It’s common sense: Positive thinking without constructive action won’t get us where we want to go. It’s also common sense: Attitude matters. And if you’re convinced that positive thinking alone is your path to success?
Personally, I’m of the mindset that “moderation in all things” – as my grandmother, and many of our grandmothers, used to recommend – applies to a wide range of habits and activities. Positive thinking is among them, and ought to be offset by equal parts reality.
So says a recent column, more or less, on the problem with positive thinking, which explains:
Positive thinking fools our minds into perceiving that we’ve already attained our goal, slackening our readiness to pursue it… Some critics of positive thinking have advised people to discard all happy talk and “get real”… Studies have shown that this strategy doesn’t work any better…
What does work better is a hybrid approach that combines positive thinking with “realism.”
If you ask me, this is nicely aligned with my grandmother’s wisdom, which is relevant from enjoying chocolatey desserts to socializing, and from disciplining kids to pursuing one’s dreams. Well, I may deviate on the pursuit of dreams item, as sustained “passion” is often what gets us through the greatest challenges and disheartening voices of naysayers.
What Does “Positive in Moderation” Mean?
Allow me to clarify my position. Moderation should not hold us back from bursts of enthusiasm or pulling out all the stops for a limited time. And limits are essential, knowing that when we perpetually push the envelope, we’re likely to face health consequences and potentially, damage to our relationships.
As I interpret the content of this article, we are not to yield actions to attitude alone, but rather to understand that true agency relies on both, furthering our ability to reach our goals.
I might think of positivity as frosting on the cake, but I will give it more potency than that, as frosting in the cake as well, and therefore a non-negotiable element of the tastiest whole.
My approach to optimism is similar. When we overdose on it, we may miss aspects of reality that we would be better served to confront. However, if we moderate our optimism, recognizing risk, probabilities and other pragmatic factors – we are better prepared if results don’t go our way. And that includes being more able to get back up and start again.
The Mind-Body Connection to Health and Well-Being
Not to deny the role of positivity, a fascinating piece of long journalism in The New York Times Magazine offers up evidence of the mind’s power in an entirely different context. Written by Bruce Grierson, “What If Age Is Nothing But a Mindset?” describes the work of psychologist and professor Ellen Langer, working with older and physically compromised patients.
In an experiment conducted by Dr. Langer in 1981, she dropped eight men in their seventies into an immersive experience intended to take them back in time. The environment had been recreated to duplicate 1959 when the subjects would have been strong, vital and in good health. There were no reminders of their actual age, and they were instructed to do as much as possible for themselves as they would have then.
Mr. Grierson writes:
On several measures, they outperformed a control group… They were suppler, showed greater manual dexterity and sat taller… Perhaps most improbable, their sight improved. Independent judges said they looked younger. The experimental subjects, Langer told me, had “put their mind in an earlier time,” and their bodies went along for the ride.
Using Positivity Where It Counts
I see positivity as dangerous when we take it to extremes, for example when we are overly invested in the concept that we can will good things to happen. Or, that we are somehow responsible for misfortune that has little or nothing to do with us, and we find ourselves playing a pointless, hurtful and off-the-mark blame game.
We point a finger at the victim of illness, job loss, financial disaster, family problems – and we say they are where they are because it is their fault; their issues could have been resolved if they mastered the right attitude. This – for anyone who has lived turmoil or tragedy in which there is no fault – is both cruel and unfounded.
But knowing what success looks like? Imagining ourselves at our best? Visualizing what we want and combining that with determination, hard work, necessary learning, and tackling the substantive challenges involved? This is the sort of balance or moderation that I can get behind.
Positive attitude can work wonders, when it does not deny the reality of our obstacles anymore than it denies the power of the mind.
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