proponent Dr Jim White said, “Face your fears. Be more active. Watch what you drink.”
Choosing something a little ‘more true’, requires us to accept the following:
We have a bias to the negative
Just because it’s bad, doesn’t mean it’s true
What is your ultimate fear about this statement?
What is the equal and opposite positive statement and do you believe it?
What could be a ‘more true’ statement in the negative?
God certainly hasn’t called us to be pessimists, far from it, we are people of hope. But hope is not about positivity, it’s about the truth of God’s love for us made flesh and blood in the person of Jesus Christ. Equally, God hasn’t called us to be optimists who distort the reality of life for something less real, he has called us to ‘speak the truth in love’ and that’s a very different thing. Whichever way we are wired, our mission should always be to dwell on something ‘more true’ than that conclusion that we first formed. As Paul says, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Philippians 4:8