Common-Sense Science – Positivity Series #3: End the Shame of Positive Thinking!
It's time to elevate Positivity to the importance of childhood training of being polite or washing your hands. I'm being silly, of course, but positivity training should be as basic and routine as every other personal lifestyle teaching.
Positive Thinking is a serious personal skill, but it's not taken seriously enough-yet.
I was criticized for being negative but ridiculed for studying positive thinking!
Several times during my career, I was told to be more positive, "don't be so negative, Rich." I didn't think I was negative; I thought I was pointing out problems with a business strategy or flaws in the marketing plan. But to some of my colleagues, I was often the contrarian, and my concerns were seen as negative — thus, I should be more positive. ( P.S. My concerns, in almost all cases, turned out to be reasonably accurate). I still tend to the Negative; it's a constant process to remain in Positivity.
So I was/am told to be "more positive." But when I told people that I was researching and writing about positive thought practices, the reactions were almost always a little skeptical; I was into woo-woo and fringe beliefs.
So, I should be more positive. But using a program to learn to be more positive was sketchy. Have I got that right?
Bringing Back Positivity
Positivity has been neglected while we've tried to cure the consequences of negativity. It's time to formalize positive thinking concepts and practices as part of basic life education, such as learning to be conversational, sociable, develop interpersonal relationships, cooperation, and other beneficial qualitative traits.
How do we know it's time? We have a multibillion-dollar self-help industry, epidemics of depression, anger, addictions, societal conflicts, 24/7 assaults of negative and even frightening news. Negativity in all forms has become an industry, often overwhelming positive instincts and attempts to change things for the better and to make progress toward our own goals.
Positive thinking, or Positivity, is a crucial aspect of human psychology that enables a person to make more effective choices and pursue productive actions.
· Negativity seems to enter our minds so easily and continuously. Positivity requires sustained effort.
· Negativity is a necessary check on our thoughts, choices, and actions. A modest level of cautious negativity remains part of our survival instinct — we have to assess risks in every aspect of life. But too much negativity generates doubt, fear and can sabotage the most ambitious goals.
· Positivity is necessary to sustain an effort — Positivity is the necessary process of focus, motivation, choices, and actions to achieve our goals.
I'm proposing that positivity training is just as important in getting through life as being polite, saying thank you and brushing your teeth.
Prescription R.X. for Positivity
I've read a lot of advice about being more effective through positive thinking. Lots of advice, lots of tips, but nothing truly convinced me of the effectiveness of the programs. I agree that many tools can be helpful, such as meditation, visualization, journaling, and expressing gratitude.
But everything that I read offered only generalized promises. For example, if I expressed my gratitude, I would become a more positive person. Basically, stop having negative thoughts and replace them with positive thoughts, and I should become a more positive person. The positivity advice seemed sensible but never really helped me understand how and why it worked, and it did not work for me.
The other thing that was missing in almost everything I tried was a lack of measurement and feedback about how I was doing in changing my negative thoughts to positive thoughts. My background is in communications and behavioral research, and measurement and feedback are mandatory in evaluating the effectiveness of any program.
Thus, I wrote my book, The Manifestation Formula, to find a common sense and practical approach to managing the inevitable conflicts between positive and negative thinking with the necessary measurement and feedback.
What do we factually know from conventional research and science about Positivity? And how does that align with common sense observation and our own trial and error experience in a modern, common-sense context?
My common-sense positivity prescription:
Teaching the basics of forming and applying positive thinking is the key to achieving and maintaining many types of success in life. For most of the history of traditional psychology, the emphasis has been on treating dysfunctions and suffering — which is needed. But there has been relatively little focus on education to enable people to use and improve their inherent capabilities for positive thinking, emotions, and beneficial behaviors.
The traditional focus has been on what's wrong, with little attention to what's right and how to use our positivity capabilities.
It's time for a new age of positivity training
We all think we know what positive thinking is, and there are endless variations on a few common themes. Positive thinking has been described for thousands of years and is in every philosophy and belief system.
Here is a very simple and typical description:
Positive thinking is a mental state with thoughts and emotions that focus on optimistic and/or successful conditions or results.
The word Positivity is more recent and often elicits criticism of being a fringe concept. Here is a great comment from the Merriam-Webster dictionary website:
“Yes, 'Positivity' Is a Word
Many people have feelings of negativity about 'positivity.'
Users of this dictionary frequently have strongly held beliefs regarding whether or not one of the words we have defined is, in fact, a real word. We know this to be the case, as many individuals leave comments outlining their position on the matter. One of the words that attracts a considerable amount of doubt is Positivity.”
We all think we know Positivity and Negativity when we see them. How many times have you heard the comment about a person "she/he is always so negative," or that person is always "so positive and optimistic"? We know it, we recognize it, but what do we do about it?
I see two broad categories of Positivity or positive thinking:
1. To be a generally more positive person, about most things in life. An optimistic, forward-looking type of personality.
2. Positivity applied to a specific goal. Positive thinking in the self-help world is predominantly goal-specific: how to be happy, how to lose weight, how to make a lot of money, how to, how to, how to.
