Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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Positive Thinking? Optimism?

Positive Thinking? Optimism?

Last month my Advice Line article challenged the popular movement called "The Secret," stating that the power of positive thinking is not as simple as depicted by the proponents of The Secret. Some of my readers challenged me to explain the power of positive thinking. Some Chatham County Line readers feel burdened by personal and family problems and others are stressed by the myriad of difficulties highlighted daily by the media. When everything seems so bleak, shouldn't we expect our mood and our thinking to mirror the negativity around us? Good question!

Let's start by examining the assumption that the world is really a negative and painful place to live. I don't know about your personal and family problems, but I can use myself as an example. I have weathered and survived serious challenges throughout my lifetime. The constant factor in personal problems is that they can be overcome and life will improve with hope and persistence in solving and surmounting the problems.

Yes, life problems do cause stress, distress and physical and financial hardships of all kinds. But let's not double our problems by adding negative thinking, depression or anxiety to the mix. Of course our mood will lower in our initial encounter with the life problem, but then we can choose whether to stay negative and pessimistic or to seek a more hopeful and optimistic outlook. If this were a dialogue, the pessimist would cite the world problems depicted daily on the radio, TV, newspaper, magazines and Internet. Nowadays the world turmoil is paraded across the media stage with violent storms of war and extreme weather. Yes, I would agree that the media approach is pessimism at its worst, seeking out and magnifying problems across the globe.

A positive and optimistic media would be tranquil and peaceful, beautiful to view, harmonious, full of joy and sometimes laughter, celebrating the goodness of life and the kindness of others. All of these sights and sounds are there to see and experience-- actually more often than violent weather and world struggles.

The optimistic thinking I advocate is realistic optimism, not pollyanna or head-always-in-the-clouds thinking. I recommend a flexible approach to let us see and experience the possibilities when the cup is "half full" rather than "half empty." False optimism does not reflect reality anymore then false pessimism. Realistic optimism helps us deal with the setbacks we all encounter by making action plans to counteract these negative events. Research has shown that optimistic thinking imparts a better chance to attain life satisfaction and enjoyment, more fulfilling work and marriages, better health and longevity.

In this dialogue, the pessimist will state that he or she was born a pessimist and will likely remain a pessimist throughout the life cycle. The argument is that personalities can't change. My answer is that I would not be a therapist if I didn't know that people can change. Born pessimists can become optimists. The book I mentioned by Martin Seligman (Learned Optimism, Free Press, second edition, 1998) describes the process in detail. Remember the 3 P's: Pervasive, Permanent and Personal. When you see problems as pervasive, that is global and encompassing your life, and as permanent hardships, and furthermore as personal failures, you will be more than likely to stop trying to counteract negative events, give up and become pessimistic, complaining, even whining couch potatoes watching life go by. So let's change your thinking to see problems as specific, temporary and situational, i.e. the opposite of the 3 P's. When you encounter a problem, optimistic thinkers will view it as specific to a certain situation, temporary and thus able to be changed and not related to a personal deficiency. Optimistic thinkers feel happier and more energized to cope with obstacles, seeing them as challenges rather than failure experiences. Optimists are more likely to develop plans to remove situational obstacles to achieving their goals. Pessimists are more likely to view life problems as personal failures, blaming themselves, becoming depressed and giving up.

I hope this information helps to start Chatham County Line readers onto a more positive and productive path of realistic optimism and happiness.