You Can Be Positive Without Being Annoyingly Optimistic

Stocksnap / Sebastian Voortman

Many people fear being positive because they dread the Pollyanna label. They’d rather cling to the negative (and they believe more accurate) view of the world than risk being perceived as the annoyingly positive.

However there is a big difference between positivity and Pollyannity and understanding the difference can change your life. A Pollyanna is someone who, facing what may be brutal facts, superficially or naively ignores them, pretending everything is hunky dory.  This kind of thinking can get you very largely in debt, in jail, or even killed. It is the refusal to accept what is staring you in the face. Pollyannity may be bald-faced denial due to fear or stubbornness, but denial is not going to change your life for the better.

Positivity, on the other hand, is an incredible force for good in the world. Tapping into this energy is a strength that can transform individuals, families, groups, and even countries. And I’m not being a Pollyanna here. If you’d like a very basic tutorial on positivity, read the classic, The Power of Positive Thinking, by Norman Vincent Peale. Its examples are a bit outdated, but it is essentially an excellent summary of positivity. (Oddly, I’ve found it is often dismissed as pollyannish by people who have never read a word of it. Give it a shot.)

To understand the basics of how thoughts patterns work, do this. Think of the color red and while thinking “red” look around the room or space you are in. You start noticing everything’s that’s red, yes? Change the color you think about to “blue” and again look around and you start noticing everything’s that’s blue, right? Whatever you focus on, your brain scans for. So if you’re thinking positively (or negatively), guess what your brain starts scanning for and seeing? So what you think, you see, and this “confirms” your thoughts, be they positive or negative. So on the continuum of positivity versus negativity, those on the more positive thinking end of things will tend to see more positive things in their life and world; conversely, those on the more negative thinking end of things will tend to see more negative things in their life and world. And, both sets of people will believe they have the more accurate view of the world, since they “see” proof of what they’re thinking all the time!

Positive thinking people who are not Pollyannas do see the negative things that happen in their life and in the world. They are not in denial. They see these things and deal with them appropriately, but still focus on the positive in the midst of the negative. As Mr. Rogers advises in a tragedy, “Look for the helpers. There are always helpers.” And the ever-wise Martha Beck talks about keeping the negative things in your peripheral vision, while focusing on the positive in the larger part of your vision.

Let’s use an example: You’re driving on I-5 and you see a driver in front of you swerving in their lane. It’s clear they’re not on a cell phone so it’s likely they’re driving under the influence, falling asleep, or something else equally unsafe. A Pollyanna would refuse to even acknowledge this was of any concern and would go on driving as before, maybe even getting into the lane beside this scary driver, thus risking a terrible accident. A positive driver would take the necessary precautions to back away and keep distance with the swerver, and possibly calling 911 to report it so a state patrol office can monitor the driver. A negative driver might do these things as well—keep their distance, call it in—but here’s the critical difference. The positive driver will shift to focusing on positive things: gratefulness for noticing the swerver, for the many responsible drivers, for 911, for state patrol officers who risk their lives for the public safety, etc. The negative driver will get into a frenzied internal complaint session about all the irresponsible (insert curse word of choice here), selfish, distracted drivers. They will get trapped in a negative downward spiral that might bring them down (and anyone near them) for the rest of the drive and maybe even the rest of the day. I’m painting this in the starkest terms possible—most of us are probably both a bit positive and negative in such a situation.

However, numerous studies have shown that positivity that is grounded and not in Pollyanna denial leads to a better life. Positive people have more positive things happen to them (even ruling out their tendency to frame events more positively) and they feel better about their lives. Negative people have more calamities happen to them (even ruling out their tendency to frame events more negatively) and—not too surprisingly—they feel worse about their lives. These results have been repeated in numerous research studies, with control groups ruling out biases. Even the nefariously negative world of politics rules by positivity. In a study done of the speeches of presidential candidates going back a bit more than a hundred years, in every case except two, the candidate using more positive words won the election. (See books on Learned Optimism and Happiness by Dr. Martin Seligman, PhD, positive psychologist par excellence.)

If you tend toward pessimism, you may be reacting negatively to the results of this research due to excessive skepticism and/or due to beating yourself up because now the research proves you are to blame for your c**ppy life, amirite? It can be tough. Negative thoughts and thought patterns can easily get hard wired into our neural paths, creating “ruts” of sorts that are difficult to drive out of by force of will alone. Dr. Seligman’s books provide lots of clinical research showing how even a pessimist can learn optimism, (thus going beyond Peale’s book which just shows the power of optimism.) I’ve found that the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), sometimes called emotional acupressure, helps a lot and I (and other healers and therapists) offer it as part of our services. And here is a very simple and effective tool I ran across recently from the blog of medical psychiatrist, Dr. Amen (yes, that’s his name).

“A study performed late last year made me smile, not only because the findings were consistent with my own observations and approach to dealing with negative thoughts, but also because it goes to show that just because something is simple and straightforward doesn’t mean it is not effective. In fact, just the opposite; when something is simple, it’s easy to implement; when it’s easy to implement, it’s more likely to be implemented and therefore more likely to make an impact.

This study involved Spanish high school and college aged students who literally threw their negative thoughts in the trash. The students were asked to write down their thoughts about their body – either negative or positive – and then either throw those papers in the trash, keep them on their desk, or hide them away in their pocket or purse. Just a few minutes later the participants were asked to rate their attitudes about their own bodies on three 9-point scales (bad-good, unattractive-attractive, like-dislike).

In three variations of the study with different participants, the results were consistent. Those who kept the pieces of paper with thoughts written on them were influenced by those thoughts; those who had written positive thoughts about their bodies and kept the pieces of paper were more likely to rate their bodies positively, while those who had written negative thoughts about their bodies and kept the pieces of paper were more likely to rate their bodies negatively. The students who literally threw their thoughts away were less likely to be influenced by those thoughts, whether they were negative or positive.”

Thus, writing down your negative thoughts and then throwing them away, burning them, or in some concrete way destroying them is very effective at helping to neutralize their negative power over you. Conversely, writing down your positive thoughts and keeping them has the power to expand your positivity. So let the positive words you want in your life show up not only in your writing: commit to using them in your speech, in your art, singing them, praying them, chanting them, dancing them, posting them, using them as much and in any way you can and see if what you “see” in your life starts to change! TC mark

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