But we see that the world is full of people who were very confident in their plans and successful in reaching their specific goal, but not always positive and successful, and sometimes tragic, in other aspects of their life. This contrasting level of positive goal/negative personality requires a lot more work and creates more stress. It can work, but life-positivity can make the goals even easier to achieve.
If you can be a generally more positive person, it will flow into applied Positivity for a specific goal. And that would be ideal.
Achieving a specific goal requires Positivity, in addition to skills, resources, and other factors. And Positivity is the common thread that organizes and sustains all the other factors that contribute to a successful goal.
Positivity is what helps keep you going when you face obstacles, disappointment, and want to give up.
How did positive thinking get to its present state? What's next?
I've noted that positive psychology is gaining recognition as an academic curriculum in addition to its medical context. Now, I'm not a trained medical practitioner nor an academic; my background 50+ years in communications and behavioral research, which does rely heavily on statistical analysis and understanding of individual and societal psychology. So at first, I was reluctant to propose broad new ideas about positive thinking and use the term "psychology' in my work. As a result, I researched the origins of the teachings about the power of thoughts, positive thinking, and related topics.
I found what I sort of already knew – the great philosophies and recognition of human thinking and consciousness were first identified by shrewd, profound observers who turned out to be remarkably prescient diagnosticians. Aristotle, Plato, Hafez, Buddha, Confucius, the European philosophers of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. And there was a group of philosopher psychotherapists who were able to look at both the clinical patterns with common sense diagnoses, such as Carl Jung and Viktor Frankl and, most recently, Martin Seligman, who elevated the concept of positive psychology to the academic level.
They were observers, thinkers, people able to connect the dots and see the patterns of human activity. I'm glad I paid attention to my research work over the past 50 years; I think I learned something about observing, finding patterns, and connecting the dots.
The good news: In the last 25 years, positive psychology has become recognized as a formal psychological discipline taught at the university level.
As part of making a case for the new age of Positivity, I've done an informal categorization of the history of knowledge about human thoughts and what we now call psychology.
· Age 1 - Ancient Philosophers (Greek, Roman, Persian, Chinese, Hindu, Hebrew, Christianity others) to 1600's: Individuals observed and preached the uniqueness of our consciousness and the power of our thoughts.
· Age 2 - 1600's to Early 1900's: Metaphysical consciousness and the power of thoughts and ideas became more structured and formalized into specific belief systems, in everything from Shakespeare to the New Thought movement of the early late 1900s to modern psychotherapy.
· Age 3 - Early 1900's to Early 2000's: Psychology began to further structure the research of human consciousness and our thought processes. Most of the research was on the extreme dysfunctions and pathologies of human emotions and behavior and very little on the foundations of productive aspects of human thoughts, emotions, and choices. This age was also when the commercialization, hyperbole, and snake oil of self-help programs became common. Many programs were well-intentioned by religious leaders and people dedicated to applying Positivity to business (Norman Vincent Peale, Napoleon Hill, Dale Carnegie, Tony Robbins, Dr. Wayne Dyer). Still, they did not solve the lack of Positivity as a natural talent.
· Age 4 - Late 1990's to Present: Commercial Positivity continues to grow and expand into every aspect of human thoughts, emotions, and behavior. Psychology and academics now add positive psychology to their practices and curriculums. The "establishment" has finally realized, with common sense, that the history of focusing on the pathologies of negativity did not also provide the opposite benefit of Positivity and teach it is a basic human trait.
The formal disciplines have to do some more common-sense housekeeping. Here is an example of too much information, too many words, too little applied practical wisdom.
"Positive organizational scholarship rigorously seeks to understand what represents the best of the human condition based on scholarly research and theory. Just as positive psychology focuses on exploring optimal individual psychological states rather than pathological ones, organizational scholarship focuses attention on the generative dynamics in organizations that lead to the development of human strength, foster resiliency in employees, enable healing and restoration, and cultivate extraordinary individual and organizational performance. POS emphasizes what elevates individuals and organizations (in addition to what challenges them), what goes right in organizations (in addition to what goes wrong), what is life-giving (in addition to what is problematic or life-depleting), what is experienced as good (in addition to what is objectionable), and what is inspiring (in addition to what is difficult or arduous)."
— Kim S. Cameron and Gretchen M. Spreitzer, "Chapter 1. Introduction: What is Positive about Positive Organizational Scholarship?" The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship (2011)
The 5th Age of Positivity
I hope to be part of the start of the 5th age of Positivity. The age of Common-Sense Positivity. It's going back to what the ancient observers saw in the variations of people's thoughts and emotions and connected them to observable outcomes. I want to help develop simple, updated practices for common sense management of positive thinking that is a way of life, not as a self-help hobby.
“Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny” —Lao Tzu 6th Century BC.
“Common sense is something that everyone needs, few have, and none think that they lack.” - Benjamin Franklin
I think 2500 years of observation of human thoughts, emotions, choices, and behavior is a large enough base of evidence to satisfy any reasonable scientific inquiry. It's common sense.
Rich Spitzer May 2021.